The death penalty is not simply the most serious criminal punishment. It has been a singular social, legal, and moral problem in the Western world over the past two hundred years. Capital punishment is disappearing from every nation in the West except the United States. No political science of capital punishment in the United States has been attempted until this book. Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins offer a redefinition of the central political and legal issues and a re-examination of the whole subject in the light of the social, political, and moral conditions of the United States in the 1980s. Lawyers, criminologists, political scientists, and motivated general readers will find the profile of a United States pursuing an active execution policy in the 1980s and 1990s to be an original and compelling contribution to the discussion of the future of the death penalty. Zimring and Hawkins's prediction for future policy, while based on historical precedent, is in sharp contrast to conventional wisdom about the United States Supreme Court. This book was first published in 1986.
A troubling analysis of the current slate of captial punishment in the United States that provides useful information but displays a fundamental antidemocratic bias. In the 1970's, the United States entered a dark age in the history of capital punishment, according to Zimring and Hawkins. Previous trends toward abolition were reversed. State legislatures, responding with hostility to a Supreme Court ruling that, in effect, had ended the death penalty, passed laws reconstituting it. Public opinion, fearful of the chaos that might have ensued without capital punishment, eagerly supported its reimposition. The consequence was the largest inflation of death-row prisoners in American history, the capricious execution of only a few criminals, and the adoption of lethal injection as a new form of execution that was supposed to humanize death. Zimring and Hawkins rightly condemn these developments, and they are informative and persuasive in their efforts to explain why they have come about. However, when they try to establish the moral grounds for the removal of capital punishment, they lapse into hackneyed liberal phrases: capital punishment violates "progressive trends," flies in the face of "the neccesity of living up to history's demand," conflicts "with the democratic belief in the personal value and dignity of the common man," symbolizes the unlimited power of government over human beings. The most concrete basis for attacking capital punishment - the way it strikes at minorities and the poor - the authors play down. Even more disturbing, Zimring and Hawkins argue that because the majority of people always have embraced capital punishment, they cannot be trusted to determine the course of change. Only strong Federal intervention will serve; only elite leadership, emanating from the Supreme Court, from the state and federal executive, and from such "opinion-leading elites" as doctors and lawyers, will stem the tide. Here, Zimring and Hawkins contradict their democratic rhetoric with an agenda of abolition imposed through centralized and nondemocratic methods. And they never explain why these elites are any more trustworthy than the people they serve. (Kirkus Reviews)