The Machinery of Criminal Justice: Colonial Criminal Justice as a Morality Play

I’d like to thank Eugene and his fellow co-conspirators for graciously letting me guest-blog this week about my new book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice, which was just published by Oxford University press and is available here. In a nutshell, the book is about:

1) how America moved from a populist system of public jury trials and punishments to a hidden plea bargaining assembly line run by lawyers;

2) what we have lost in our quest to process ever more cases efficiently; and

3) how we could swing the pendulum part-way back toward greater public involvement and confidence within a lawyer-run system.

I can’t cover the entire book in a week and won’t try to excerpt it. But I hope to give you a sense of how far modern American criminal justice has drifted from its roots and the hidden costs of efficiently boosting the quantity of cases prosecuted at the expense of the quality of how we do it.

Let me start today and tomorrow by canvassing how, without much thought, we have drifted over the past four centuries from the colonial morality play to the modern criminal justice machine. There’s no question that professionalization has brought tangible benefits, especially the ability to handle staggering caseloads. What I want you to see, however, is the price we have paid to purchase more and more efficiency.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of course, most people lived in small towns and villages. Communities were very cohesive, as everyone knew everyone else and word of mouth traveled quickly. They were very often ethnically and religiously homogeneous, with a shared sense of what was and always had been wrong. The downside, of course, is that social and legal pressures to conform could be stifling.

But there were upsides too. Because informal social pressure did so much work in preventing and responding to lawbreaking, there was less need for professional state intervention and coercion. Because the moral consensus emphasized that everyone was weak and fallen, there was more understanding and brotherly love to moderate criminal punishments.

And because morals crimes cut across the social spectrum, criminal justice didn’t create a discrete criminal underclass; everyone could occasionally stumble. People paid their dues, were forgiven, and could reenter society with a clean slate and rise to high office and social station. There was no gulf between the governors and the governed, the law-abiding and the lawless.

It’s also extremely significant that colonial justice was the business of amateurs: laymen, not lawyers. Ordinary white men took turns serving as night watchmen and constables, and when victims shouted out a hue and cry all the neighbors were supposed to rise up to help catch the perpetrator.

Criminal cases were decided by local juries, who applied their common-sense notions of right and wrong to decide who was factually guilty and morally blameworthy. At first there were no American law books or law schools, and very few lawyers overall. Thus, even the judges had little training, and many if not most cases were prosecuted by victims pro se (without lawyers) and defended by defendants pro se, each telling his side of the story.

The lack of professionalization certainly had its downsides; for example, it left amateur night watchmen poorly equipped to deal with dangerous professional criminals. But it also meant that trials were straightforward contests about who had done what and who deserved what punishment.

There were no lawyers to generate and argue over technical rules of evidence and procedure, nor to draw out pretrial motions and post-trial appeals. The side issues that today distract from factual and moral guilt, such as Miranda warnings, the exclusionary rule, and the intricate hearsay rules, were far off in the future.

Before prosecutors took over, victims literally had their day in court; and before defense counsel took over, defendants could not remain mute and simultaneously challenge the prosecution’s case. Criminal trials publicly aired each side’s story, both in deciding factual guilt and in weighing the punishment deserved. It was a matter of common sense, not legal technicality.

So, with apologies to professional legal historians for oversimplifying, that’s a rough snapshot of what colonial American criminal justice looked like. Tomorrow I’ll explain the dramatic changes it underwent over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.