A-Plus: Professor Franklin Zimring Wins Criminology’s Top International Award

November 8, 2019
By: Gwyneth K. Shaw
Professor Franklin Zimring
Professor Franklin Zimring

A pioneering scholar in the study of violent crime for half a century, Berkeley Law Professor Franklin Zimring has won the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, the field’s top international honor. 

Zimring shares this year’s prize (about $150,000) with Duke University economist Philip Cook, who earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. The University of Stockholm has bestowed the honor since 2005. 

“Their innovations have helped to produce a wide body of evidence that falsifies the claim that gun availability is irrelevant to the volume of gun injuries,” the award committee says in a press release. “Their influence has guided an entire generation of gun injury scholarship, strengthening the evidence for governments to take more effective action against the massive suffering caused by guns.”

Zimring, who joined the Berkeley Law faculty permanently in 1985 after more than 15 years at the University of Chicago Law School, is delighted to share the honor with Cook. Both have done pathbreaking work examining the role of weapons—particularly guns—in crime, as well as the attempts to curtail it. 

“This was a recognition of two long-standing pioneers in violence studies at a point in time when we worry about becoming elderly and irrelevant,” Zimring says. 

For Emeritus Professor Malcolm Feeley, the only surprise is that Zimring didn’t get the award sooner. 

“I know half a dozen or more of the people who’ve received the prize, and I kept thinking, “‘When is it going to be Frank’s time?’’’ he says. 

Leading the way on the study of violence

Beginning in the 1960s, Zimring has used empirical methods to assert that guns make violence more deadly. In a groundbreaking 1972 article, he showed the size of the bullet hole essentially determined whether a shooting victim lived or died. The award committee cited his seminal 1999 book with Gordon Hawkins, Crime is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, which compared the patterns of crime and violence in the United States with those of other developed countries.

Book Cover

“We found there were just as many burglars and thieves in London as there are in New York City, and just as many assaults in Los Angeles as in Sydney,” Zimring says. “But what was singular about America wasn’t the number of criminals or the amount of crime. It was the death rate from criminal violence.”

The committee also noted another book, The City That Became Safe, that drills into the data around the astonishing drop in New York City’s violent crime rate in the 1990s and early 2000s. Zimring argues that putting more police resources in high-crime neighborhoods—and not the so-called “broken windows” theory of policing—sparked the changes. 

“You have to go where the crime rates are highest, and of course that’s exactly what they did with stunning success,” he says. “It was good news, but it was widely misunderstood. All you can do is research and write books, you can’t make people read them.”

Feeley says he’s lost track of the number of times he’s read a Zimring article, book, or draft and thought, “that’s obvious, everybody knows that”—before realizing it’s not the case.

“What he’s done is convinced me it’s obvious because he’s overwhelmed me with evidence. That’s the mark of the very best scholarship, and his work does that again and again,” Feeley says. “Frank has a genius for identifying an important problem around which there’s muddled thought and just drilling in and clarifying it, and out comes some stunning observations.” 

University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald agrees. Zimring essentially pioneered the study of gun violence, he says, and blazed a path for other criminologists by using methods that were then new to the field.

MacDonald also hails his “ability to look at policy issues with a skeptical lens, and then go find data to question the standard beliefs. You can see that throughout his career. That has, I think, shaped multiple generations of criminologists, so that when they see a policy change, they question whether the consequences of those policy changes are what people think they are.”

Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon, a student in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program (J.S.P.) when he first met Zimring, calls him a leader in pointing out flaws in the criminal justice system.

“Criminology is a field with a problematic history of abetting racism, going back to eugenics and the pursuit of born criminals. Even in contemporary times, criminologists have been quick to accept police arrest statistics at face value and slow to question the racial concentration of law enforcement. Not so Zimring,” Simon says. “From the beginning of what we now call the ‘war on crime,’ he has called attention to the racial disparities and discriminations involved in juvenile and criminal justice expansion.”

A passion for Ph.Ds

The field of empirical legal studies has grown tremendously since the early days of Zimring’s career, and he’s more committed than ever to its importance. 

“You can’t do decent policy without answering basic questions about cause and effect,” he says. “The empirical study of what our problems are, and the empirical assessment of efforts to combat them, are fundamentally important to decent legal policy.”

The J.S.P., a deeply interdisciplinary doctoral program, is one of the reasons Berkeley Law has been such a rewarding home for him, Zimring says. 

“Yes, it’s important to train lawyers and legislators, but there is a particular need for skilled empirical legal academics. The J.S.P. at Berkeley is a singular and very important center for the training of scholars who are substantive experts and equipped with the skills of empirical research,” Zimring says. “It’s a chance to reproduce the capacity to do this work in periods of time when you’re not going to be present to lead the band. The closest we can come to immortality is to train Ph.D.s.”

In fact, Zimring was first recruited to Berkeley Law in the mid-1970s, when legendary professors Sanford Kadish and Philip Selznick were trying to launch the J.S.P. program. Zimring declined then, but when the school came calling again in the early 1980s, “it made what would have been attractive irresistible.” 

“What it promised was a relevance for the kind of work I was doing as part of the central training mission of the institution,” says Zimring, who also led the school’s Earl Warren Legal Institute from 1983 to 2002. “The J.S.P. is not a huge program, but it’s fabulously important—not only to this school and this institution, but to the enterprise of policy research in law.”

Zimring’s influence has been outsized, Feeley says. 

“Law is basically an empirical enterprise—you’re making claims about what people do and why they do it—but there has not been a long tradition of empirical work in law,” he says. “Increasingly, law schools are coming around, and Frank has played a role in that development. He’s a law-trained person who understood you need to have facts to make arguments. He’s contributed to that for 50 years.” 

While Zimring has been working in this field for decades, it remains a ripe area for criminologists interested in policy, he says. 

“Even though the news on American violence has been better in this century than in the last, these turn out to be chronic problems, and so the concerns of the 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s continue to be the concerns of the organization of interdependent civilizations in the 21st century,” he says. “The importance of the problems is not something that’s been fading with progress in the developed world.”