Democracy and the Limits of Punishment:
A Preface to Prisoners' Rights
Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins
Graduate students and would-be lawyers can become interested in the subject of criminal justice for a variety of reasons. Crime is fascinating human drama, and social deviance is an important window into the larger context of conformity with social norms. Law enforcement and punishment are interesting and complicated phenomena. But many who write in this tribute to Norval Morris are part of a generation that was trained in the 1960s and 1970s, and who became interested in the subject of criminal justice because they wished to accomplish reforms that would carry social importance. Criminal justice then served as a magnet for would-be social reformers. Is it still? Should it be? Why might those who wish to promote important reform in a developed democracy imagine that a career in criminal justice would be a means to that end?
We think that trying to answer such questions is an important window into the strategic importance of limits on punishment in modern government and society. There were 30 years ago and are now two reasons why criminal justice might be considered an attractive subject for the aspiring law reformer. First, those processed through institutions of crime control and punishment are usually among the most disadvantaged of citizens— poor, members of minority groups, failures in education and employment.
But in this respect, criminal justice is depressingly similar to public welfare and public health systems. This feature of criminal justice in developed nations does not make the criminal process into a specially attractive area for needed reforms. If one wants to helpthe poor, AIDS is far more important than prison reform. Education and job training are the vital engines of economic mobility. The criminal justice system is not a vehicle of social progress.
But the second respect in which the treatment of criminals is of special importance to the reformer is central to our thesis: criminals are the most feared and resented of a society's citizens. Public hatred of crime and criminals invites the use of extreme forms of governmental power to suppress and punish criminals.