Police and Thieves

What is it about New York City that has, in the last few years, spawned a series of books attacking the criminal justice system and describing a community in which victims’ needs are compelling while the rights of the accused are an impediment to justice? Why does this apocalyptic vision of the system persist, despite statistics demonstrating the sharpest decline in the city’s and the nation’s crime rates in decades? What explains the acute detachment from the accused that is at the core of this series of books? In Virtual Justice: The Flawed Prosecution of Crime in America, Richard Uviller adds his voice to those of his fellow New Yorkers, including Professor George Fletcher and Judge Harold Rothwax, who have recently advocated reforms of the criminal system. Among the reforms they advocate are sharp constrictions of the exclusionary rule, the right to counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, the peremptory challenge, and the admissibility of expert testimony. Although ostensibly examining these same issues with the balance of a scholar rather than the voice of an advocate, Uviller’s wish list is remarkably congruent with those of the more contentious Fletcher and Rothwax. And like the work of Fletcher and Rothwax, the premise of Uviller’s analysis is flawed: the procedural protections he critiques simply have not effected dramatic changes in the investigation and prosecution of crime and the sentencing of defendants. Criminal justice in New York City is, like the city itself, hardly a national prototype. In terms of volume alone, the system is peculiarly burdened. In addition, New York presents combined demographics of race and class, of access to education, housing, employment, and of the availability of weapons12 and drugs that appear nowhere else in the United States. This does not, however, prevent Uviller, and other observers, from extrapolating from New York’s experience to conclusions about “Criminal Justice” and the “Prosecution of Crime in America.” Reliance on so idiosyncratic a model cannot help but produce distortions, and this is one of the pitfalls of Uviller’s book.