Minnesota Law

Fall 2020
Faculty Focus

Author in Question: Professor Michael Tonry

Michael Tonry, McKnight Presidential Professor of Criminal Law and Policy Director, Institute on Crime and Public Policy

Doing Justice, Preventing Crime

In Doing Justice, Preventing Crime, Professor Michael Tonry lays normative and empirical foundations for building new, more just, and more effective systems of sentencing and punishment in the 21st century. Drawing on philosophy, punishment theory, and empirical research, this book explains the structural changes needed to uphold the rule of law and its requirement that the human dignity of every person be respected. The book was published by Oxford University Press in its Studies in Crime and Public Policy series on July 1, 2020. Tonry has two other books in the last year: Of One-eyed and Toothless Miscreants—Making the Punishment Fit the Crime? (Oxford University Press, editor) and Organizing Crime—Mafias, Markets, and Networks (University of Chicago Press, co-editor).

What inspired you to write a book on this topic?
Black lives matter. Black people suspected and convicted of crimes are systematically treated unjustly, unfairly, and inhumanely. Their experiences differ, however, more in degree than in kind. Few defendants are treated justly, fairly, and humanely. I wanted to figure out why and to show how things can be made better.

What are a few common misconceptions that you dispel in your book?
Many people mistakenly believe that severe punishments deter wrongdoing, that harsher punishments are more effective than lesser ones, and that incapacitating people by locking them up is an effective way to prevent crime. Scientists have consistently shown for 40 years that none of this is true.

What is a key takeaway from the book?
Justice and fairness cannot become regular features of American criminal courts until mandatory minimum sentencing and similar laws are repealed and discretion is returned to judges. And that by itself will not be enough until prosecutors acknowledge that their only legitimate job is to prove guilt and that sentencing decisions should be made by dispassionate judges.

Recent events, including the killing of George Floyd, have put inequalities in the criminal justice system in the national spotlight. How, if at all, do recent events and debate impact the view of “doing justice” and preventing crime you’ve expressed in this book?
I’ve written two books, Malign Neglect (1995) and Punishing Race (2011), on racial injustices in the criminal justice system. Most “tough” sentencing laws foreseeably resulted in grotesquely, disproportionately severe punishments of Black and other minority offenders. In this they are not unlike laws on police use of fatal force and racial profiling. Real changes in Black people’s encounters with the criminal justice system will not occur until all those laws and practices are radically changed.

With politicians on both sides of the aisle claiming to be in favor of criminal justice reform, why hasn’t more meaningful change occurred?
The commitments to change are, alas, largely rhetorical, and target the low-hanging fruit of juvenile, first-time, and minor offenders. Politicians still fear the epithet “soft on crime.” Little will change until the severest sentencing laws are repealed, early release from lengthy prison terms is authorized, and sentences for violent crime are made less harsh.

Is there another country that has “gotten it right”? That the U.S. should be looking to as a model in effectuating systemic change?
No place is perfect, of course, but most continental European countries treat people accused of crimes justly, humanely, and respectfully. Accusations of racial injustice are rare. Those systems are insulated from politics and public emotions, their judges and prosecutors are career civil servants, and plea bargaining is rare or nonexistent.

“I’ve proposed fundamental changes in how Americans think about criminal justice and how practitioners do their jobs. If I’ve done my job well, the book will nudge sentencing practices and policies in more just and effective directions.”
Professor Michael Tonry

What impact would you like your book to have?
Few scholarly books, if they are read at all, have immediate or discernible influence. I’ve proposed fundamental changes in how Americans think about criminal justice and how practitioners do their jobs. If I’ve done my job well, the book will nudge sentencing practices and policies in more just and effective directions.

What’s your best brief pitch for why someone should read this book?
Everyone would want themselves and their loved ones to be treated fairly, justly, evenhandedly, and sympathetically if charged with a criminal offense, rather than be processed on an inhumane assembly line. Doing Justice, Explaining Crime explains why that needs to change and shows what needs to be done.