Punitive and inhumane is how William Stuntz, one our country’s leading criminal law scholars, describes the modern American criminal justice system in his recent book, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.” Had he wished, Professor Stuntz could have added the subtitle “How it All Fell on the Shoulders of the Urban Poor.” Sadly, Stuntz died from illness last year at the age of 53.
Professor Stuntz provides persuasive evidence that the criminal justice system “unraveled” in the latter half of the 20th century. Our sentences are excessively harsh. We hold a larger percentage of our population in prison than any other Western country. African-Americans are imprisoned in gross disproportion to their actual percentage of the population. Ninety-five percent of the time convictions results from quick plea bargain rather than the “trial by jury” proudly enshrined in the Sixth Amendment.
According to Stuntz, our criminal justice system became the most punitive and inhumane the United States has ever had because, in part, of the unequal application of criminal law. We have vested police and prosecutors with overly broad discretionary powers. This creates a system that often works very differently in poor urban neighborhoods than in wealthy areas, often resulting in discriminatory policing and prosecution. Official authorities have “unfettered discretion to choose when to enforce the law and when to ignore it.”
The structure of recent criminal statutes also contributes to today’s severely punitive system. Largely in response to public fears of increasing crime in the 1970s and 1980s, legislators became “tough on crime,” enacting draconian maximum prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, and a number of ancillary elements that make it easy to prove almost any defendant guilty of at least something, even when they may not be guilty. As a result, prosecutors often extract guilty pleas from defendants who would rather accept some prison sentence than risk a conviction at trial with a much more punitive outcome. The prison population, as a result, continues to swell.
It was not always like this. Stuntz provides a deep historical narrative of the development of our criminal justice system since the founding of the nation that provides persuasive evidence that we can do better. You can order a copy of Stuntz’s book from Amazon.com.
If you have been charged with a crime, whether it be DUI or DWI or another crime (such, as a drug or theft crime, or assault) you should contact a criminal defense attorney. The Law Office of Ben Crittenden will vigorously defend you. You can contact us at 907-771-9002 or visit our Frequently Asked Questions page or Blog page.