The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

I want to offer an endorsement of William J. Stuntz's The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. I'm barely halfway through, but already the book has me thinking differently about incarceration, the War on Drugs, and how we think about crime. Stuntz challenges the popular notion that if we just ended the War on Drugs all our problems would go away, and points to more systemic illness at the heart of the justice system -- such as the sheer amount of power now awarded to prosecutors.


For now it's worth grappling with the sheer magnitude of what's happened:

In 2008, the imprisonment rate was more than three-and-a-half times that older historical record....The wave of incarceration that produced those numbers extended nationwide: in every region, imprisonment at least tripled in the twentieth century's second half. In some jurisdictions, the increase was much larger. In 1950, 77 of every 100,000 Texans were housed in stat penitentiaries; by 2000, the figure was 730. Massachusetts' imprisonment rate rose from a mere 32 in 1972 to 278 in 1997. Between 1973 and 2003, Mississippi's imprisonment rate rose from 76 to 763....

If the general imprisonment rat is high, the rate of black incarceration can fairly be called astronomical. The black imprisonment rate for 2000 [1,830 per 100,000] exceeds by one-fourth the imprisonment rate in the Soviet Union in 1950---near the end of Stalin's reign, the time when the population of Soviet prison camps peaked. If jail inmates are included, per capital black incarceration is 80 percent higher than the rate at which Stalin's regime banished its subjects to the Gulag's many camps.

As usual, I have reservations about analogizing across history. I'd gladly take any critique of the Gulag comparison. With that said, those numbers are unconscionable.

Stuntz died earlier this year. I didn't know his work but he sounds fascinating -- a conservative iconoclast. I find his writing to be actual moderation, as opposed to a rather specious and cynical centrism



Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This wildly inventive short film takes you on a whirling, spinning tour of the Big Apple

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in National

From This Author

Just In