Introduction to critical criminology
Introduction to critical criminology

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Introduction to critical criminology

Governing through crime

Jonathan Simon is an American Professor of Law. In 2007 he published a book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, in which he argued that the US ‘War on Crime’ should be understood not as a straightforward, practical policy response to the social problem of crime, but as a much broader strategy of governance.

In the short video below, Simon outlines some of his central ideas on the function that the War on Crime has served for successive US governments. Rather than asking politicians and policymakers how government can tackle the problem of crime, Simon turns this on its head by asking if there isn’t in fact a governmental problem to which crime offers a solution. Simon suggests that by focusing on punishing crime – rather than tackling its very complex root causes, such as poverty – governments frame social problems in ways that appear to have simpler solutions, and in terms of which they can more easily claim success. Simon thus refocuses our attention, moving it away from thinking about the problem of crime in terms of the misdeeds of individuals. Instead, he encourages us to question the fundamental terms on which the debate is predicated and to ask how those terms might serve the interests of those with the power to define them.

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Transcript: Governing through crime

Jonathan Simon
… I really wanted to try to change the frame with which we think about the ‘War on Crime’. I think both liberals and conservatives – people who thought the war was going well, people who wanted to reform it – had the view that we had sort of a crime problem and then the question was, ‘what could government do about it, was it doing the right things?’ Maybe too much prison, too little drug treatment for some; maybe too lenient a sentence and too much welfare spending for others. And I wanted to foot that around and say: maybe we have a governmental problem, to which crime is the solution and that really is the focus of the book, in a sense. That American government, beginning in the late 60s in particular, went through a tremendous crisis of legitimacy. It’s basic mechanisms of rule that had worked fairly well from the New Deal on were in a state of crisis and crime became really a pivotal problem around which it could sort of re-legitimise itself, offer new modes of rule and also find a new way, in a sense, to meet popular concerns that weren’t vulnerable to the kind of welfarist problems that had begun to undermine the credibility of the welfare state.
[…]
First of all it gave government a way to be relevant to people all over the country at a time when a, specially compared to the, you know, that the work that the New Deal had done in the 30s and 40s. You know, redressing massive unemployment, you know, building roads. The kind of things that had been the routine success of government for a good 30 years to that point had for, variety of reasons, become less tenable. And the ‘War on Crime’ made government a relevant actor all over the country. And it’s important to remember in that regard that crime was not an illusion. I mean the violent crime rate roughly doubled from the beginning of the 60s to the end. And particularly the most alarming kinds of crime like street robberies, homicides. And so there was a very clear sense of public need on this issue. And while the Johnson administration had attempted to frame that as a need to really intensify the ‘War on Poverty’, with Richard Nixon, we began to see crime as the primary way in which government may try to ameliorate these concerns. Or I should say that repressing crime as a way that government could be able to make citizens lives more secure.
[…]
I think one of the ways in which governing through crime has helped government legitimise itself is by producing an activity that they could do rather well. Right. And if you think about what say the welfare state was attempting to accomplish in the 1960’s – eradicate poverty, address you know fundamental theories of education, take criminals and rehabilitate them, which was the goal – those are admirable goals, but they’re very hard goals. And it’s very hard to see, in a sort of measured period of time, how much progress you’re making. But if your goal is to build a prison, fill it with people and keep ‘em in there, that’s something government can do rather well. We’ve been building structures for thousands of years and we’re pretty good at it. Government even is pretty good at it. We can fill prisons by giving prosecutors the laws that they need to send people to prison for a long time. And prisons were actually pretty effective at stopping people from escaping. I mean, in the 19th century, there were more escapes. But, by and large, once you put a prisoner into prison they stay there until you release them. So, in a sense, prison was a nice little advertisement for the idea that government works. I mean, as long as you think that the prison is doing something good. The other thing about prison is that and, again, go back to that, those sort of welfare state model, which was the sort of the alternative for government in the 1960’s. One of the big criticisms of the welfare state is that it was too particularistic. Some people were getting welfare benefits, not others. Some people were getting inexpensive higher education, not others. Some people were getting public jobs and not others. But crime control, at least in its own terms, offers what seems like a nearly universal public good. If we lock a person up – so that we can deter other people from committing crimes or so that we can incapacitate that person from committing crimes – we seem to be producing a kind of security force-field that spreads over all of society. Now, of course that’s very false. And, for reasons we’ve been talking about concentration, incarcerations as heavily concentrated in some communities and it’s having a very negative impact on those communities. But it at least appears to be a general public good that government can produce for everybody and that isn’t as susceptible to accusations of special interests or unfairness.
End transcript: Governing through crime
Governing through crime
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