Project on Criminal Justice

Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice and its scholars are dedicated to restoring the integrity and legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the United States. At the federal, state, and local levels, the institutions and individuals that make up our criminal justice systems lack appropriate oversight and accountability, leaving citizens vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Moreover, much of our criminal law is both immoral and violates the original public meaning of the Constitution. The Project on Criminal Justice undertakes a focused, strategic approach to reforming the laws and institutions that have undermined both the efficacy and the legitimacy of our criminal justice system.

Cato’s criminal justice work covers a wide area of criminal law and policy, but its scholars are primarily concerned with 1) the unconstitutional overcriminalization of blameless conduct; 2) increasing the accountability of law enforcement officers and other government agents who commit misconduct; 3) identifying and reversing self-defeating policing strategies that erode the public trust in police; 4) restoring the public’s role in the criminal justice process by eliminating coercive plea bargaining; and 5) restoring the criminal jury trial to its rightful role as the primary mechanism by which criminal prosecutions are resolved in America. The Project’s scholars create and publish original research, file legal briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and appellate courts, submit testimony to government panels, provide policy commentary through various media to educate the public, and present speeches to groups of other policymakers, community leaders, students, and other members of the public.

Of Special Note

Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine

Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine

The Founding Fathers guaranteed trial by jury three times in the Constitution-more than any other right-since juries can serve as the final check on government’s power to enforce unjust, immoral, or oppressive laws. But in America today, how independent can a jury be? How much power does a jury have to not only judge a defendant’s actions, but the merits of the law? What happens when jurors decide in criminal trials not to enforce the law or not to convict a defendant if they conclude it would be unjust? This classic book, originally published 15 years ago, answers these questions by taking readers through a history of jury independence and exploring the range of powers a jury can undertake in ensuring justice and fairness in our cherished legal system.

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Plea Bargaining

Good Policy or Good Riddance?

Today, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions in the United States are obtained through plea bargains. As the Supreme Court observed in 2012, “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Given the imbalance of resources between prosecutors and most defendants, together with the array of tools that prosecutors can bring to bear in any given case, it is fair to ask how many guilty pleas are truly voluntary.


Self-Defeating Policing

Law Enforcement and the Communities they Serve

In recent years, the fractured relationship between the police and members of the public public has come to the forefront of criminal justice policy. In many cities, the lack of trust makes police less able to solve crimes and thus makes the communities less safe. Changing police policy and strategies to build mutual trust is essential to making the public more safe and secure.

About the program

Cato University College of Law 2018

“Where there is no Law,” wrote John Locke, “there is no freedom.” If we wish to live in a free society, the rule of law must be paramount - equally applicable to those who govern and those who are governed. But - how much law? How is it crafted and enforced? And, what challenges does the American constitutional system of law face at a time of growing political and ideological hostility? Cato University’s College of Law energetically addressed these topics, examining our treasured system of law from key perspectives: the functions of law, its composition, the processes of the American legal system, law’s limits on government and its ability to preserve and advance liberty, and the critical heartbeat of American constitutional law.