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Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, by Jonathan Simon (Oxford University Press 2007), 344 pages

Review by Ian Head

This past spring, a 12-year-old student in Queens, New York was arrested, handcuffed and taken to a local precinct for doodling on her desk during class. Paraded out of the building in tears by police, this was just the latest in a string of horrific incidents that led the New York Civil Liberties Union to file a class-action lawsuit regarding police in schools.

But it would probably not surprise author and professor Jonathan Simon. In his book Governing Through Crime, he writes that schools are one of many parts of American society governed through the idea, and fear, of crime – in this case, the “crime” of damaging school property. Discussing the “zero tolerance” policies that have been increasingly put in place in schools across the country, Simon writes, “The right to go to school in a safe environment has been transformed from a set of expectations for administrators to a zero-sum game between aggressors who are criminals or criminals in the making, and their victims – a shifting group consisting of everyone not stigmatized already as a criminal.”

Simon shows that this “zero-sum game” where “criminals” are opposed to a shifting group of “victims” is pervasive in American society beyond just schools. He begins the book reminding us that “since all legal authority ultimately rests on the threat of lawful violence within the criminal law, all governance is ‘through’ the implied threat of making resistance at some stage a ‘crime.’” In other words, ideas of crime and violence have always been part of the American legal system. Recognizing that, Simon attempts to demonstrate that when President Lyndon Johnson took the lead in the 1960s with his “war on crime,” and specifically the “Safe Streets Act,” our society began moving to ramp up crime as the priority in how we are governed today.

Simon shows that, more and more, Americans see much of their life through a “criminal” lens. What gained traction first through the legal system has crept into all dynamics of how we interact in our everyday lives, whether it be at work, in our relationships with loved ones or how news is presented to us on television.

He begins with his own analysis of the courts. Noting that “from the mid-1970s, [courts] have turned out a broad body of law favoring the government’s power to punish,” he believes the power of judges within the legal system has been decreased and replaced by the “valorization of prosecutors, police and victims.” While he makes several interesting points about the ability of prosecutors to hold judges “in check,” it still seems hard to sympathize with most judges, no matter what political pressures they may face. However, Simon’s points about the significance of “crime victims” are incredibly prescient. He writes:

[The] crime victim [is] the central figure to which the government must respond ... governing agents in the executive and legislative modes have forged pathways by which to route their own power and knowledge to and through the victim. Governors in many states can use their power to slow or stop parole of violent criminals. Legislatures can enact reams of new laws, lengthen prison sentences, and strip convicted criminals of more aspects of their dignity or well-being.

Simon sees the late 1960s as the jump-off point of this criminal-versus-victim dynamic in governance. He writes that “to be for the people, legislators must be for victims and law enforcement, and ... never be for criminals or prisoners as individuals or as a class.” This dynamic is used throughout the book, both abstractly and specifically in all kinds of situations. Simon’s point isn’t that the federal government suddenly created a massive new system of penalties or expansion of the prison system, but that the “representational system the [Safe Streets Act] modeled” has led to these kinds of systems being put into place.

Simon then points to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 as the next major step in furthering criminal governance. He notes that “with crime the most visible and measurable phenomenon around, it becomes possible to legislate on ever more detailed aspects of it, even in the absence of a convincing strategy of control.” He goes on to show how politicians were so obsessed with “victims” that they created a maze of hypocritical situations, where people could be designated as criminals on one hand because of their immigrant status, but then protected as a victim due to a domestic dispute. It further shows how amorphous the idea of who the government is “protecting” really is.

Simon notes that both these laws were passed by so-called liberals and endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, each of which got to look “tough on crime” through different sets of measures, whether it be the death penalty or increasing the police force.
Additionally, he touches on the interwoven issues of race and class, and how each is talked about – usually through coded language – by both policy makers and the law itself.

Simon has packed his book with analysis and examples – most chapters include at least one “case study” to showcase not only one specific argument, but how multiple points intertwine with each other. He is especially good at breaking down what seem like simple statements or ideas. For example, he spends a few pages discussing each word used in Lyndon Johnson’s one-sentence signing statement. Juxtaposing the phrases “local neighborhood” and “city streets,” Simon gives a glimpse into how politicians use simple language to convey ideas about class, race and crime – what is the difference between “local neighborhoods” and “city streets?” Who lives on each? What are the pre-supposed assumptions of what takes place on each?

Occasionally, Simon’s writing drifts into a kind of academics-only landscape, with run-on sentences that don’t completely make sense. Some of his examples are stronger than others, and parts of the book might have been streamlined a bit. For example, his use of the “war on cancer” in comparison to other policy “wars” (such as the “war on crime” or the “war on poverty”) didn’t really hold much weight. However, his use of cancer as a metaphor in talking about the pervasiveness of the “war on crime” worked well.

Ultimately, the book is more focused on analyzing how American society is “governed through crime” than proposing much of a remedy for it. Simon’s brief conclusion, written sometime around late 2005, offers hopeful prospects that read depressingly today, such as “the awakening of American journalism and social science” to issues of mass imprisonment, or the “success” of the 9-11 Commission.

But rather than focus on his conclusions, the strength of the book is how it speaks to a framework of crime in our society. While many may know, often firsthand, how we are governed through crime, it is sometimes hard to exactly articulate. His focus on the “zero sum game” of victims and criminals isn’t about making light of the violence and problems within our society, but about seriously examining the ways the power structure frames how we talk and judge each other and the damage it is doing to everyone. In the passage below, while discussing both the 1968 and 1994 Acts that much of the book focuses on, Simon sums up this idea well:

These laws are also important for the real impetus they provide for more people to partake of the powerful public confirmation that awaits their taking up and affirming the identity as crime victim. These mechanisms are state-sponsored ways to reproduce a certain kind of victim voice that has been promoted by the victim’s rights movement, one of extremity, anger and vengeance. This has important representational consequences within the larger logic of the victim as idealized political subject. To the extent that activist victims define the victim subject position more generally, lawmaking will systematically favor vengeance and ritualized rage over crime prevention and fear reduction.

The fact that 12-year-olds are being arrested for wielding Magic Markers on their desks shows how necessary it is to change the way we govern in this society. Simon’s book gives us a way to talk about it and ideas of where to start.

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