John Paul Stevens turns his attention to William Stuntz’s ‘The Collapse of American Criminal Justice’

In the New York Review of Books, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens reviews “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” by the late Harvard Law School Professor William Stuntz.

In the New York Review of Books, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens reviews “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” by the late Harvard Law School Professor William Stuntz.

In a comprehensive review published Oct. 20 by the New York Review of Books, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens provides thoughtful analysis of the recently published book The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by the late Harvard Law School Professor William J. Stuntz.

Stuntz, a greatly revered and influential scholar of criminal justice and the former Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, finished his manuscript shortly before his death earlier this year.

“Bill would have been pleased to have his book taken seriously by someone of Justice Stevens’ stature, especially in light of the fact that the Justice lived through and participated in many of the events Bill addressed,” said Harvard Law School Professor Carol Steiker, a longtime colleague and friend of Stuntz. Steiker, along with Professors Daniel Richman of Columbia Law School and Michael Klarman of HLS, helped to steer the final editing of the book for publication after Stuntz passed away.

View video of a recent event at HLS celebrating the publication of Stuntz’s book.

Stevens describes the book as one that “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.”

In the conclusion of his analysis, Stevens writes: “For each of three reasons, Professor Stuntz’s account of the ‘collapse’ of an overgrown system of criminal law enforcement is well worth reading. It is full of interesting historical discussion. It accurately describes the magnitude of the twin injustices in the administration of our criminal law. It should motivate voters and legislators to take action to minimize those injustices.”

Stevens also offers some criticism, diverging from Stuntz’s assessments in some respects. Stating, “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.”

Stevens’s full review is available here (PDF), and on the New York Review of Books website.

Stuntz’s book has also received praise from Lincoln Caplan in Democracy, Peter Monaghan in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Paul G. Cassell in The Wall Street Journal.

Caplan wrote: “[Stuntz] developed an original, sweeping, and brilliant understanding of his field, which he sought to synthesize in this work. … 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.”

Monaghan said: “It is what colleagues said it would be: an extraordinary work of systematic analysis of a kind that [Stuntz] claimed American jurisprudence too infrequently attempts. And it frankly states the contentious charges he had been making with increasing force—and increasing converts—during his shortened career. His analysis is complex, but one concept underpins much of what he believes is lacking in criminal justice today: For much of American history, outside the South, local criminal-justice institutions such as police and courts “punished sparingly, mostly avoided the worst forms of discrimination, controlled crime effectively, and for the most part, treated those whom the system targets fairly.”

Cassell said: “[T]he overarching themes of ‘The Collapse of American Criminal Justice’ deserve wide discussion, and the book as a whole can be rightly seen as the capstone to a distinguished legal career. Americans may debate whether our criminal-justice system has truly collapsed, but few would argue that it can’t be improved.”

Click here to read an article on the life of Professor Stuntz