The Crime of Punishment
The late Bill Stuntz was America’s leading thinker on criminal justice—and its hardest to categorize.
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.
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