by Lisa Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 264pp. Hardback. $39.95/£21.99. ISBN: 9780195331684.

Reviewed by Bill Lyons, Department of Political Science at The University of Akron. Email: wtlyons [at]


In THE PERILS OF FEDERALISM Lisa Miller has produced a powerfully thoughtful empirical analysis of the various ways that American federalism amplifies some conflicts and mutes others in our ongoing debates about how best to reduce the harms associated with crime and punishment. Miller analyzes news accounts, lobbying disclosure forms, transcripts of key informant interviews, and hundreds of legislative committee meetings at local, state and Congressional levels and concludes that the ways that crime control debates migrate, from local city councils to state legislatures to the US Congress, have “significant implications for how we conceptualize crime and its consequences” (p.172). The broad-based, quality-of-life concerns articulated by the citizen groups who dominate the more democratically vibrant local venues are gradually reframed as simply calls for more police and more extreme forms of punishment as representatives “truncate a broad range of concerns into narrow, readily accessible frames that are continually reproduced by the policy process at the state and national levels” (p.172).

The pragmatic and holistic perspectives that citizens bring to these debates at city council meetings is squeezed out by a federalist system more attentive to the bureaucratic interests of police and prosecutors than to problem solving in those communities most victimized by crime. Federalism provides multiple pathways of access, but the two pathways with resources (state and national) construct the concerns of a narrow, professionalized, and affluent elite as salient, while marginalizing the publics who are concerned about a larger menu of inter-related quality-of-life issues by framing their concerns and their communities as outside the mainstream policy process. As Miller puts it, “This book argues that U.S. federalism shapes the representation of group interests and the policy environments at each level of government in ways that severely underrepresent the interests of citizens facing serious crime victimization – most frequently the poor and racial minorities” (p.5).

The structures of American federalism create an interest group politics at local, state and national levels that favors more punitive and volitional approaches to crime than is supported by the concerns and perspectives of those living in closest proximity to criminal victimization. And as crime control debates move from one venue to another, Miller’s data demonstrate that narrow parochialism, insulating lawmakers from effective citizen influence, is not unique to politics at the local level. In fact, the “federalization of [*239] crime control – that is the presence of crime control as an active agenda item at all three levels of government – generates a systematic bias in the interest group environment across levels of government. Highly active single-issue groups and crime control bureaucracies are mobilized into the political process at the state and national levels while broad citizen groups . . . are mobilized out of it” (p.7, italics in original).

There are at least three compelling reasons to add this book to your summer reading list. First, while advancing a complex, significant, and timely argument, the book remains highly readable from start to finish. This will make the book particularly valuable for use in the classroom at the undergraduate or graduate level, in courses examining interest group dynamics, the politics of crime and punishment, law and society, state and local politics, race and crime, as well as any course focusing on the impact of institutional structure on citizen agency in the policy making process. Second, the detailed, rigorous, and innovative empirical analysis provided in this book contributes to filling a major gap in several overlapping literatures by focusing on the process through which local, state, and national leaders grapple with crime and punishment questions and the relationship between these three venues, interest group activity, citizen mobilization, racial conflict, and our penchant for excessively punitive approaches to disorder. Third, this book advances our understanding of the political struggles driving our incarceration explosion, growing prison-industrial complex, the blackening of our carceral system, and our ongoing inability to address the serious harms that mark everyday life in our inner city neighborhoods.

The analysis in THE PERILS OF FEDERALISM is built on three very detailed case studies of legislative debates about crime and punishment: city council hearings in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, state legislative hearings in Pennsylvania, and hearings in the US Congress. The data provided are rich and multilayered; the argument presented is concise, subtle, and persuasive. In chapters two and three Miller begins her work with an analysis of interest group activity in Congress to demonstrate that national attention to crime is not new, but has grown gradually as criminal justice agencies like the Department of Justice and a small number of single-issue groups focusing our attention on crimes threatening whites have emerged as central players in the politics of law and order (p.49). Miller argues that this “gradual and sometimes sudden process” has constructed paths of access that have “decoupled the crime issue from broader race and class conflicts” (p.30) in response to the framings preferred by elite repeat players.

The historical data in chapter two is critically important, because as Vanessa Barker, Richard Fording, and others have shown, these inherited institutional pathways constrain our political options today, often in ways that amplify racial conflict, distracting us from the powerfully biased impacts of federalism that Miller is highlighting. Instead, at the national level the structure of interest group politics encourages a crime control debate that “draw[s] public conversation about crime away from actual measures of harm and toward [*240] self-referential outcome measures that may have little bearing on the experiences of people most likely to be victimized by crime” (p.75), at least partially accounting for our over-emphasis on retributive forms of punishment.

The absence of broader groups or their proxies and the dominance of criminal justice agencies often blends well with the interests of single-issue groups interested in enhancing criminal sanctions or increasing police activity. As a result, the policy process emphasizes the internal goals of criminal justice agencies, which serve as a proxy for the goals of actually significantly reducing crime victimization . . . [and limiting] opportunities for connecting crime to larger structural conditions and with punishment the default orientation of national crime policy (pp.73, 83).

In chapter four Miller finds that, at the state level, there is also a “deep convergence of interests between criminal justice agencies – particularly prosecutors – and single-issue citizen groups” (p.27), because the citizen groups bringing legislators a “set of problems with depth and breadth” (p.108) are “rarely heard from” (p.113). As Miller puts it, the “result is that state legislative policy debates on crime are frequently characterized by networks of groups whose policy preferences are either not particularly opposed to one another or fall into predictable and manageable debates” (p.118). Rather than responsive to the quality-of-life concerns articulated by the citizens living in closest proximity to crime, the policy process constructed here, like the process in Congress, is more interested in mediating the distributive conflicts among repeat players, primarily state criminal justice bureaucrats and narrow single-issue interest groups positioning for public funding.

Chapters five and six examine Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to show that citizen groups in these two cities are highly mobilized and near omnipresent in local policy debates. “This assessment of citizen groups represents a much wider range of group activity than is typically assessed by interest group scholars” (p.144). While Miller’s finding that local citizens are highly mobilized is important, she also builds on these findings to demonstrate that the pragmatic policy perspectives they bring to local forums get reframed off the agenda within the bureaucratic discourses dominating state and national policy debates.

Miller concludes that her data document a “representational bias of federalism” (p.27) that helps us understand how “the federalization of crime generates bloated criminal justice agency budgets and crime frames fixated on punishing offenders and depoliticizes citizen engagement” (p.179), while leaving bureaucratic agencies “largely insulated from public pressure for actually resolving crime problems” (p.180), and creating powerful obstacles reducing the ability of “local groups to reframe the crime issue beyond the reactive, punishment-oriented frame that characterizes most policy making” (p.183).

The data presented in this book make it clear that citizens have more control over local government leaders, perhaps because local governments are the most impoverished of the three levels, and as Katznelson (1976: 220) put it, this leaves local leaders only able to try to “manage [*241] the consequences of their inability to solve urban problems.” According to Miller’s data, as government becomes more able to act, citizen voices are first muted in local political spectacle and then systematically ignored in state and national policy making and resource allocation. Those living in communities of concentrated disadvantage then, can add this additional disadvantage (though this will not likely come as news to these residents): the system is structured to favor making salient those conflicts found at the intersection of narrow and largely white interest groups with the resources to hawk designer messages and the bureaucratic imperatives of criminal justice agencies. This study carefully and persuasively unpacks and reveals how the structure of federalism creates pathways of access that enable precisely this type of skewed interest group dynamic, a dynamic that is at least partly responsible for decades of ineffective, and extremely punitive, crime policies.

Schattschneider noted that “conflicts become political only when an attempt is made to involve the wider public” (1975: 39). While Miller’s analysis focuses almost entirely on the instrumental aspects of the struggle over the scope of the conflict here, leaving analysis of the constitutive aspects for a future project, her analysis of the instrumental dynamics of crime control debates is both innovative and long overdue. In Schattschneider’s classic formulation, conflicts become political because interested parties work hard to reframe them in order to redivide publics and predetermine the relevant decision making venue, usually with the weaker party seeking to expand the scope. But in this case, Miller finds that, as the scope of crime control conflicts move into state and then national government venues, the mobilized audience shrinks rather than expands as the image used to frame the conflict shifts from broad, diffuse and structural to narrow, bureaucratic and volitional. Her findings are powerfully important, and at the same time invite more attention to the leadership, elite agency, and constitutive aspects of power highlighted by Schattschneider when he points out that it is more likely a leadership failure than a failure of citizens that is on display when we observe limitations in the form or extent of citizen participation in politics.

There is a better explanation. Abstention reflects the suppression of the options and alternatives that reflect the needs of the nonparticipants. It is not necessarily true that the people with the greatest needs participate in politics most actively. Whoever decides what the game is about decides also who can get into the game. (Schattschneider 1975: 102)

THE PERILS OF FEDERALISM is a major contribution to our analysis of the interest group politics that surround crime and punishment policy making, because the author highlights this question and has carefully gathered multiple sources of data to support her argument. Citizens do mobilize on these issues (though not uniformly across levels of government). The structure of federalism impacts the nature of citizen mobilization (skewing which substantive issues are more likely to be made salient and with what particular issue frames). And these findings help us better understand how the zero tolerance political-culture that reflects and reinforces our retributive politics of law [*242] and order is reproduced in everyday political decision making.

Miller’s focus on agenda-setting and the relationship between structure and agency make this book an enormous breakthrough. At the same time, the argument here highlights the importance of future work to examine both the role of elites in determining whose game we will play and to dig as deeply into the struggle over image and language, nondecisions and quiescence (Gaventa 1980), as this book so brilliantly digs into the struggle across legislative venues, as a key factor in explaining how holistic and pragmatic citizen demands are routinely narrowed to extreme punishment, and how this process is routinely insulated from critical public scrutiny. THE PERILS OF FEDERALISM is a must-read because it advances our thinking to the point were we can begin to ask entire sets of questions we need to debate if we are to address productively the menu of overlapping conflicts put on the table when citizens living in those communities most victimized by crime articulate their concerns.

Barker, Vanessa. 2006. “The Politics of Punishing: How Institutionalized Power, Activist Governance and Citizen Participation Matters to the Rise and Fall of Incarceration.” 8 PUNISHMENT & SOCIETY 5-32.

Fording, Richard. 2001. “The Political Response to Black Insurgency: A Critical Test of Competing Theories of the State.” 95 AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 115-130.


Katznelson, Ira. 1976. “The Crisis of the Capitalist City: Urban Politics and Social Control. In Willis Hawley and Michael Lipsky (eds). THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES ON URBAN POLITICS. Brunswick, NJ: Prentice Hall.


© Copyright 2009 by the author, William T. Lyons, Jr.