Our ‘Broken System’ of Criminal Justice

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Drawing by Honoré Daumier

William Stuntz was the popular and well-respected Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard University. He finished his manuscript of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice shortly before his untimely death earlier this year. The book is eminently readable and merits careful attention because it accurately describes the twin problems that pervade American criminal justice today—its overall severity and its disparate treatment of African-Americans.

The book contains a wealth of overlooked or forgotten historical data, perceptive commentary on the changes in our administration of criminal justice over the years, and suggestions for improvement. While virtually everything that Professor Stuntz has written is thought-provoking and constructive, I would not characterize the defects in American criminal justice that he describes as a “collapse,” and I found his chapter about “Earl Warren’s Errors” surprisingly unpersuasive.

Rather than focus on particular criminal laws, the book emphasizes the importance of the parts that different decision-makers play in the administration of criminal justice. Stuntz laments the fact that criminal statutes have limited the discretionary power of judges and juries to reach just decisions in individual cases, while the proliferation and breadth of criminal statutes have given prosecutors and the police so much enforcement discretion that they effectively define the law on the street.

Ironically, during an age of increasing protection for civil rights, discrimination against both black suspects and black victims of crime steadily increased. Stuntz attributes this development, in part, to the expansion of prosecutorial and police discretion—in his view, “discretion and discrimination travel together.” For example, the discretionary authority to enforce posted speed limits has enabled state troopers to be selectively severe in making arrests, and to use those arrests to justify searches for evidence of drug offenses. While Stuntz does not suggest that such discriminatory enforcement of traffic laws is itself a national crisis, it provides one illustration of the negative effects of excessive enforcement discretion.

The result, Stuntz writes, has been a serious disadvantage to African-Americans in their encounters with the American criminal justice system. While only 10 percent of the adult black population uses illegal drugs, as does a roughly equal percentage—9 percent—of the adult white population, blacks are nine times more likely than whites to serve prison sentences for drug crimes. “And the same system that discriminates against black drug defendants also discriminates against black victims of criminal violence.” As “suburban voters, for whom crime is usually a minor issue,” have come to “exercise more power over urban criminal justice than in the past,” police protection against violent felonies has disproportionately extended to suburban neighborhoods rather than the urban centers where more black individuals reside.

The “bottom line,” Stuntz explains, has been that “poor black neighborhoods see too little of the kinds of policing and criminal punishment that do the most good, and too much of the kinds that do the most harm.” In…


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