Josiah Davis

William J. Stuntz on American Criminal Justice

Written by one of the most influential legal scholars of the last three decades years, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Belknap Press, 2011) aims at nothing less than a comprehensive description of today’s criminal justice system, how it came to be what it is today, and what can be done to fix it. A self-proclaimed conservative and evangelical Christian, William J. Stuntz describes the current Criminal Justice System as an “arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive beast” that has lost its way through politicizing criminal punishment, emphasizing procedural rather than substantive law, and losing a sense of local democracy. Stuntz completed the manuscript for this book on his deathbed and it was published after his death in 2011. Here is Stuntz in his own words:

Among the great untold stories of our time is this one: the last half of the twentieth century saw America’s criminal justice system unravel. There are three keys to the system’s dysfunction, each of which has deep historical roots but all of which took hold in the last sixty years.

First, the rule of law collapsed. To a degree that had not been true in America’s past, official discretion rather than legal doctrine or juries’ judgments came to define criminal justice outcomes.

Second, discrimination against both black suspects and black crime victims grew steadily worse, oddly, in an age of rising legal protection for civil rights. Today, black drug offenders are punished in great numbers, even as white drug offenders are usually ignored. (As is usually the case with respect to American crime statistics, Latinos fall in between, but generally closer to the white population than to the black one.)’ At the same time, blacks victimized by violent felonies regularly see violence go unpunished; the story is different in most white neighborhoods.

The third trend is the least familiar: a kind of pendulum justice took hold in the twentieth century’s second half, as America’s justice system first saw a sharp decline in the prison population-in the midst of a record-setting crime wave-then saw that population rise steeply. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States had one of the most lenient justice systems in the world. By century’s end, that justice system was the harshest in the history of democratic government.