privilege & punishment

The number of Americans arrested, brought to court, and incarcerated has skyrocketed in recent decades. Criminal defendants come from all races and economic walks of life, but they experience punishment in vastly different ways. Privilege and Punishment examines how racial and class inequalities are embedded in the attorney-client relationship, providing a devastating portrait of inequality and injustice within and beyond the criminal courts.

Matthew Clair conducted extensive fieldwork in the Boston court system, attending criminal hearings and interviewing defendants, lawyers, judges, police officers, and probation officers. In this eye-opening book, he uncovers how privilege and inequality play out in criminal court interactions. When disadvantaged defendants try to learn their legal rights and advocate for themselves, lawyers and judges often silence, coerce, and punish them. Privileged defendants, who are more likely to trust their defense attorneys, delegate authority to their lawyers, defer to judges, and are rewarded for their compliance. Clair shows how attempts to exercise legal rights often backfire on the poor and on working-class people of color, and how effective legal representation alone is no guarantee of justice.

Privilege and Punishment draws needed attention to the injustices that are perpetuated by the attorney-client relationship in today’s criminal courts, and describes the reforms needed to correct them. 

Available for purchase here 

Listen to a podcast interview on the book here

Read a toolkit for public defenders here


Pacific Sociological Association Distinguished Scholarship Award, 2022

Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist, 2022

Honorable Mention, Sociology of Law Section’s Distinguished Book Award, American Sociological Association, 2022

Albert J. Reiss Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award, Crime, Law, and Deviance Section, American Sociological Association, 2021

Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility Section's Outstanding Book Award, American Sociological Association, 2021

Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, Sociology of Culture Section, American Sociological Association, 2021

Edwin H. Sutherland Book Award, Law and Society Division, Society for the Study of Social Problems, 2021 

Oliver Cromwell Cox Book Award, Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities, American Sociological Association, 2021

Max Weber Book Award, Section on Organizations, Occupations and Work, American Sociological Association, 2021

Gold Medal, Independent Publisher Book Award in Current Events, 2021

Media for a Just Society Award, Evident Change, 2021

Finalist, 2020 C. Wright Mills Award, Society for the Study of Social Problems

Honorable Mention, Race, Gender, and Class Section's Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award, American Sociological Association, 2021

Praise and reviews:

Listed as an academic best seller by Library Journal

"This book is a clarion call for defense attorneys"Ellison Berryhill in JURIST

"Privilege and Punishment is a valuable and innovative contribution that will positively impact the direction of future research in many disciplines and subfields" Brittany Friedman in Theoretical Criminology

"Clair’s findings show the weak spot in exhortations that marginalized people should simply adopt the successful behaviors of the well-off [...] The book is worth reading to the end for Clair’s take on why this constitutes not just inequality but injustice—and what ought to be done about this injustice, in the context of contemporary abolition movements"Louise Seamster in Science 

"Privilege and Punishment forces us to confront how criminal courts and their agents—judges, prosecutors, and lawyers alike—reproduce social inequalities and how ordinary people resist. An important lesson on the need for radical transformation not only in courtrooms but also in the broader society."—Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century

"It is difficult for advantaged people in the United States to understand what it's like to be ignored, silenced, mistreated, and failed by the people and institutions that are supposed to look out for all of us. Privilege and Punishment provides a powerful, beautifully written account of how the criminal court system treats some individuals like clients and others like criminals. Matthew Clair's book is a must-read for anyone interested in reforming the criminal legal system."—Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence

"Engaging, original, and important. Clair masterfully conveys how the dynamics of defendant-attorney relations take shape in ways that have a material impact on the final outcome, and treats defendants with an immense amount of respect for their agency without losing sight of their marginalized position."—Mona Lynch, author of Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court

"An invaluable contribution to our understanding of America's criminal legal system. Clair combines compelling observations, robust interview data, and deft prose to illuminate an aspect of the courtroom that, until now, has not gotten the attention it deserves. Privilege and Punishment helps all of us better understand the current system so that we can collectively imagine a new one."—Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent 

"Privilege and Punishment makes an important contribution to the scholarship on criminal courts and the law. Clair's work prioritizes the experience of defendants as they navigate a system that notoriously punishes—through process—along race and class lines."—Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, author of Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court and The Waiting Room

"In this lively book, Matthew Clair compellingly demonstrates how some defendants gain advantages in the criminal justice system and others lose out. Privilege and Punishment is an original work that provides fresh insights into how class and race alter life chances. Highly recommended!"—Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods

"A careful study of what [Clair] argues is an overlooked cause of inequity in the criminal justice system: the unexpectedly combative relationship between defendants and their lawyers."—Harper's Magazine