April 15, 2010
HLS Professor William Stuntz is quite like Charles Dickens, it seems, in that everyone wants to claim him as their own—from law-and-order conservatives to liberals passionately opposed to the death penalty, from evangelical Christians to secular academicians, and pretty much anyone who has ever worked with or been taught by him.
On March 26 and 27, a large group of his many admirers—scholars, colleagues, friends, and students, of all political and methodological perspectives—gathered at HLS for a two-day conference to celebrate the career of Stuntz, the HLS Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, who has exerted a tremendous influence on the fields of American criminal justice and criminal procedure while at the same time having a profound effect, professionally and personally, on so many who know him.
Click below to view Dean Martha Minow's opening remarks, followed by the panel discussion "Political Economy of Criminal Justice"
“Leave it to Bill to bring together here today not only prosecutor types and public defender types, not only Southerners and Northerners, not only bloggers and joggers but Red Sox fans and the rest of you all,” said Dean Martha Minow in her opening remarks for the two-day conference, “A Celebration of the Career of Bill Stuntz.” With many of the nation’s leading criminal justice scholars in attendance, Minow lauded the “simply dazzling array of conference participants” whom the conference had attracted.
Stuntz’s ability to appeal to a wide variety of legal scholars and others as he has addressed all aspects of the criminal justice system, from racial disparities in incarceration to the distribution of power and responsibility among various agents such as prosecutors and police, was a common theme. “Part of this, obviously, is that [Stuntz’s] work is really good,” said David A. Sklansky ’84, faculty chair of the Center for Criminal Justice at the University of California—Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. It was Sklansky who raised the comparison of Stuntz to Dickens, in that both share a broad appeal to disparate, even oppositional groups, as George Orwell observed of the British writer. “Part of it is that Bill is so personally admirable, and part of it is that his work offers different things to different people,” Sklansky said. Stuntz’s willingness to listen to a variety of opinions, and to change his own when he feels it appropriate, serves as a model for reasoned discourse on often-incendiary topics such as criminal justice, his colleagues noted.
The speakers repeatedly spoke to Stuntz’s generosity with colleagues and students, as well as his deep-seated humility, often a rarity in the legal academy, Minow noted, and especially noteworthy given his prodigious intellectual abilities. Joseph Hoffmann, a professor of law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who raised the new phenomenon of the “virtual abolition” of the death penalty, said that entering law teaching at the same time as Stuntz “was like entering the NBA in the same draft class as LeBron James.” Stuntz was also cited for his popularity among students, for his compassion and his accessibility; he was the 2004 recipient of the HLS Sacks-Freund Teaching Award, given by the graduating class to honor a professor for his or her contributions to teaching.
Click here to view the panel discussion "Emotion, Discretion, Mercy, and Faith"
The conference—organized by Carol Steiker ’84, the HLS Howard J. and Katherine W. Aibel Professor of Law, Mike Klarman, the HLS Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law, and David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and, like Stuntz, an evangelical Protestant (the two coauthor a blog “Less than the Least”)—addressed many of the themes of Stuntz’s scholarship over the past three decades, from the overcrowding of prisons to the appropriate role of faith, emotion and mercy in the system.
In a panel on political economy in the criminal justice system [see video above], moderated by HLS Assistant Professor of Law Jeannie Suk ’02, a former student of Stuntz, Stuntz spoke of three factors that have made a significant contribution to the “disaster of criminal justice in our time,” in particular, the massive and “racially unfair” prison population in the U.S. The first factor is the vertical allocation of power between state legislatures and local governments, with the former writing the laws and the latter enforcing them, and little collaboration between the two, he said. The second is the horizontal allocation of power, with police making arrests but prosecutors determining how many people go to prison. As Stuntz noted, in the late 1960s, the arrest rate nationwide grew by 20 percent while prison sentences and felony prosecutions fell by 20 percent everywhere but in the South; then, in the late 1990s, arrest rates dropped yet prosecutions and incarcerations rose. Stuntz said no one has conclusively found why these two trends diverged, but in both instances, prosecutors were the ones who determined the size of the prison population, which was “too small” in the ‘60s and “too large now.” He added, “If urban police officers had exercised more power, and urban DAs less, the story of criminal justice over last half century would look very different and vastly better than it does.”
The third factor, Stuntz said, is that criminal law over the past 50 years has “become a field of doctrinal detail and technicality” so that criminal intent has become “almost wholly mechanical” and close to a state of strict liability. This, he believes, “has more than little to do with today’s massive prison population.” None of the three factors arose as a result of much conscious decision-making, Stuntz said, and in this lies some hope. “Maybe—I think, I hope—that might be cause for little bit of optimism. If we can find the right mechanisms, the justice system might be made a little fairer and a little less harsh without having to battle deeply held convictions by those who make the system what it is. American criminal justice did not grow so unjust primarily because of ideological commitments. Maybe it can grow more just without deep-seated ideological change. I hope so. Ideological change is hard, and mechanics are a good deal easier.”
In thanking everyone associated with the event, Stuntz—who has written about his battle with cancer including the role of his religious faith in dealing with it—said, “I have gotten one enormous benefit from this ugly disease I have. I’ve learned my friends are both more numerous and even more generous than I had realized. I don’t know how I managed to acquire such wonderful friends … but I am very grateful it did happen.”
— Elaine McArdle
To view all events from the conference, visit http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/wstuntz/.