Those of us concerned with mass incarceration, and friends of the rule of law everywhere have lost a great friend and teacher. Harvard Law Professor William Stuntz has died of metastatic cancer at the age of 52 (read the NYTimes obituary here). Bill's crucial 2001 article in the Michigan Law Review, "The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law," (download it from ssrn here) took on the widely held view that excessive punishment in America was a result primarily of electoral politics. Instead, it was the interaction between electoral politics, influencing legislatures, and institutional design problems, primarily the unchecked power of local prosecutors, that combined to produce incentives for over punishment. The correction was crucial for helping us understand why excessive punishment continues even in periods when electoral politics moves on to other issues (as it has mostly since the late 1990s).
Stuntz will be remembered as well for his humility as a thinker and his extraordinary capacity for empathy. An evangelical Christian with right of center political values, Bill always sought to look beyond his personal value intuitions to the objective structure of institutions that operated to produce trends that only retrospectively looked to be driven by values. Burdened with an extremely painful back condition since the 1990s, Bill faced daily pain, and later the onslaught of terminal cancer with an equanimity that inspired all who crossed his path even briefly (which was my circumstance). His writings included newspaper articles and blog postings that reflected on the human condition through the lens of his own suffering, but also expressed tremendous concern for the suffering of others, especially the poor.
Committed to an intellectual life of service, Bill took precious time away from his family to complete a book on the larger structure of over punishment in our time. Thankfully he was able to complete this and the book, Fighting Crime: Race, Crime, and Democracy in America, will be published in the fall by Harvard University Press.