Stephanos Bibas analyzes key problems with American criminal justice system in latest book
March 26, 2012
In his new book The Machinery of Criminal Justice (Oxford University Press), Stephanos Bibas, a Professor of Law and Criminology and the Director of Penn Law’s Supreme Court Clinic, explores how lawyers have changed the criminal justice process over the past two centuries, silencing victims and defendants and, in many cases, substituting a plea-bargaining system for the voice of the jury. Bibas surveys how victims and defendants have lost their day in court as a sacrifice in a quest for efficient punishment - and suggests how to move away from a “plea bargaining assembly line,” instead re-integrating victims, defendants, and the public back into America’s trial system.
In the book the author suggests ways to include victims, defendants, and the public once again; from requiring convicts to work or serve in the military, to moving power from prosecutors to restorative sentencing juries. Bibas argues that doing so might cost more, but it would better serve the public in denouncing crime, vindicating victims, reforming wrongdoers, and healing the relationships torn by crime.
Professor Bibas sat down with Penn Law’s Office of Communications to talk more about his book.
I’m Stephanos Biabas. I’m a Professor of Law and Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a new book, “The Machinery of Criminal Justice.”
In colonial America, ordinary people ran criminal justice; they had their day in court and they saw justice done. Over the last two centuries, lawyers – professionals – have taken the criminal justice system away. Away from public view, away from victims, defendants, and jurors. The book’s about what we’ve lost in our quest for efficiency, creating a plea bargain assembly line, and how we can swing the pendulum part-way back towards bringing ordinary people back into criminal justice.
When prosecutors and defense lawyers didn’t have a personal interest in trying cases they could lighten their workloads by plea bargaining cases out of public sight. So, victims lost their day in court and today 95 percent - 19 out of every 20 cases - are resolved without any trial at all.
The book has a series of suggestions as to how to bring the public back in. Suggestions for new ways for victims to participate, and to know about what is going on in their cases. Including restorative sentencing juries [that] would let victims and defendants tell their own stories, and prosecutors would have to justify rather than just unilaterally plea bargain in order to set sentences.
The book is written so that not only lawyers and law professors can read it. A lot of ordinary citizens, fans of Law and Order and the Wire, can read it and understand it. Legislators and policy makers need to understand what’s going on in the criminal justice system. But frankly, voters need to know where 20, 25 percent of their state budgets are going, and whether it’s worthwhile, and what we could do to push back against the machinery that has taken on a life of its own.
Lawyers think that criminal justice is for the state. The cases are titled The United States vs. David Defendant. But, common sense tells us that there is a real flesh and blood victim. And that shouldn’t be the only person in the case, but that should be an important person in the case. It doesn’t mean bloodthirstiness or the maximum possible punishment, but it means treating people with respect, and seriously. The machinery of criminal justice often doesn’t treat people with respect; it just gets cases over with as cheaply as possible.
This transcript was edited for length.