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Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (Studies in Crime and Public Policy) [Paperback]

by Jonathan Simon
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 8, 2009 0195386019 978-0195386011 1
Across America today gated communities sprawl out from urban centers, employers enforce mandatory drug testing, and schools screen students with metal detectors. Social problems ranging from welfare dependency to educational inequality have been reconceptualized as crimes, with an attendant focus on assigning fault and imposing consequences. Even before the recent terrorist attacks, non-citizen residents had become subject to an increasingly harsh regime of detention and deportation, and prospective employees subjected to background checks. How and when did our everyday world become dominated by fear, every citizen treated as a potential criminal?

In this startlingly original work, Jonathan Simon traces this pattern back to the collapse of the New Deal approach to governing during the 1960s when declining confidence in expert-guided government policies sent political leaders searching for new models of governance. The War on Crime offered a ready solution to their problem: politicians set agendas by drawing analogies to crime and redefined the ideal citizen as a crime victim, one whose vulnerabilities opened the door to overweening government intervention. By the 1980s, this transformation of the core powers of government had spilled over into the institutions that govern daily life. Soon our schools, our families, our workplaces, and our residential communities were being governed through crime.

This powerful work concludes with a call for passive citizens to become engaged partners in the management of risk and the treatment of social ills. Only by coming together to produce security, can we free ourselves from a logic of domination by others, and from the fear that currently rules our everyday life.

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Editorial Reviews


"Ambitious and carefully reasoned... thought-provoking... argues that what sociologists are calling "mass imprisonment" (because such a large portion of the population is now involved) signals not only a new approach to managing crime, but to managing society... The most innovative sections of his book, however, outline how an increasingly insular, risk averse, and punitive social ethic has reshaped not only how the other half lives but how the top half does as well."--Boston Review

"Every thoughtful citizen should confront the arguments that are so lucidly presented in this book. Highly recommended." --CHOICE

"In Governing through Crime, Jonathan Simon powerfully and persuasively argues that America's obsession with crime has touched, indeed distorted, the fundamental building blocks of our democratic society. According to this sweeping analysis, our conception of the centrality of crime in American life has redefined the powers of government, the role of families and schools, and the place of the individual in society. This disturbing and provocative treatise should command the attention of scholars, opinion leaders, and policymakers who aspire to create a more tolerant and open future for this country."--Jeremy Travis, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

"For historians, this book will one day be a valuable primary source."--Law and History Review

"Distinguished legal scholar Jonathan Simon here challenges us to confront the consequences for liberal democracy of the move in the U.S. towards the exercise of ever more executive authority--from the presidency and the institutions of state through schools and families. Governing through Crime, argues Simon with unrelenting cogency, is a response to risk and fear spun out of control, a response that erodes social trust and, with it, the very scaffolding of a 'free' society. An invaluable addition to the literature in critical criminology, this is a volume that ought to be read by anyone who seeks to understand the present and future of governance in the USA--and elsewhere."--John Comaroff, Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago

"Jonathan Simon has pioneered a new approach to the study of the politics of crime control, and this book should confirm his place as one of the outstanding criminologists of his generation. Governing through Crime, is a major contribution and deserves to make an impact throughout the social and political sciences."--Nikolas Rose, Martin White Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science

"This is an impressive work. The book's great strength is its integration of a wide range of research on political science, law, and sociology, with journalistic accounts of current and recent politics. Topics from mass imprisonment, school "zero tolerance" policies, and the shortcomings of the Supreme Court in achieving the goals of Brown v. Board of Education have all been written about extensively. But I know of no other work that so effectively uncovers ways that these issues are connected to a changing relationship between citizens and their government."--The Law and Politics Book Review

"What makes Simon's work stand out is his treatment of how the government's configuration of the crime problem, with its strong emphasis on 'personal responsibility and will over social context' (p.25) and its penchant for punishment of individuals, has penetrated other institutional spheres of American life, notably work, school, and family life... His book stands out as the most important and most readable treatment to date on the overreach of crime and our emergence, in part, as a society gripped by the language of crime and the technologies of criminal justice."--Political Science Quarterly

About the Author

Jonathan Simon is Associate Dean of Jurisprudence and Social Policy and Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Co-editor of the journal Punishment & Society, he is also the author of Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890-1990 and co-editor of two other volumes.

Product Details

  • Series: Studies in Crime and Public Policy
  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (May 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195386019
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195386011
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #204,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a brilliant analysis June 2, 2007
How is it that the American state continues to grow in a politically conservative age? Professor Simon argues that the growth of federal crime control policy is the key to understanding this phenomenon. Beginning in the 1960s, and continuing through to century's end, the willingness of national politicians to assume responsibility for crime fighting and the establishment of social order has allowed the federal government to grow, even after Americans grew to doubt the ability of Washington D.C. to solve social and economic problems in the wake of the Great Society. Conservative Chief Executives promised to use the powers of the federal government to stop crime and social disorder and to secure Americans from all manner of threats to life and property. The fact that crime was in fact rising in the 1960s and 1970s gave the crime issue the needed salience to make crime control a seemingly legitimate policy goal for Washington D.C.

Professor Simon excavates how the image and substance of crime fighting proved to be manna for the continued aggrandizement of executive power in the American federal state. Also, conservative politicians in both parties worked in the legislative branch to delegate powers in crime fighting to the President, as well as governors, mayors and district attorneys at the state and local level. For Simon, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 was the key legislative template for this process; thus, that act ranks right up with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as one of the most important laws of the decade, though most Americans have never heard of it.

Simon covers this process in the first half of the book. That is his explanation for the modern American state. What about modern American society?
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've read plenty of books that deal with questions of the growth of mass incarceration and surveillance in US society, the 'culture of fear' paranoia that defines much of our popular political culture, etc. and so I thought this book would mainly cover familiar material. But I was wrong. Jonathan Simon offers a fresh interpretation of these developments. Central to the development of 'governing through crime' is the emergence of the crime victim as the central figure around which political debate revolves, and the identification of supporting police/prisons/death penalty with solidarity with that victim. Simon shows how this has raised the profile (and political power) of prosecutors and governors (most of our presidents recently, in part because of their ability to wield the death penalty). On the other hand, this development has thrown the judiciary on the defensive, as it is perceived as an obstacle to victim's righteous vengeance through their representatives, the police. Simon also deals with the way crime has defined the governance of families, schools, and, perhaps most originally, workplaces. In the latter, as unions have collapsed, charges of the crime of discrimination have become one of the few recourses workers have against employer power. At the same time, employers treat workers as potentially dangerous criminals who may be responsible for violence in the workplace. Simon ends by tying the logic and limits of governing through crime to the failings of the US in stopping, and later reacting to, the attacks of 9-11.

Simon does not have much to say about the economic changes that have accompanied and been intertwined with the practice of governing through crime. For that you should read Christian Parenti's Lockdown America or Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag. Nevertheless, this book should also definitely be on your reading list to understand this disturbing trend.
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1 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring! February 6, 2012
By Rachel
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
We used this in a Criminal class and I just about died at how stinkin boring of a read this is! Phew, glad that one is over.
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