A Review of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by William Stuntz

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America’s criminal justice system has led to extremely high incarceration and crime rates in many poor and working-class neighborhoods. William Stuntz’s final book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, suggests ways to improve America’s system of criminal justice. My review compares Stuntz’s view of American criminal justice with the views of empirical social scientists Mark Kleiman and David Kennedy, whose work is used around the country in successful social experiments to reduce crime. Stuntz believed that changes in law and society delegate too much power to prosecutors and not enough to judges, juries, and average citizens. Accordingly, reform in America’s criminal justice system needs to focus on rebuilding the rule of law and local democracy. In contrast, Kennedy and Kleiman believe that criminal justice reform should focus on increasing the swiftness and certainty of punishment. Kennedy and Kleiman’s ideas have been used to combat gang violence, eliminate open-air drug sales, and increase the effectiveness of probation for drug-using probationers. Overall, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice is a well-written, insightful, and important book, but a comparison with the empirical work of Kennedy and Kleiman strongly suggests that several of Stuntz’s recommendations to improve American criminal justice are impractical or unwise. Reforms in policing and probation are likely to be more successful than Stuntz’s proposed changes to criminal law and procedure.

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Albert Monroe is a Ph.D., Economics at Harvard University; J.D., Yale Law School.