Saturday, October 31, 2009


Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. By Jonathan Simon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. 330. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Jeannine Bell in Law & Society Review [reposted from BNET]

In Governing through Crime, Simon explores the state's exploitation of ordinary Americans' fears about crime and security over the past four decades. In arguing that a variety of state actors govern though crime, Simon meticulously traces the development of the so-called war on crime from its creation during the Johnson Administration through the contemporary war on terrorism. Simon-who selfconsciously attempts to provoke debate on the negative consequences of American leaders' focus on crime-aims to depict the culture of fear that has been created around crime and its implications for American life and American democracy in a variety of contexts.

The book's first four chapters, "Power, Authority, and Criminal Law," "Prosecutor-in-Chief," "We Are the Victims," and 'Judgment and Distrust," display the structural, historical, and theoretical basis for governing through crime. After setting out some of the most visible attributes of the war on crime in Chapter 1-crime rate and imprisonment statistics and the structural arrangement of power in the regulation of crime-in Chapter 2, Simon outlines the metamorphosis of executive power in the form of presidents' and state governors' quest to define themselves and their objectives in relation to crime. He tracks the executive branch's prosecution complex from the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson first declared a "war on crime" as part of his Great Society through the second President Bush's war on terrorism. Simon convincingly argues that the changes implemented as a result of governing through crime have not necessarily increased security. Rather, governors' and presidents' shouldering of the mantle of the prosecutor has increased spending on crime control and has also expanded criminal sanctions while creating powerful vulnerabilities.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Simon explores the impact of the war on crime on legislatures and courts. Chapter 3 explores legislators' manipulation of the public's fear of crime. Simon contends that at the federal level, governing through crime in the contemporary period originated with the Safe Streets Act of 1968. Among other things, this act changed the rules of evidence and authorized new federal funding for law enforcement, corrections, and courts. This legislation, according to Simon, created a harsh but lasting representational legacy that "to be for the people, legislators must be for victims and law enforcement, and thus they must never be for (or capable of being portrayed as being for) criminals or prisoners as individuals or as a class" (p. 100). The next chapter addresses the jurisprudence of crime, beginning with the Warren Court's criminal procedure revolution and continuing through its rollback during the Burger and Rehnquist courts. Simon suggests that American courts at both the federal and state level have reacted to the war on crime by ceding power to the executive branch, thereby sacrificing individual liberty. According to Simon, this is in part based on the trust that the executive will make the appropriate trade-off.

The last three chapters of the book provide case studies exploring the effects of the war on crime on domestic relations, education, and the workplace. Chapter 6, "Governing Domestic Relations through Crime," presents how the family has been transformed by the state's responses to domestic violence, child custody, juvenile delinquency, and public housing crime. This chapter describes myriad overlapping threats to the family and the ways in which the state has come to prioritize the family as a locus of crime and criminals. In the next chapter, on education, Simon maintains that with respect to schools, our energy and focus have been centered on crime, with little attention paid to the actual scope of the problem of school violence. School administrators have employed in-school detention, zero-tolerance policies, and other penal mechanisms in a way that mirrors the war on crime outside the classroom.

In the most interesting of the three case studies, on crime victimization and punishment in the workplace, Simon examines the history of employers using the criminal law to control their workers. He also describes how civil rights law and, barring that, violence, has become a tool of employee resistance. In the wake of such developments, he claims, the workplace has been transformed by employers' needs to screen prospective and current employees not just for fraud and drugs, but also for violent behavior.

Simon's provocative book is most notable for its emphasis on the ways in which fear of crime and the manipulation of crime affects middle- and upper-class white Americans. Although Simon readily acknowledges that minorities and the poor are governed through crime, regrettably he focuses only very briefly on the impact of the war on crime on marginalized citizens. Greater attention to the extent to which the lives of racial and ethnic minorities are circumscribed by excesses in policing, criminal sentencing, and incarceration would have strengthened the book. Nevertheless, Simon's purpose is to show the ways in which the war on crime has led to vulnerabilities in areas we do not usually contemplate. In exposing the ways in which manipulating the fear of crime has reshaped American private life, Simon's book makes a valuable contribution to the law and society literature.