by Jonathan Simon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 344pp. Hardback. $29.95/£17.99. ISBN: 9780195181081.

Reviewed by Philip Kronebusch, Department of Political Science, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict. Pkronebusch [at]


At present, the dramatic increase, since the 1980s, of people in prison in the United States has been well established. Jonathan Simon, associate dean of Jurisprudence and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, aims not to demonstrate this again, but to argue that the goals of government have shifted in the past four decades. We do not simply imprison more people. We now govern through crime in ways that have altered American democracy and reconstituted American citizens.

While governments generally seek to protect their subjects from random threats of violence, the phrase “governing through crime” means more than the outlawing of various threats. By this phrase, Simon means that crime has become a significant strategic issue across a large number of political campaigns; that a number of social problems are now re-conceptualized as criminal problems; and that “the technologies, discourses, and metaphors of crime and criminal justice” (p.4) are used by used by government to legitimate further interventions into matters that had not, up to that point, been thought to be criminal. American democracy has become “deformed” because the crime victim has become “a dominant model of the citizen as representative of the common person” (p.7). In Simon’s argument, the politicization of crime becomes the means by which the goals of FDR’s New Deal and of civil rights advocates are thwarted.

The first half of the book develops the author’s thesis by examining changes seen in the past few decades in the use of executive, legislative, and judicial power at both the state and federal levels in the United States. In the chapter on executive power, Simon traces the changing uses of the issue of crime that are made by state governors, US presidents, and US attorneys general.

The politicization of crime at the federal level occurs irrespective of political party. Nixon’s emphasis on crime is well-known, but Simon names Robert Kennedy as the official “who more than any other executive of the 1960s forged a path toward governing through crime” (p.49) in his role as head of a Department of Justice that emphasized crime as a problem that required federal intervention.

Paradoxically, the Supreme Court, in FURMAN v. GEORGIA, by declaring unconstitutional the then-current use of the death penalty, reinvigorated support for the death penalty among candidates [*573] for governor in many states. The FURMAN decision created the opportunity for governors and candidates for governor to make re-establishment of the death penalty a key issue. And the death penalty views of governors have, in turn, become factors in presidential elections. Simon notes that, since 1980, “no governor from a state that has outlawed executions was elected president” (p.69).

The book’s chapter on Congress focuses on how the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 represents a historical turning point for who is considered the idealized subject of legislation. In Simon’s account, the idealized subject of legislation in the early American Republic was the small landowner. The idealized subjects of the post-Civil War period were the newly-freed slaves and their former masters. The New Deal saw the arrival of the industrial worker as the subject of legislation, followed by attention being given to the vulnerable consumer in post-WW II legislation. In 1968, the vulnerable consumer is pushed aside and replaced by the crime victim. The Safe Streets Act became a “kind of quasi-constitutional law” that did not merely change the penalties for crime, but changed the issue of criminal justice as one requiring federal intervention (p.78).

In the four decades that executive and legislative branch officials have championed the crime victim, judges have lost prestige and prosecutors have gained, Simon argues, precisely because prosecutors can serve as vocal advocates for victims, while judges are hemmed in by their neutral courtroom role. Sentencing guidelines, at both federal and state levels, have shifted power away from judges and toward prosecutors, who determine the level of the criminal charge brought against a defendant. The increase of “three strikes” laws and the decreased use of parole have turned US prisons into “human toxic waste dumps” that have rejected the goal of rehabilitation (p.143).

Simon then turns to how “governing through crime” has permeated into three other social institutions: the family, schools, and the workplace. With respect to the family, Simon argues that the problem of domestic violence is framed almost exclusively as one that needs to be addressed through mandatory arrest policies for police, increased prosecutorial attention, and enhanced penalties. As a result, little attention is paid to issues like the lack of employment and childcare options, which might be what traps women suffering from domestic violence. Treating domestic violence as only a criminal matter creates blinders to broader issues.

The focus on crime has also changed how schools in the US operate. Simon argues that, although “serious crime is a substantial problem in a relatively small” number of schools (p.210), there has been widespread adoption of “zero tolerance” policies, metal detectors, and drug-testing that have distracted schools from educational goals.

Simon’s argument becomes strained in the chapter on the workplace. He notes the development of workplace sexual harassment case law in the period he is examining, but it remains unclear how this development is part of “governing [*574] through crime.” Because victims ordinarily pursue civil remedies in cases of sexual harassment, the cases are not criminal cases. This issue does not readily fit into Simon’s larger thesis.

There are also a few other mistakes in the book that ought to have been caught. The Safe Streets Act is listed as having been enacted on June 6, 1968 (p.90), and then the date changes to June 7th on following pages (pp.92-93). June 6th is the correct date for the vote in the House to accept the Senate version. The date is of some importance because Sen. Robert Kennedy was declared dead in the hospital following his shooting only hours earlier.

Overall, this is an impressive work. The book’s great strength is its integration of a wide-range of research in 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.

BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

FURMAN v. GEORGIA, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Philip Kronebusch.