“The Humanity of Justice” is possibly the best book I’ve ever read on the modern American justice system. Relying on his own experiences as a Senior Deputy District Attorney in southern California, Burke E. Strunsky frames it this way: in a democracy, the justice system should not just be the objective interpretation of laws by professionals and systematic doling out of punishments based on precedents. The justice system is also an ongoing pursuit of what justice means. After reading Chapter 4, “The Jury: The Heart of American Justice,” I had a renewed appreciation for the jury system as a quintessential component of a democracy. The jury is the “we” in “we the people.” That is, the people have the responsibility and honor of deciding what justice is. Therefore, justice is a reflection of the moral will of the people. This book is about the people: the humanistic qualities and components of our justice system, but it is also a convincing argument that human emotions are a necessary supplement to logic and reason in deciding the psychological and sociological implications of crime, punishment and cultural analysis.
Strunsky doesn’t mystify the reader with romanticizations of courtroom drama and complexities of the law one might find in a Hollywood crime drama or a law class respectively. It is a demystification, but an enlightening one. While this seems like an overzealous or glorifying review, the book deserves this encomium because it integrates justice and the role of humanity itself within the ongoing project of American society as the pursuit of justice. When you finish reading it, to be sure, you will come away with a better understanding of the American justice system and you will be implored to look at real and fictional criminal cases with more critical eyes. You might consider, or reconsider, the very idea of justice, not just as some drifting abstract signifier, extracted from case law and dispassionately applied to subsequent crimes, but rather what it really is in a democratic justice system: something “we the people” reconstruct with each particular case. Strunsky provides ethical and practical comments in discussing some of his past cases (often brutal and horrific crimes he has prosecuted). This commentary never seems partisan and is always an elucidation. In other words, he does not dazzle you with incomprehensible court jargon; he explains it. For example, rather than using tactics to “trick” the jury into seeing a case his way, he explains (often misunderstood) jargon such as “abiding conviction” and “reasonable doubt” so the jury knows exactly what the court is talking about. He wants the jury (and all citizens) to recognize their individual roles in a social dynamic, to think like humans (thus, the title).
Among these broad contexts of justice and humanity, are the cases themselves. Some issues in the examples discussed are: flaws in capital punishments, the hypocrisy of clergy-penitent privilege, and the effective use of narrative in arguing the case. Strunsky presents the argument that we can improve upon these and other issues with a common sense (humanistic) approach to the pursuit of justice. Strunsky also devotes considerable time to crime prevention: socially in terms of gun control (a common sense look at this controversial topic) but also the economic, individual, and psychological precursors of crime: from prenatal care to adulthood. Strunsky brings what I think is a necessarily subjective, human spirit to supplement what is often thought of as an objective, law-written-in-stone institution.