'Governing Through Crime'

Politics and administration in the penal state
September 10, 2008
George Frederickson
By H. George Frederickson  |  Contributor
H. George Frederickson was a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas.

Rehearsing again the grim statistics of American crime and punishment is depressing. The Pew Center on the States reminds us that one in every hundred American is behind bars, a rate of incarceration far greater than in other developed countries. Incarceration is notably skewed along racial lines -- one in nine black men aged 20 to 34 is serving time, as is one in 36 adult Hispanic men. Recent reports by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch show that, despite roughly equal rates of illegal drug use by race, black men are 12 times more likely than white men to be imprisoned for it. Although African-Americans make up 12 percent of the American population, they make up over 40 percent of the jail and prison populations.

Much of growth of the prison population can be traced to drug policy and the implantation of that policy. Between 1980 and 2006, drug arrests increased from 580,000 to 1.85 million, with 80 percent of those arrests for possession rather than sale. Of those arrested for possession, just under half were arrested for the possession of marijuana.

The costs of the American penal system are astonishing. In the past 20 years, state prison costs have jumped from about $12 billion to just under $50 billion. At current projections, they are slated to grow to $75 billion by 2011. On average, almost 7 percent of state budgets now goes to support their penal systems. This growth in spending has crowded out other priorities.

It is one thing to rehearse the data on incarceration in America; it is quite another to know how to think about it. In the interest of shedding light on this dark subject, I bring to your attention an important new book: Jonathan Simon's "Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear."

To be politically effective, elected officials believe they must be tough on crime. Simon writes, "Simply put, to be for the people, legislators must be for the victims and law enforcement, and thus they must never be for (or capable of being portrayed as being for) criminals or prisoners as individuals or as a class."

As part of the war on crime, according to Simon, "Americans have built a new civil and political order structured around the problem of violent crime. In this new order, values like freedom and equality have been revised in ways that would have been shocking, if obviously unimaginable, in the late 1960s, and new forms of power institutionalized and embraced -- all in the name of repressing seemingly endless waves of violent crime." This new civil and political order is, following Simon, a modern era of "governing through crime," making crime, and particularly the fear of it, the rationale for laws and policies which have resulted in mass incarceration -- over 2 million Americans in prison.

"Governing through crime" is a challenging description of the politics and administration of the so-called "carceral state." Unlike "governing crime" -- the ordinary work of the police, the courts and the penal system, particularly as they deal with those who break the law -- "governing through crime" is the politics and administration of mass incarceration.

Governing through crime has resulted in mass imprisonment noted by its scale, its categorical (racial) application, and its increasingly warehouse-like or waste management-like qualities. Simon says: "The distinctive new form and function of the prison today is a space of pure custody, a human warehouse or even a kind of social waste management facility. ... The waste management prison promises no transformation of the prisoner through penitence, discipline, intimidation, or therapy."

What has governing through crime done to government? "Whether one values American democracy for its liberty or its equality-enhancing features, governing through crime has been bad. First, the vast reorienting of fiscal and administrative resources toward the criminal justice system at both the federal and state levels has resulted in a shift aptly described as transformation from the 'welfare state' to the 'penal state.'"

There are glimmers of hope. After a decade of stunning growth in prison inmates, the Texas legislature decided it was time for a change. Drug treatment is being expanded, parole practices are being reformed, parole boards are adjusting to earlier release dates, and special drug courts are being established, all designed to slow the growth of incarceration. To reduce parole violation-based reincarceration, Kansas is making grants to community corrections agencies for parolee training and monitoring, and is setting guidelines to assist judges and officers in revocation decisions. Nevada is recalibrating good time served to reduce sentences. And, there are many other examples. Nevertheless, American penal practices are abysmal, an affront to democracy and to justice.