David Garland - March 1, 2012

March 1, 2012 | 4:00pm-6:00pm | Engineering 285/287

David Garland, Author, T. Vanderbuilt Professor of Law
New York University School of Law

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Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition

The U.S. death penalty is a peculiar institution, and a uniquely American one. Despite its comprehensive abolition elsewhere in the Western world, capital punishment continues in dozens of American states– a fact that is frequently discussed but rarely understood. The same puzzlement surrounds the peculiar form that American capital punishment now takes, with its uneven application, its seemingly endless delays, and the uncertainty of its ever being carried out in individual cases, none of which seem conducive to effective crime control or criminal justice. In a brilliantly provocative study, David Garland explains this tenacity and shows how death penalty practice has come to bear the distinctive hallmarks of America’s political institutions and cultural conflicts.America’s radical federalism and local democracy, as well as its legacy of violence and racism, account for our divergence from the rest of the West. Whereas the elites of other nations were able to impose nationwide abolition from above despite public objections, American elites are unable– and unwilling– to end a punishment that has the support of local majorities and a storied place in popular culture.

In the course of hundreds of decisions, federal courts sought to rationalize and civilize an institution that too often resembled a lynching, producing layers of legal process but also delays and reversals. Yet the Supreme Court insists that the issue is to be decided by local political actors and public opinion. So the death penalty continues to respond to popular will, enhancing the power of criminal justice professionals, providing drama for the media, and bringing pleasure to a public audience who consumes its chilling tales.

Garland brings a new clarity to our understanding of this peculiar institution– and a new challenge to supporters and opponents alike.


About the Author

David Garland is Professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University. His areas of research include the American death penalty, legal institutions of punishment and control, history and sociology of criminological knowledge, the welfare state, and social theory.

Professor Garland has been J.S. Guggenheim Fellow in 2006-2007, Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1997, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is also a founding editor of “Edinburgh Law Review” and a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Punishment and Society”. David Garland is the author of Punishment and Welfare: A History of Penal Strategies (Gower, 1987), Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory (The University of Chicago Press, 1993), The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Oxford University Press, 2001), and Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2010).

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News Stories

March 4, 2012: Death Penalty Panel with David Garland Explores Feasibility of Aged Ideology