Supreme Court's Role in the Criminal Justice System

Professor William Stuntz has an interesting article in the New Republic on the Supreme Court's role in the criminal justice system. Sentencing Law and Policy has excerpted some of the most pertinent quotes.

[T]he Supreme Court's most important job is not managing the culture wars. Regulating the never-ending war on crime is a much bigger task. Alas, it may also be the job the Court does worst.

Civilizations define themselves by when, how, and whom they punish. Those choices are especially important in a society like ours, with a long history of both criminal violence and official racism. Forty-five percent of American prisoners are black. The imprisonment rate — the number of prison inmates per 100,000 people — stood at 482 in 2003. Among black males, the figure was 3,405. For black men in their late twenties, the number exceeds 9,000. Court decisions that help shape those numbers are vastly more important than the latest church-state fight. And the justices do shape those numbers, both by what they regulate and by what they leave alone....

Why does the Court do such a bad job in this area? The answer may be simple ignorance. The criminal justice system is a massively complex enterprise. Figuring out the effects of the latest abortion ruling is child's play compared with unpacking the consequences of decisions like Wardlow and Kyllo on policing or the effects of cases like Miller-El and Booker on criminal trials and plea bargains. Getting those consequences right would be hard even for experts. And the highest court in the land is not filled with experts. Souter is the only sitting justice with substantial experience in criminal litigation — and that was on the not-exactly-mean streets of New Hampshire. Frontline urban prosecutors and defense attorneys rarely end up on federal appeals courts, the breeding ground for future justices. So they never make it to presidential short lists.

Justices who have never seen the inside of a police station are happy to expound on the virtues and vices of different kinds of drug enforcement. If they knew more, they might say less. Veterans of the criminal justice trenches understand that, when it happens, productive change comes from the men and women who serve in those trenches.

< Too Soon to Bash John G. Roberts | Released Detainee Tells of Killings by Prison Guards >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Re: Supreme Court's Role in the Criminal Justice S (none / 0) (#1)
    by merlallen on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:25 PM EST
    So now chickengeorge can get a student loan? HAHA

    Great article. When it wasn't putting two and two together and coming up with twelve, it was comparing apples and oranges -- though apples and hand grenades would probably be closer. What it comes down to is, the Supreme Court can't be worried about 'shaping' anything; that's the job of the executive and legislative branches. It's not a policy-making branch, it's a judicial branch. Its duty is to decide if someone's rights have been violated, or case law has been misapplied, according to the Constitution. It can't worry about the color of somebody's skin who runs from the cops, or how nice a neighborhood I'm growing pot in.

    Re: Supreme Court's Role in the Criminal Justice S (none / 0) (#3)
    by Dadler on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:27 PM EST
    Scott, If the Supreme Court is one of the three checks in the checks and balances federal government system, there are going to be times when, in ruling AGAINST the other one or two, it is DE-FACTO shaping policy, law, society, you name it, it's possible. Just as an example: if a law is only disproportionately punishing black people, and it is clear that is because it was written (whether consciously or not) with this bias built in, then what would you have them do? Say peachy and let it go? Race and class are as dominant deciding factors in our society as anything. That is reality. And the public institutions of that society certainly can't deny that influence, or ignore it, who would that help? Nor can they fail to address the real consequences of those often times disproportionate, unequal, undemocratic influences.

    Re: Supreme Court's Role in the Criminal Justice S (none / 0) (#4)
    by jackl2400 on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:27 PM EST
    One statistic looks wrong to me in the cited article. I thought the current incarceration rate in the US is ~735/100,000, not the 482 cited in the piece. (Compared to ~100/100,000 for Europe and the rest of the 1st world and in the 400s for such beacons of democracy like Russia and China). Is that just prisons, not prisons + jails, or state vs. fed vs. total? We ought to be able to keep our stats straight when we're talking about a mere couple of million peeps in prison, no?

    Good point Dadler, but I'm not talking about shaping as a result of SC decisions. This article, and a lot of other commentary, treats the SC as an idealogical branch whose mission should be to shape policy. That's not the role the SC is supposed to have. The other branches are free to shape policy around SC's decisions, but the SC is neutral. In your example above, if there is bias written into a law, it would seem inherently unconstitutional and would be reversed. But it's not the SC's job, and is against what you could call its charter, to use its power to simply engineer social reform. Lastly, disparate impact doesn't indicate bias. Too often it's argued that since a certain law affects group x disproportionately, the law is biased against group x. This isn't true.