That's the title of Justice John Paul Stevens latest essay in the New York Review of Books. It appears in the November 10 issue. It reviews the new book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz, published by Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. Here's the beginning of this must-read:
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.
Much more than a hat tip of credit to Andrew Cohen and his Atlantic post, "Justice Stevens Speaks His Mind."
Suddenly, John Paul Stevens is everywhere. The retired Supreme Court justice has chimed in on the death penalty, written his memoirs, spoken about judicial ethics, and called the Bush v. Gore case "frivolous." And last week, in a chatty essay for The New York Review of Books, he offered some insight into the chaos (and inherent unfairness) that is the criminal justice system in America. At the age of 91, Stevens evidently has a lot to say after 35 cloistered years on the Court.
Some people are annoyed by Stevens' high profile. They think it's unbecoming for a retired justice to speak out so candidly on live legal issues. On the right, they conveniently cast Stevens' recent pronouncements as proof of his "liberal" nature, allowing them to ignore the fact that the High Court moved further to the right than the Ford appointee moved to the left during his tenure. Me? I think it's great that the man is speaking out and speaking up. He's earned the right, first of all, and he also happens to be a natural and excellent legal analyst.
His latest essay -- "Our 'Broken System' of Criminal Justice," from the New York Review of Books -- is a great example. In it, Stevens does a great job not just of translating the language of the law to lay people -- which is the most important thing a legal analyst can do -- but also providing the sort of context and perspective that only a retired Supreme Court justice can offer. Here, Stevens is a pivot for the rest of us; he links us to the legal and political history behind the criminalization of American life while showing us how that past directly impacts modern jurisprudence.
Lord knows, the world doesn't need any more lawyers. But it can always use a good legal analyst. I hope Stevens continues to speak out and write about the law. If he educates only one viewer or reader at a time, he'll be doing the nation another great service.
Washington, D.C.'s great independent book seller Politics & Prose will host an author event with Justice Stevens on Nov 7, 2011, however, I understand the event is already sold out.