Where American Criminal Justice Went Wrong
The book was written in a hurry. It had to be, because William Stuntz was dying, and the story he wanted to tell was long and complicated. It would be the Harvard Law School professor’s final major work, a sweeping indictment of the system he had been studying for 25 years.
Stuntz was 49 when he found out he had stage four colon cancer. For the remaining three years of his life, he worked on the book whenever he could: in his office at Harvard; at his family’s home in Belmont; even at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, where he would sit with his laptop in the infusion chair and type. Stuntz passed up pain medication so he could think more clearly. In the final days, after he entered hospice care, he had his assistant mail him a draft of his manuscript so he could go over any last minute changes.
What drove Stuntz to finish the book — even as he continued teaching classes and trying to spend as much time as he could with his wife and three children — was a belief that something had gone fundamentally awry in America. Stuntz, an evangelical Christian and an avowed conservative, wanted people to grasp the profundity of the crisis he had observed — how, over the past 50 years, our criminal justice system had been transformed into an unfair, amoral bureaucracy—one that had given up on the very idea of justice.
Stuntz submitted his completed manuscript to his editor at Harvard University Press in January 2011, about three months before he died at age 52. “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” was published the following fall. In it, Stuntz describes how America’s incarceration rate came to be the highest in the industrial world; how the country’s young black males came to bear the brunt of its increasingly harsh penal code; and how jury trials became so rare that more than 95 percent of people sent to prison never had their guilt or innocence deliberated in court. At the heart of the book is Stuntz’s surprising argument about how we reached this point: that well-intentioned Supreme Court rulings meant to protect defendants from unfair and discriminatory police practices combined with the harsh laws passed in response to the crime wave of the 1960s and ’70s to produce a system that is merciless, destructive, and above all, unjust.
Concern about the prison population is usually a liberal issue, but Stuntz, who favored small government, opposed abortion, and made no secret of voting Republican, was driven in his academic work by a sense of concern for the disenfranchised and the poor that would have struck many members of his party as unforgivably left-wing. It is precisely because Stuntz was such a peculiar political animal that his book - which has been praised in outlets as politically diverse as the Nation and the National Review, and has been endorsed by the likes of Richard Posner and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens - is now being described by legal scholars as a work of potentially huge influence.
“Bill’s not of the typical knee-jerk lefty camp,” said Carol Steiker, one of Stuntz’s colleagues at Harvard Law School, and one of a group of friends he deputized before his death to help steer the book through publication in his absence. “And he’s willing to say what non-knee-jerk lefties want most to be said, which is that…crime is a terrible thing, and it’s something we should want to have as little of as possible. But he’s also saying there are prices we should not be willing to pay, and that as a society we should be ashamed to be paying, in the service of that laudable goal.”
Though the early critical reception for the book has been enthusiastic, ideas for major social change typically grow as their authors promote, defend, and develop them over time. Without Stuntz alive to speak for it, it remains to be seen how the book’s legacy will grow. And although it seems like a deeply pessimistic work—more a grim diagnosis of what has gone wrong than a plan for how to fix it—the colleagues who have vowed to spread his ideas believe it has arrived at a moment when, thanks to historically low crime rates and budget crunches in the prison system, reform seems more possible than it has in years.