Book Reviews

The Crime of Punishment

The late Bill Stuntz was America's leading thinker on criminal justice—and its hardest to categorize.

By Lincoln Caplan
The Collapse of American Criminal Justice By William Stuntz • Harvard University Press • 2011 • 408 pages • $35

Crime began to plummet in the United States more than 15 years ago, defying all predictions. It did so for nearly a decade. It happened in every part of the country and in every category of crime. While the rate of decline has leveled off in recent years, to many this social achievement has meant that the country need not worry about crime anymore: The problem has been solved. That view is wrong. In reality, the problem simply exists in two places most Americans (and the media) don’t often bother to look: in crime-ridden sections of cities where minorities live, and in the overcrowded prison system that gives America the world’s highest rate of incarceration. The good news masks an ever-worsening tragedy in criminal justice.

The black homicide rate across the nation is six times that of the white rate. Chicago’s Washington Square neighborhood is poor and close to 100 percent black. The city’s Hyde Park neighborhood is affluent and mostly white. The homicide rate in the first is 26 times that of the second.

The most compelling explanation for the different crime patterns for blacks and whites is the effect of the criminal justice system’s breakdown on poor young black men, who have continued to commit crimes at a high rate, including violent ones, especially against blacks, and who regard the system as dramatically unfair and unworthy of their respect. The rate of imprisonment among white men is the highest it has been in American history, yet the rate is seven times higher among black men.

America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure. The prison population is unsustainably high—petty offenders are locked away with hard cases, overcrowding makes conditions dangerous and unhealthy, and financial costs to states are through the roof. The last time the country significantly reduced them, however, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the rate of crime skyrocketed. Neither option is acceptable. So what do we do?

In his posthumously published book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, William Stuntz argues that reform today should involve putting more control over decisions about what and who should be punished—and for how long—in the hands of neighborhoods most hurt by crime and decimated by punishment. It should, he writes, involve many more cops on the street and many fewer convicts in prison.

But the book is less a blueprint for how to make things right than an explanation of what went wrong over the past century. Its value comes from seeing American criminal justice whole, in an elaborate analysis of a complex system, and challenging the theories of retribution and deterrence that lead to an emphasis on punishment and that have dominated thinking about the field for the past generation.

“Today,” Stuntz explains, “our cities are considerably more violent than before the great crime wave of the twentieth century’s second half, yet the nation’s imprisonment rate is quintuple the rate before that crime wave began. If punishment deters crime, we seem to be getting much less deterrent bang for the imprisonment buck than we once did. Add it all up, and the picture is quite different than the conventional wisdom allows.”

Stuntz’s thesis is that the misrule of politics has replaced the rule of law, with a ratchet of ever-expanding criminal laws giving boundless discretion to police and prosecutors, leading to a system that wrongly punishes too many poor young black men. When the law gives that much discretion, he writes, it stops functioning as law and instead becomes an assertion of power. The recent decline in crime is less a sign of success than of pathology. The encouraging numbers are misleading. They conceal devastating failure.

William Stuntz was one of the most influential and revered legal scholars of his generation, by acclamation the country’s leading thinker about criminal justice. His 25 years as a scholar, first as a law professor at the University of Virginia, then at Harvard, began when crime was a highly politicized issue and ended (tragically early—he died of cancer at the age of 52 in March) when crime had seemingly ceased to be an issue at all.

He developed an original, sweeping, and brilliant understanding of his field, which he sought to synthesize in this work. Three highly respected legal scholars to whom his book is dedicated—Carol Steiker and Michael Klarman of Harvard Law School and Daniel Richman of Columbia Law School—shepherded the essentially finished volume through production and into print after his death. While he co-authored a shelf full of respected textbooks about criminal law and criminal procedure, this is his only book for a general readership. It is his masterwork. The book is written in direct, energetic, and forceful prose, without stinting on nuance. It is a form of purposeful history, with close analyses of Supreme Court cases and doctrine; crime data by race, class, and geography; the workings of American politics at the national, state, and local levels; the interplay of legal, political, economic, and social forces; and attention to seminal documents of law and governance, especially the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice is at once a far-reaching indictment and a vision tinged with hope. Stuntz was concerned with how to make sure that the criminal justice system charges and convicts those who deserve punishment while reducing the share of people caught in it who are innocent. He was convinced that “criminal punishment is both too severe and too frequent” and that “legal condemnation is a necessary but terrible thing—to be used sparingly, not promiscuously.” His biggest idea is that criminal justice can only be understood—by non-experts as well as experts—through a grasp of the interactions among its major elements. By showing that the division between criminal law (the elements of crime the government must prove to convict a defendant) and criminal procedure (the steps a police officer must follow to interrogate a suspect) that is respected by most scholars is in fact artificial and misleading, he demonstrated the benefits of approaching the field as a whole.

The history of criminal procedure, he showed, was “not really about procedure at all but about substantive issues, about what conduct the government should and should not be able to punish.” The most important change in this area came in Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark 1966 ruling requiring police, under the Constitution’s guarantee against self-incrimination, to give suspects taken into custody warnings about their right to remain silent and to call a lawyer, because that intimidating situation is likely to make a suspect feel he must talk. The purpose of Miranda was to give every defendant the opportunity to protect himself in the criminal justice system, not just wealthy suspects with access to skilled lawyers who could help make a case that a confession was coerced and therefore involuntary.

But the effect of Miranda was the opposite, Stuntz contended: The new rules gave suspects who could afford a skilled lawyer a “right to avoid police questioning altogether.” That was about one-fourth of criminal suspects. As for the other three-quarters, the warnings afforded few of them protection, because they didn’t understand what the warnings meant or, if they did, had no access to anyone who could enforce them. As long as the police could show they gave the warnings to the other three-quarters, they easily induced most suspects to waive their rights. Stuntz’s criticism underscored that, without provision of criminal defense lawyers for the poor, Miranda had much less beneficial impact than it promised.

Stuntz was a registered Republican and considered himself a conservative, and his reputation as such was buttressed by some truly conservative positions (for instance, he favored forms of profiling after the September 11 attacks). But it was more important to Stuntz that he appeal to both liberals and conservatives than that he be identified as either. The distinctiveness of his outlook was reinforced by his keenness to make his evangelical Christian faith part of his identity as a scholar. His best-known article about the role of Christian ideas in law suggests that Christianity’s most significant lesson in the face of the “arrogance” of contemporary legal theory is the faith’s “humility” about how hard it is to find definite answers to fundamental questions. His humility sometimes gave his writing the tone of an elegy.

Stuntz writes, “Discretion and discrimination travel together.” The percentage of adults who are black, white, and Latino using illegal drugs is roughly the same (10 percent, 9 percent, and 8 percent, respectively), but blacks are three times more likely than Latinos to do prison time for drug crimes and nine times more likely than whites. Why? The misrule of politics, according to Stuntz. Specifically, the misrule results from suburban voters in counties having a lot of say in who gets elected as prosecutors in the urban areas where serious crime is concentrated. As Stuntz writes, prosecutors “are usually elected at the county level” and “counties that include major cities have a much higher percentage of suburban voters than in the past.” Think here, for example, of Fulton County, Georgia, or of Wayne County, Michigan, both so much larger than Atlanta and Detroit, respectively, that they even include some rural stretches. In other words, it is voters for whom crime is largely an abstract problem who exercise sway, while residents for whom the problem is real have less power.

The disappearance of the jury trial symbolizes this shift. Almost all felony criminal convictions today—96 percent—come from guilty pleas obtained by prosecutors elected with the support of suburban voters, not from verdicts reached by juries drawn from residents in areas where crime is concentrated. The system, in Stuntz’s words, has become an “arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive beast,” which is undemocratic in vesting decisions about punishment in those who aren’t part of the community where those being punished live. Stuntz’s main remedies for this include putting more cops on the street, making more lawyers available to represent criminal defendants, letting local rules about sentencing prevail, and shifting responsibility between local and state governments for who pays for local police and state prisons.

More cops would mean fewer prisoners and more robust local democracy. More lawyers for criminal defendants would mean better-prepared cases, fewer coerced pleas, and more reliable outcomes. Letting local rules about sentencing prevail would reduce the severity and the racial disparity in sentencing, and, with judges presiding over this phase, reduce the power of prosecutors. Shifting responsibility for payment, by having local governments pay a larger share of prison costs and a smaller share of local police costs, would give them an incentive to sentence fewer prisoners—and remove a disincentive from hiring more cops.

Stuntz was troubled by “institutional design and incentives” in criminal law and politics that push toward ever harsher rules and sentences. Power over criminal law is allocated to the three branches of government—the legislature makes it, the executive branch enforces it, and the judiciary interprets it—but they are not checks on one another in this sphere. In fact, legislators and the executive branch’s prosecutors both benefit from “more and broader crimes”: Legislators get more power when they define crimes more broadly because they reduce the role of judges in deciding who is guilty; and prosecutors have more power because they have more discretion about what and how to prosecute. As a result, legislators and prosecutors tacitly cooperate with each other, leading to both more law and less: more on the books, and less on the street, in the sense that the laws are so broad the police and prosecutors get to decide whom to go after and find guilty. Those decisions are about power. In the “rule of too much law,” Stuntz advises, “too much law amounts to no law at all.”

His solution to this set of problems is to replace the vicious cycle that creates them with a virtuous cycle based on cultivating a relationship between those who break the law (or are tempted to) and those who enforce it. For most of the twentieth century in the Northeast and Midwest, the ratio of police officers to prison inmates was two to one. Today, it is less than one to two. “More than any other statistic,” Stuntz writes, “that one captures what is most wrong with American criminal justice.” More cops mean more deterrence. More deterrence means fewer arrests and fewer convictions. In the 1990s, New York City had the biggest drop in urban crime during the decade. It also had the biggest increase in its police force.

Another important component would be fewer prisoners. This would require reducing the severity of sentencing, which is now “more punitive than Russia’s,” reducing the discrimination that contributes to blacks outnumbering whites among prisoners, and reducing “excessive prosecutorial power”—which is “unchecked by law and, given its invisibility, barely checked by politics.” And too much power for prosecutors doesn’t mean there are enough of them: Stuntz calls for many more, so there are more lawyers to litigate cases and the pressure on them to obtain plea bargains is alleviated. That would also require more money for public defenders to represent defendants in court.

A more drastic aspect of his reform vision would be sweeping changes in criminal laws—defining more crimes vaguely so courts would need to resort to jury trials to decide who was guilty. This would excuse from liability for the most serious offenses the least guilty members of a group of criminals and would even allow some guilty defendants to claim that, though their conduct fit the definition of a crime, it wasn’t so “wrongful” that it merited punishment. This would mean “constitutionaliz[ing]” much of basic criminal law, by asking courts to define its boundaries instead of legislators and prosecutors—and giving courts more power when many perceive them to have too much power already.

This unlikely element of his vision is also the most inventive. Stuntz contends that the Warren Court, instead of fixating on procedures addressed in the Bill of Rights, could have focused on equality as called for in the Fourteenth Amendment. In case after case where it settled on a procedural solution, the Court could have insisted that a black defendant who was plainly treated differently and less respectfully than a white defendant be guaranteed the equal protection of the laws. He called for the Warren Court to do what its conservative critics have usually attacked it for: to take an approach to constitutional reform that was “less legally grounded, more intuitive than lawlike.” This would surely have been lambasted as extreme judicial activism. But Stuntz believed that the Warren Court did not go far enough. He was a conservative who criticized the liberal Warren Court for its conservatism because he was convinced it would have been better for the justices to take a radical path.

The United States of the years right after World War II is unrecognizable in major ways because of changes wrought by the Warren Court. Landmark decisions it rendered about racial equality, school prayer, voting rights, and freedom of the press, as well as criminal justice, made our democracy more inclusive, more representative, more tolerant, and better informed, not to mention fairer to people accused of crimes.

But Stuntz wanted more. His hunger for more justice and mercy and, as a result, less crime and punishment made his work great. In this brave book, as contrarian as it is utopian, he constructs a powerful explanation about the vast and costly failure of the American criminal justice system and why the quest to reform it must be a high priority. He left an inspiring model of how.

Lincoln Caplan writes editorials for The New York Times about the Supreme Court and other legal subjects. He is the author of The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law and other books about the law.

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