The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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



This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/the-collapse-of-american-criminal-justice/245083/