Trayvon Martin Was Only One: Review of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

When I first started hearing about the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, I did not know what to think. It was one more story for news vultures to pick over, one more thing for Facebook friends to post links about, and one more reason for me to be glad that I do not own a television. Never mind George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence of murder, the anger surrounding the trial runs deeper than the death of one black teenager. In response, I movedĀ The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz up on my reading list to understand what people are so angry about.

About one fourth of the book is citations and endnotes. Stuntz’s work is on par with Sherlock Holmes’ epic investigation of Professor Moriarty, painstakingly gathering legal evidence against his henchmen and carefully preparing evidence that the police could act upon. The problem is that there is no one politician who we can throw over the Reichenbach Falls to make everything better. Because the current state of the American criminal justice system is the result of two centuries of institutional development, interruptions of judicial reform, political mangling of crime legislation for the sake of talking points, and the unintended consequences following Supreme Court rulings that tried to address abuses in the system. The galling thing is that it is so much everyone’s fault that it isn’t very much of anyone’s fault, and Stuntz’s endnotes serve as proof by intimidation that he knows what he is talking about.

Stuntz traces the development of American criminal justice from the writing of the Constitution until now. One of the first problems that he cites is the development of American institutions of policing and prosecution after the writing of the Constitution, forcing constitutional rules to apply to institutions that they were not written to govern. He also details faults within the Constitution itself, with an improper focus on procedures of investigation and prosecution and not so much on the laws defining what makes a crime and appropriate punishment. His discussion navigates a quagmire of Supreme Court rulings, legislative adjustments, more Supreme Court rulings, Constitutional amendments, and economic crashes that restrict funding for necessary reforms. When racism surfaces in Stuntz’s discussion of the criminal justice system, he demonstrates how it goes from being legally supported in the time of the Civil War, subtly concealed but still legally enforced afterward, and then starting in the 1960s and 1970s, transmogrified into a barely conscious set of legal habits used by prosecutors to decide how they want to tackle crime.

Demographic, economic, legal, and legislative changes altered the relationship between voters and the application of police force. White suburbs are able to vote on criminal legislation that hammers poorer black neighborhoods, and while violent crime disproportionately affects black neighborhoods also, drug laws are used to ring up gangsters on charges that prosecutors can prove while leaving the actual violent crimes unpunished. There is also the question of who pays for what in the application of criminal justice: guilty pleas are cheaper for prosecutors to push through in the face of intricate rules for bringing a case to trial, and easily proven drug laws are used to punish violence that is expensive to prove. Who pays for police and who pays for prison also affects how many people get sent to prison: cities pay for the police and states pay for prison, so cities are able to send lots of people to prison at no cost to themselves while they try to maintain adequate police forces. All of this disproportionately hammers poor black or minority neighborhoods, and there is no one thing that a charismatic leader can put a finger on and say, “STOP IT!”

A crusade gets lots of people excited, but subtlety gets lost in public discourse. Lynching George Zimmerman would have been more pithy and viscerally satisfying than overhauling the system around him, but Zimmerman was one man and Trayvon Martin was just one black teenager, and there are good and bad men as well as teenagers who inflict or suffer injustice. I think that Zimmerman’s acquittal was more frustrating for the black community because there was a named villain in the dock with punishment hanging over his head for a specific offense, and punishing him would have given some satisfaction for disproportionate punishment of black people for crimes that white people also commit. One of the major failures that Stuntz highlights in American criminal justice is the provision of “equal protection of the laws” as defined by the Fourteenth Amendment. Black people need legal protection equal to that granted to white people, but for various reasons difficult to pin on one person or legislative act, it does not happen. A crusade might get a conviction of one guy rung up on certain charges in a certain instance where abuse might have happened, but that new convict is just one more morsel for a still untamed beast.

This book is not a quick read, and the maze of court cases and legislation nearly lost me. Thankfully Stuntz recapitulates the main points over and over as he develops his argument. He gives us a vision to hope for in the better administration of justice in America. Though he does not counsel optimism, he believes there to be hope. This book was the last thing that William J. Stuntz got to publication, and it came out after he died from cancer. While I might say of George Zimmerman, “Just let the guy go if he was innocent of murder!” Stuntz might say that for every George Zimmerman who maybe was lucky to be let go, there were many black men who suffered the full measure of punishment for something that should have merited just a dash of correction. The damnable thing for us is that we cannot tell specifically whose fault it is, and correcting the injustices in our system will demand the very specific efforts of committed groups of people moving against political momentum. May God grant our nation the ability to repent, and may we do the good we can when justice only inconsistently comes from above. Please pick this book up and read it and pray to ask God what you might do about it.