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Sunday, March 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:16 A.M.

Norval Morris, 80, leading criminologist

By Wolfgang Saxon
The New York Times

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Norval Morris, 80, long a prominent criminologist at the University of Chicago, former dean of its law school and a strong voice for criminal-justice reform, died Feb. 21 in Chicago. He lived in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood, near the campus.

He collapsed after dinner at a restaurant, apparently of a heart attack, a university spokesman said.

In an academic career that lasted 55 years, the last 40 of them at Chicago, Mr. Morris became an internationally known expert on criminal-justice systems. He published 15 books and hundreds of articles, and was founding director of the law school's Center for Studies in Criminal Justice.

His outspoken skepticism about the social value of routine incarceration, and criticism of the American prison system in particular, drew anger at a time when legislators were turning to stiffer sentences. In 1978, his nomination to head the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration was withdrawn by President Carter after a first, acrimonious hearing on Capitol Hill.

Some senators, and the National Rifle Association as well, were especially critical of his support for strict gun licensing. But his opponents also focused on a book he had written with Gordon Hawkins, "The Honest Politician's Guide to Crime Control" (University of Chicago Press, 1970), which advocated an end to criminal penalties for what it called victimless crimes, like public drunkenness, gambling and various sex acts.

In another book, "Madness and the Criminal Law" (University of Chicago Press, 1983), Mr. Morris, maintaining that the courts' power to imprison should not overlap with a power to commit, sided with those who wanted to do away with insanity as a ground for acquittal. Rather, he argued, mental incompetence should be given only as much mitigating consideration as blindness or any other handicap.

Mr. Morris had more recently turned to writing novels with criminal-justice themes. "The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of the Law" (Oxford University Press, 1992) recalled an inquiry he headed in the 1950s into capital punishment in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The book was a fictional reconstruction of the experience of Eric Blair (the real name of George Orwell, who in fact served in the colonial police force in Burma) as a policeman and magistrate in Burma, now Myanmar.

Another novel, "Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform" (Oxford, 2001) is the story of a British naval captain who transforms a brutal penal colony into a model of enlightened reform.

Mr. Morris was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on Oct. 1, 1923. He served in the Australian army in World War II and then received two law degrees from the University of Melbourne, as well as a doctorate in criminology, in 1949, from the London School of Economics.

After starting his academic career in London, he became a professor of criminology at Melbourne in 1955. He also taught at Harvard and was law dean at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and director of the United Nations Institute for the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders in Tokyo.

He joined the University of Chicago in 1964, was dean of the law school from 1975 to 1979, and at his death was Julius Kreeger emeritus professor of law and criminology.

Mr. Morris is survived by his wife of 57 years, Elaine Richardson Morris; three sons, Gareth and Malcolm, both of Chicago, and Christopher, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and three grandchildren.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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