Criminal justice is the study of all aspects of crime in human society, from the broad psychological and sociological sources of criminal behavior, to the law enforcement system, to the legal and judicial systems. It is the study of crime as a social phenomenon.
Criminology is the more sharply focused study of the various types of criminal behavior, the specific motives of individual criminals, and the methods used by criminals to perpetrate their crimes, as well as those used by police detectives, forensic pathologists, psychologists, and others to discover the identity of criminals. It is the study of criminals and the crimes they commit as individuals or as types.
There is considerable overlap between the two fields, which is why we have compiled a list of the most influential books in both criminal justice and criminology of the past decade (2010–2020). We have assigned an objective measure of “influence” to each book within its subfield on the basis of the number of references it has received in both the academic literature and the popular media.
Note that our list does not necessarily represent the most popular books overall published during the past ten years, nor is it a list of criminal justice/criminology bestsellers during that time frame—for several reasons.
For one thing, we have excluded general criminal justice/criminology textbooks and reference works, as well as sacred texts and all but the very most influential of fictional works, which may contain criminal justice/criminology-related material.
For another thing, our list includes several perennial classics that remain influential today. Not only do several such works retain great contemporary influence, in some cases they have even enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
Nevertheless, ours is not a list of the most influential criminal justice/criminology books of all time. That list would have a very different look and feel to it. Rather, our list provides you with the 25 books on criminal justice/criminology that have had the greatest combined academic and popular impact over the past decade.
If you’re interested in dedicating your college education to these and other essential criminal justice texts, check out The Best Colleges & Universities for a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice.
Otherwise, read on for a look at the 25 Most Influential Books in Criminal Justice and Criminology.
By: Michelle Alexander, 2010
In this book, the author argues that the laws passed during the 1980s and 1990s under the guise of a “war on drugs” and being “tough on crime” constituted an intentional effort to control black males—a continuation of Jim Crow–era segregation by other means. Her book has had a huge impact, both within academia and far beyond its boundaries. It is no exaggeration to say that the origins of the 2020 demonstrations and riots all around the US can be traced to this book. A Tenth-Anniversary Edition was published in 2020.
By: Radley Balko, 2013
This book investigates the development of America’s urban police forces over the past few decades into highly armed, paramilitary organizations, which are alienated from the populations they are pledged to serve and protect. The author argues that law enforcement groups have lost sight of the vital distinction between a police force and an occupying army, leading to a tragic loss of trust in the police throughout urban America.
By: Piper Kerman, 2010
This is a modern-classic memoir about the American prison system as seen by a rebellious young woman from a middle-class background who served a year in a federal women’s penitentiary for transporting drugs and laundered cash in her luggage on several trips to Asia and Europe. The author recounts her efforts to retain her individual dignity in the face of an impersonal, dehumanizing bureaucracy.
By: Robert Perkinson, 2010
This book studies the Texas prison system from the point of view of its impact on other prison systems throughout the country. Texas has been a pioneer in the effort to get “tough on crime,” including its introduction of mandatory sentencing, use of isolation cells, streamlining of executions in capital cases, and commitment to prison privatization. The author traces these developments back to Texas’s “plantation” system of penal servitude dating from the time of slavery during the antebellum period.
By: Truman Capote, 1966
This book is a pathbreaking classic, which almost single-handedly invented the genre of the “nonfiction novel”—journalistic reportage written with the pacing, point of view, and narrative arc of literary fiction. The first section is a suspenseful retelling of the real-life, cold-blooded murder of a rural Kansas farm family by a pair of drifters. The private thoughts of members of the family who are tied up and awaiting their fate in their basement are utterly convincing and absolutely unforgettable. But mostly the point of view shifts back and forth between the minds of the two perpetrators, providing the reader with a sense of understanding the reasons for their cruel actions. The rest of the book recounts their arrest, trial, and execution by hanging. In Cold Blood has been reprinted several times in recent years.
By: Helen Garner, 2016
This book is a meticulous account of a real murder trial that occurred in Australia. A father was accused of having murdered his three young sons by driving the car containing them into a reservoir. The father, who was estranged from the boys’ mother, swam to safety, while the children drowned. This much was undisputed, but the reasons behind the father’s actions were opaque, and the prosecution was forced to rely upon a highly complex and speculative theory of his motivation. The author’s chief aim is to bring the six-week-long criminal prosecution to life for the reader, and to reflect upon the tragic and ultimately unknowable side of human behavior.
By: Peter Moskos, 2008
The author underwent police training and worked as a patrolman in a tough part of Baltimore from 1999 until 2001, all as a part of his research for a PhD in sociology that he received from Harvard University in 2004. In this memoir of his time in the police academy and on the beat, Moskos describes life on the streets from both points of view—that of the cops themselves and that of the population mired in poverty and crime that the police are sworn to serve.
By: Mumia Abu-Jamal, 1995
Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook) joined the Black Panthers in 1968 at the age of 14. In 1981, he was implicated in the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The following year, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. During the author’s almost 30 years on death row (his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2011), he became an international celebrity due to this book, as well as his many other writings in which he asserts his innocence of the murder of Officer Faulkner, depicts the cruelty and despair endemic to America’s prison system, in general, and death row, in particular, and decries the inherent injustice of the US system of jurisprudence due to what he maintains is its institutionalized racism.
By: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1866
Considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, Crime and Punishment is a marvelously astute psychological study of the mind of a poor university student, Raskolnikov, who convinces himself he has the “right” to rob and murder an old moneylender because he will make better use of the money than she will. Originally serialized in the literary journal, The Russian Messenger, and first translated into English in 1885, the novel works both as a page-turning thriller, as a police inspector closes his net around the killer, and on an entirely different, spiritual plane, as Raskolnikov gradually comes to repent his crime and to seek redemption—which he finds in the love of Sonya, a lowly prostitute/saint. Numerous editions and new English translations of Crime and Punishment have been published over the years, including three during the past ten years alone.
By: John Grisham, 2006
The author is a former criminal lawyer turned best-selling novelist who specializes in crime thrillers set against meticulously researched governmental, corporate, and judicial backgrounds and featuring protagonists from the top to the bottom of the American socio-economic scale. In this book, he turns his hand for the first time to true-crime reportage. In it, he describes an erstwhile small-town hero fallen on hard times, who is made the scapegoat by the local powers that be for a lurid murder he did not commit. This time out, Grisham sets his sights on the American justice system itself.
By: Alexander Masters, 2006
This book is the true-life biography of Stuart Shorter, a small-time criminal, drug addict, and street person—told in reverse. The author begins by describing his first encounter with Stuart, who was then living homeless on the streets of Cambridge, in the UK. Then, step by step, Masters leads us back along the many stations along Stuart’s difficult life path, ending at the beginning with Stuart’s childhood fraught with hardship and abuse.
By: Richard Shepherd, 2018
The author is a British physician specializing in forensic pathology. His book provides an insider’s account of both the operating theater where autopsies of the bodies of murder victims are performed and the witness stand where expert testimony is given in court in capital murder cases. The book is something between a memoir and a study of the vital role played by the forensic pathologist in the modern criminal justice system.
By: Susan Brownmiller, 1975
This book is both a sociological study and a history of changing societal views of the crime of rape over several centuries, taking into consideration military, legal, and broadly cultural perspectives. In this classic work of second-wave feminism, the author argues that official sanctions against rape mask a far-different and uglier truth: namely, the unofficial toleration of rape by male-dominated power structures in most times and places.
Preston, a successful American crime novelist, here gives us a personal memoir of his real-life involvement in an unsolved case of 16 murders in Florence, Italy, committed by an unknown serial killer or group of killers. Coauthor Spezi is an Italian journalist who initially helped Preston pursue the threads of the cold case, eventually becoming deeply implicated in the investigation himself. Many books have been written about this famous case, in both Italian and English. This is one of the best.
By: Steven Lubet, 2017
The author is a conservative legal scholar holding an endowed chair as Professor of Law at Northwestern University. In this book, he raises many questions of fact and method about the plethora of “critical” academic studies in urban ethnography, sociology, and political science purporting to draw sweeping social and economic conclusions from what the author sees as wholly inadequate evidence. The book is thus a plea for a return to political moderation and scrupulous adherence to the scientific method in the social sciences.
By: John R. Lott, Jr., 1998
The author of this book uses statistics and careful, logical analysis to make the startling and highly controversial claim that the crime rate is inversely proportional to the rate of gun possession for any given locale. In other words, the more guns there are, the less crime you get. A second edition was published in 2000; a third, updated edition reflecting new, stricter gun laws in several jurisdictions was released in 2010.
By: Jason Moss and Jeffrey Kottler, 1999
This book had its origin as an undergraduate college essay. The author entered into correspondence with a half dozen or so of the most prominent serial killers inhabiting America’s prisons. What Moss learned from his “pen pals” about the minds behind their horrifying crimes almost upset his own mental balance. With the aid of psychologist and author Jeffrey Kottler, he takes the reader on his own dark journey of discovery.
By: Michel Foucault, 1977
This book is a translation of Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, first published in 1975 by a highly influential French philosopher. Using an abundance of historical documentation, the author advances the thesis that the modern penitentiary was introduced, not in order to provide for more humane punishment, but rather as part of a new, “scientific” system of social control. According to Foucault’s theory, the modern institution of the prison stands alongside those of the military, the factory, the hospital, the school, the Church, and others as the means by which modern elites control the general population. Through his work on “unmasking” the power structures of modern society, Foucault has been one of the main contributors to the so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which at present is having an enormous impact on American society.
By: John R. Lott, Jr., 2003
This book is a follow-up to the author’s 1998 More Guns, Less Crime (#16 above). In the new book, the author doubles down on his contention that statistics show that neighborhoods with high gun ownership have low crime rates. The reason is simple. When sizing up potential passers-by to mug, stores to rob, or homes to burglarize, criminals tend to avoid those they believe may be armed. Like his previous book, this author’s work has been widely reviled by the political left and praised by the right.
By: John Rawls, 1971
This book is undoubtedly the most influential work of analytical political philosophy to have appeared since the Second World War. The book’s argument is long and complex, but its widely known central thesis is easily stated: A just theory of society requires that no proponent of the theory knows his own position within the society that would result from application of the theory. In a phrase, when contemplating the justice of any political theory, everyone ought to stand behind a “veil of ignorance” regarding his own position in the resulting society. This constraint supposedly ensures that political theories will prescribe maximally egalitarian societies. A Revised Edition of A Theory of Justice was published in 1999.
By: DK Publishing, 2017
This true-history compilation recounts the details of 100 famous (or amusing, or just plain fascinating) crimes, under eight headings:
In addition to its sizable entertainment value, this book provides many factual details about the mechanics of the crimes within each of the categories it covers. Which means it could be used as a how-to manual for the prospective criminals out there among its readers. But, hey, books don’t commit crimes; criminals do.
By: Jane Jacobs, 1961
This is a classic text in the field of urban planning. The reason why it is on this list, however, has nothing to do with architecture in the aesthetic sense. Rather, the book is a closely argued, sociological analysis of the many factors, architectural and otherwise, that are involved in the creation of a sense of neighborhood. The author also explains that not all neighborhoods are created equal—some city streets are clean, pleasant, and safe, while others (not that far away in miles) are dirty, disagreeable, and dangerous—and she delves into the many various reasons for this. If you have ever wondered why some neighborhoods flounder while others flourish, you should read this seminal work. A Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition was published in 2011.
By: James Ellroy, 1987
This novel by crime fiction writer Ellroy was met with ecstatic reviews, which catapulted the author into the ranks of the few genre authors (Elmore Leonard, John le Carré) who are treated with respect by the literary establishment. At the book’s core lies the real-life 1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles. It should be noted, however, that Ellroy’s book is fiction and departs significantly from the facts of the case. To this day, the Elizabeth Short murder has never been solved. The first in Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” of novels, the Black Dahlia was reprinted in 2006.
By: Scarlett O’Kelly, 2012
This book is a memoir written by a young Irish woman who led a double life—as an ordinary, middle-class, mother of three . . . and as a prostitute turning tricks with johns she met online. (While this activity was legal in the Republic of Ireland at the time, a similar set-up would of course raise all sorts of criminal justice issues in American society as it is today.) At first, the pseudonymous O’Kelly seemed to have it all. That is, until Ireland’s economic boom fizzled and her marriage foundered, leaving her with a succession of less-and-less remunerative jobs with which to support her children, even working 18-hour days. Finally, when she ended up on public assistance, she decided to take the drastic step that forms the central subject of this thought-provoking book.
By: David Hemenway, 2004
The author of this study is a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He assembles statistical data from a variety of fields to establish the factual link between gun availability and deaths from gun violence (including suicide and accidental death, as well as murder). In order to effectively address this carnage, the author advocates approaching the gun violence problem from a public health angle. That is, he believes we ought to regulate gun ownership more heavily through tax policy, licensing requirements, mandatory gun-safety training programs, and more. In short, we should approach the gun-death epidemic in the same way we approach other public health crises, such as infectious diseases, automobile accidents, and tobacco use, with an emphasis on prevention rather than punishment.***
Now that you know what books to check out, consider a deep dive with a look at The Best Colleges & Universities for a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice.