How Bad Are the Courts?

The Limits of Law Enforcement

by Hans Zeisel
University of Chicago Press, 245 pp., $20.00

Court Reform on Trial

by Malcolm F. Feeley
Basic Books, 251 pp., $14.95

A familiar picture of the criminal justice system portrays harried and cynical prosecutors presenting sheaves of cases to lazy, soft-headed judges. Everyone involved has virtually given up trying to contain the rising rate of crime. Defendants are shown either as unregenerate hoodlums who mock the feeble system or as bewildered innocents herded into pleading guilty through fear of vindictive officials and crammed and violent jails. Victims and witnesses are numbed by endless, unexplained delays until they give up coming to court. And all the time crime gets worse, perhaps picking up impetus from the system’s incapacity to deal swiftly and justly with criminals.

Two new books show that these popular judgments are often considerably at odds with the results of scholarly inquiry. Hans Zeisel is a University of Chicago social scientist who during the 1960s was coauthor of a celebrated study of the American jury and whose work is a model of the lucid presentation of large themes.1 His new book is based on a research project which he directed some years ago for the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. That study collected data on the processing of approximately two thousand felony cases in New York City, in order to discover how many such cases result in conviction and punishment and why many are dropped on the way. At first impression the figures presented in Zeisel’s graph on this page seem to ratify popular beliefs.



As the graph shows, out of every 100 felony arrests forty-four are dismissed at an early stage and only twenty-seven offenders receive any custodial sentence; twenty-two of them go to jail for less than a year. Surely this reveals a system on the verge of collapse. Not at all, Zeisel says.

He makes two important points. First, the statistics in New York City today are hardly any different from those for felony prosecutions in American cities forty and fifty years ago. Second, they are about the same as those in Germany and Austria, countries usually thought of as having very effective court systems. The huge loss and dilution of felony prosecutions seem to be characteristic of many jurisdictions in modern times. They have several causes, none of which necessarily reflects discredit on the system.

The most important explanation for the very large percentage of dismissals is the backing off of the complaining witness, who often has a close relationship with the person arrested—for example, a wife who has been injured by her husband. In other cases the evidence turns out to be very weak or the prosecutor, in studying the details of the incident, decides that there are good reasons not to proceed. Many cases involve first offenders, or alleged crimes of no great seriousness or with some mitigating circumstances, so that dismissal or conviction for a misdemeanor is justifiable. The relatively few prison sentences that are imposed seem for the most part to be rationally connected with the gravity of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your account.