To be politically effective, elected officials believe they must be tough on crime. Simon writes, "Simply put, to be for the people, legislators must be for the 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."
As part of the war on crime, according to Simon, "Americans have built a new civil and political order structured around the problem of violent crime. In this new order, values like freedom and equality have been revised in ways that would have been shocking, if obviously unimaginable, in the late 1960s, and new forms of power institutionalized and embraced — all in the name of repressing seemingly endless waves of violent crime." This new civil and political order is, following Simon, a modern era of "governing through crime," making crime, and particularly the fear of it, the rationale for laws and policies which have resulted in mass incarceration — over 2 million Americans in prison.
"Governing through crime" is a challenging description of the politics and administration of the so-called "carceral state." Unlike "governing crime" — the ordinary work of the police, the courts and the penal system, particularly as they deal with those who break the law — "governing through crime" is the politics and administration of mass incarceration.
Governing through crime has resulted in mass imprisonment noted by its scale, its categorical (racial) application, and its increasingly warehouse-like or waste management-like qualities. Simon says: "The distinctive new form and function of the prison today is a space of pure custody, a human warehouse or even a kind of social waste management facility. ... The waste management prison promises no transformation of the prisoner through penitence, discipline, intimidation, or therapy."
What has governing through crime done to government? "Whether one values American democracy for its liberty or its equality-enhancing features, governing through crime has been bad. First, the vast reorienting of fiscal and administrative resources toward the criminal justice system at both the federal and state levels has resulted in a shift aptly described as transformation from the ‘welfare state' to the ‘penal state.'"
There are glimmers of hope. After a decade of stunning growth in prison inmates, the Texas legislature decided it was time for a change. Drug treatment is being expanded, parole practices are being reformed, parole boards are adjusting to earlier release dates, and special drug courts are being established, all designed to slow the growth of incarceration. To reduce parole violation-based reincarceration, Kansas is making grants to community corrections agencies for parolee training and monitoring, and is setting guidelines to assist judges and officers in revocation decisions. Nevada is recalibrating good time served to reduce sentences. And, there are many other examples. Nevertheless, American penal practices are abysmal, an affront to democracy and to justice.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Governing through Crime
I've been hearing good things about the book Governing through Crime, by Jonathon Simon, and was interested to see this review in Governing Magazine, which actually holds Texas up as a "glimmer of hope" against the trends described in the book, which may sound familiar to regular Grits readers:
Posted by Gritsforbreakfast at 3:47 PM