Putting readers at the defense table, this book forces us to consider how any of us might be swept up in the system, whether we hired a bad lawyer, bear a slight resemblance to someone else in the world, or are not good with awkward silence. The stories of Brooks’s cases and clients paint the picture of a broken justice system, one where innocence is no protection from incarceration or even the death penalty. Simultaneously relatable and disturbing, You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how injustice is served by our system.

Justin Brooks is a criminal defense lawyer, law professor, and the Founding Director of the California Innocence Project, where he has spent decades freeing innocent people from prison. He is the author of the only legal casebook devoted to the topic of wrongful convictions and was portrayed by Academy Award–nominated actor Greg Kinnear in the feature film Brian Banks

Who should read You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent?

Everyone who cares about our criminal legal system and wrongful convictions should read this book.  Sadly, most people don’t truly come to understand this topic until they, or someone they know, suffers the fate of being innocent in prison. Whether you are new to the byzantine and imperfect nature of our criminal legal system, or a veteran of many battles within it, this book will give you a different perspective through stories, cases, and research.

What inspired you to write this book? How did your idea for You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent take shape?

Thirty-two years of working in the criminal legal system, and every single one of the more than three dozen innocent people I’ve had the pleasure of walking out of prison, inspired me to write this book.  You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent took shape from my cases, hundreds of lectures, dozens of media interviews, and non-stop talking about this subject for decades.

Can you say a bit about the structure of the book and why you chose to structure it as you did?

I’ve written law books and law review articles on this topic throughout my career. I wanted You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent to be different.  I wanted this to be a book anyone could read and learn from.  So, I thought about the ten most common themes I’ve come across in my work with people who’ve been wrongfully convicted, and structured the book around them.  I used my cases, and others, to illustrate each theme and wrote the book in a way that it could be used in a criminal justice class, but also could be a beach read.

For example, the chapter on false confessions is entitled, “You Get Confused When You are Tired and Hungry and People Yell at You.”  In that chapter, I explore the tactics and procedures that lead to false confessions, but as the title of the chapter illustrates, there are basic human reasons why people sometimes falsely confess. In the chapter on false identifications entitled “You (sort of) Look Like Other People in the World,” I discuss the frailties of human memory that lead to misidentifications, as well as ways we can improve identification procedures.  

What was the hardest thing about writing You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent? The easiest?

The hardest thing about writing this book was dealing with the issue of race and the powerful impact it has on wrongful convictions.  With issues like bad lawyering, bad science, and inadequate investigations, it’s easy to draw the line between the cause and effect of a wrongful conviction. Racial inequity permeates the system and yet it is more difficult to reveal in simple terms. It requires a thirty-thousand-foot view and statistics that are impossible to ignore. I lay out a significant amount of evidence to this end in the book. 

The easiest part of the book was telling the stories of my cases. Those stories are embedded so strongly in my head that they poured out faster than I could write.  Giving a voice to the injustices my clients have suffered propelled me throughout the writing process. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my clients who are putting their lives back together after suffering wrongful incarcerations—like Mike Hanline, who spent 36 years in prison and now must face the challenges of a new world.  And I’m constantly thinking about my innocent clients who are still behind bars and fighting for their freedom.

What can readers around the world/outside of the United States learn from your book?

Wrongful convictions are not just a problem in the United States; they are a global problem.  I have worked internationally throughout my career, and I use many cases from different countries to illustrate points in the book.  Although there are different procedures around the world, every criminal legal system is composed of human lawyers, human police, human judges, human defendants, and human witnesses. Humans are flawed, and thus so are our criminal legal systems.

What do you hope all readers will take away from You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent?

I hope that every reader will come to recognize that anyone—truly anyone—can be wrongfully convicted and there is a great deal of work to be done to improve the criminal legal system.  That recognition is the first step to reform. The criminal legal system is ours, collectively. It purports to protect and serve us. And when it makes mistakes, there is a responsibility to remedy those mistakes. It is unlikely we will ever have an error-free criminal legal system, but it can be improved. We must start by freeing innocent people from prison and then make the changes that are necessary to decrease the number of future wrongful convictions.