by Vanessa Barker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 264pp. Hardback. $35.00/£22.50. ISBN: 9780195370027.

Reviewed by Lisa L. Miller, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University. Email: miller [at]


Vanessa Barker has made an impressive contribution to the politics of punishment literature in three key respects. First, she tackles the substantial variation across the U.S. states in terms of their responses to rising crime rates and large-scale social transformations of the 1960s through the 1980s. This is a crucial contribution as many scholars of crime and punishment have long noted the gap in attention to state politics. Barker’s book calls into question any general account of American punishment that does not consider the causes of cross-state variation.

Second, she takes political institutions seriously, suggesting that attitudes and ideas about punishment are filtered through the multitude of political institutions across the diverse and varied American states. In doing so, she is particularly attentive to how people interact with and form state governance in ways that are related to political economies, social orders and historic contingencies. Her effort to avoid the pitfalls of much punishment scholarship that describes outcomes without reference to any particular actors is laudable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Barker questions the long-standing assumption that democratic processes necessarily lead to more punishment. Barker demonstrates that the states that have highly developed democratic and pluralistic processes can, in fact, be less punitive than those with less public participation. While the conceptual framework she employs has limitations, this contribution is enormously important as punishment scholars have tended to assume that democratic participation will always increase punishment. Barker rightly calls this into question and sets a framework for more empirical research on the relationship between democracy and punishment. Indeed, her work demonstrates that “increased democratization can support and sustain less coercive penal regimes” (p.12).

In the opening two chapters, Barker previews the complexity and nuance of the book’s analysis, noting that “American penal sanctioning is fragmented, multidimensional, and often contradictory. It is an odd mix of policies and practices that are ad hoc, reactive to current events, and sometimes the result of long-term planning. The reality of American penal sanctioning is much more complicated, uneven, and obscure than the discussion of national trends allows” (p.6). Her approach is to draw on two primary axes of analysis: “political structure” – institutional and administrative organization of the state and “collective [*147] agency” – mobilization of ordinary citizens.

Drawing on cases studies from California, Washington and New York, Barker makes two central claims: 1) that the character and intensity of penal policies and practices are rooted in structure and collective agency of the democratic process and 2) that changes to penal regimes are likely to be shaped by localized institutional configurations as much as by national and global trends. As a result, the book offers an important account of the importance of state political actors in establishing the current penal regime of a state and the pressures that move those actors to push forward with punitive policies or move towards de-carceration strategies. The analysis across the three case studies leads Barker to conclude that penal regimes can be characterized as parsimonious (Washington), in which states rely on the least repressive sanctions possible, retributive (California), where sanctions are mandatory and more punitive, and managerial (New York), which sorts offenders into categories in which some will receive harsh punishments and others will be diverted into alternative sanctions.

In California, the legacy of populist reforms intersects with dynamic and changing political environments in ways that promote anti-statist policies that are nonetheless highly punitive. In particular, the “thin democracy” of California’s ballot initiative process allows parochial and private interests to commandeer state resources and limit the ability of state actors and citizen to engage in more robust debates about social policy and common purpose. In this context, punishment becomes a crude lever by which citizens try to hold government accountable for a wide range of social anxieties.

In Washington, by contrast, Barker finds that the deliberative nature of Washington state government and the lack of political support for strong, centralized governance mitigated against massive penal expansion during a time of rising crime rates and social upheaval.

New York, a kind of mid-range democratic structure in this analysis, has a long history of elite decision-making and insider manipulation of policy. At the same time, this centralized process has generated a kind of technical response to criminal behavior which can lead to high levels of punishment – as with the Rockefeller drug laws – but also de-carceration strategies when budgets and low crime rates permit.

Each chapter is well-researched and compelling and I think Barker’s assessment of the relative strength of democratic institutions and participation in each state is fairly accurate. She calls attention to often over-looked elements of state governance – such as the degree of black incorporation, the opportunities for deliberation and the extent to which institutional arrangements facilitate the provision of social goods – that are crucial causal mechanisms for identifying variation in punishment across the states.

My two primary critiques, addressed below, do not undermine the book’s core contributions but, rather, challenge some of Barker’s assumptions in an effort to advance scholarly understandings of the relationship between institutional design, [*148] public attitudes and ideas about crime, and governance and punishment regimes.

First, Barker’s argument suggests that declining levels of trust in government, growing disillusionment with state welfare policies, and an increasing willingness to use state resources for punishment all contribute to “American democracy being remade into much less generous and more coercive political order” (p.27). But this account gives remarkably little attention to the role that civil rights, racialized institutional frameworks and the legacy of white supremacy play in these historic changes. If Barker is correct in asserting that “already by the mid-1970s, the intensification of the criminal law and penal sanctioning began to remake American democracy into a much less generous and more coercive political order” (p.27), she cannot overlook the clear linkage between the emergence of anti-statist ideals, decline in support for and trust in government, and the rise of civil rights and state policy aimed at helping blacks (Murakawa 2008; Provine 2007; Weaver 2007; Beckett 1997).

In particular, Barker’s claim that the U.S. was being “remade into a less generous political order” overlooks the fact that the U.S. was never a generous political order where blacks were concerned and it hardly seems coincidental that whatever generosity there was in the American state was deeply contested when it came to blacks and the poor (Katznelson 2005; Frymer, et al. 2006; Finkelman 1981). Every major social program of the twentieth century, from the New Deal to the GI Bill to the war on poverty, had limited impact on African Americans and they were often deliberately excluded from benefits. Without a more explicit account of race and poverty, Barker’s analysis assumes a linear movement of American democracy towards greater equality and inclusion until the sudden transformations of the late 20th century. But another narrative that emerges from scholars of American political development, suggests that racial hierarchy and exclusion are an indelible part of our constitutional order and no account of punishment transformations in the U.S. can be complete without an understanding of those orders (Alexander 2010; King and Smith 2004; Miller 2010; Murakawa 2008; Weaver 2007).

The marginalization of the racial element has important implications for Barker’s larger theoretical framework. Her account of levels of citizen engagement, trust in government and willingness to engage in deliberative exchange over penal reform, for example, omit the possibility that trust, engagement and deliberation are all more likely to emerge in more homogeneous contexts where whites feel less threatened by blacks. Consider, for example, changes to the racial composition and population density of California and Washington, two states that represent poles of Barker’s analysis, with California being highly punitive and repressive and Washington more deliberative and less punitive. According to the U.S. census (Hobbs and Stoops 2002), California’s racial topography transformed from 93.7% white in 1950 to nearly a third non-white (69.0%) in 1990. As historian Donna Murch has demonstrated, blacks migrating to California during this [*149] period often found work in the defense industry and it was these black migrants who contributed to the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, forming political organizations such as the Black Panther party and demanding greater attention to inequality and racism. In addition to changes in the racial composition of the state, California also grew in population density during this same time period from 67.9 people per square mile in 1950 to 190.8 persons per square mile in 1990. Thus, in a thirty year period, California’s population density and non-white population nearly tripled.

In contrast, Washington was nearly as overwhelmingly white in 1990 (88.5%) as it was in 1950 (97.4%). Its population density barely doubled (35.8 per square mile in 1950 to 73.1 in 1990) and it experienced nothing close to the kinds of urban violence and social unrest as California. It is worth noting that New York’s population density grew much less than either of these two states during this time (314.1 per square mile to 371.9).

In other words, Barker’s account of a more deliberative and rational response to crime changes in Washington may be partly, if not largely, attributable to the fact that far fewer white Washingtonians considered crime to be essentially a problem of blacks and felt far less threatened by large populations of blacks entering the state’s cities. How much of the California story about crime and punishment can be attributable to racial anxiety over a growing non-white population, black migration, racial unrest and white fears of blacks? No doubt Barker’s analysis of political institutions are a crucial element of the story but what is needed is an account of how racialized aspects of American history and politics intersect with these institutions in ways that are more or less likely to lead to greater punishment.

A second point is that Barker’s understanding of the nature of American federalism falls prey to common misunderstandings and she seems to equate decentralization with pluralism and centralization with insularity/elitism. The conventional wisdom about the U.S. constitutional framework is that it decentralizes power in order to promote democratic participation of ordinary people. Barker suggests that the U.S. system is the result of institutional designs meant to weaken “the ‘tyranny’ of centralized government so feared by the Federalists” and that the fragmented nature of multiple points of access is “a configuration that can promote various forms of citizen participation, including grassroots mobilization and social protest” (p.37).

But this account is problematic. Leaving aside the compelling analyses by legal historians that America’s constitutional framework owes as much to bi-sectional compromises over slavery as it does to any lofty ideals about civic engagement, recent empirical analyses of the actual effects of divisions of power under federal arrangements suggest the opposite conclusion to the one posited by Barker. My own empirical analysis of citizen engagement on this subject contradicts the claim that the American federal system promotes widespread political participation (Miller 2008; 2010). Indeed, I find that the federal system renders much political engagement invisible at precisely the locations (urban areas) where citizen participation is most political, pluralistic, [*150] contentious and likely to result in the kind of deliberation and responsiveness that Barker lauds. This poses a serious challenge to the idea that decentralization leads to greater access.

Indeed, much work in comparative politics confirms that federalism is largely a veto system that blocks majority will and makes it more difficult for citizens to hold elected officials accountable (Brooks and Manza 2007). A more complex understanding of the actual ways that American federalism functions could actually strengthen Barker’s argument by, for example, contributing to her understanding of why high levels of decentralization in California do not lead to the kind of civic engagement she finds in Washington. Indeed, California’s open political system and low levels of participation seem far less paradoxical than Barker suggests (p.50) when we consider the fact that decentralization does not necessarily amount to greater pluralism.

Barker also conflates centralization with insularity and decentralization with direct democracy (p.95). But there are at least two different conceptual axes here. The first is the degree to which actual policy decisions are made at local and varied levels, the decentralization axis. The second is the degree to which a wide range of citizens can participate in and influence politics, the pluralism axis. I think Barker is focused primarily on the latter but she uses the language of the former. Decentralized decision-making does not necessarily lead to greater pluralism, as the California case demonstrates. And high levels of citizen participation – pluralism – do not necessarily mean a political system is decentralized.

In Washington state, for example, Barker’s own account suggests that the commissions and programs designed to address criminal justice reform were actually fairly centralized – one location where decisions were made and accountability was pressed. They were, however, very pluralistic, incorporating a wide range of government agencies, state legislators, citizen councils and commissions, and so on.

This conceptual confusion leads to some odd claims. In her conclusion Barker suggests that when “centralization routinely blocks citizens’ access to elites… citizens may become quiescent. Because their demands and protests are often met with advanced bureaucratic procedures and institutionalized channels of action, citizens may not be encouraged to develop a sense of their own efficacy in the political field” (p.136). But it is not clear why centralization itself would block citizen access if the centralized institutions are open and pluralistic. Furthermore, centralization is not necessarily more bureaucratic then de-centralization (indeed, more decision-making venues create multiple layers of bureaucratic obstacles).

What I think Barker is driving at is the degree of accountability, which seems much higher in Washington than in California or even New York. A focus on accountability, which would incorporate both the extent of pluralism as well as the number and location of political venues, would create greater conceptual clarity and avoid the assumption that decentralization [*151] necessarily increases citizen involvement, a claim that is difficult to square with existing research on federalism.

None of these observations detract from the significance of Barker’s contribution to the literature on American democracy, punishment and politics. She has provided a solid empirical study with provocative, important and highly plausible claims that challenge much conventional wisdom and should occupy scholars of politics and punishment for years to come. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding crime and punishment in American politics.


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© Copyright 2011 by the author, Lisa L. Miller.