You know how sometimes you see the whole movie just from the trailers for it? Well, that sorta happens with books and titles, too. Like Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear.
Its text is a little more detailed, of course, and the theme is one we’ve touched on here. Schools, workplaces, even families become adjuncts of our criminal justice system. Drug-testing, random searches based on arguable assumptions, background checks, bannings and exiles, gated communities with their own bindings. Laws and regulations kicking people out of public housing for acts of relatives, parents in jail for truant teen children, newspapers outing companies and public agencies giving former inmates any reasonable chance at reentry. I wish I had even just a penny for every time the old “those who trade freedom for security” quote over the last 2-3 decades. And we blythely merry along finding more and more ways to criminalize our environment when we should be enriching the social norm-setting and individual self-governance that actually stop crime and produce the safety we’re trading our liberty for.
Simon’s point, clear in his title, is that we’ve become “a culture of fear” incapable of imagining our own strength and ability to control a world portrayed falsely but profitably as out of our control. He traces the development to the breakdown of the New Deal consensus a few decades back that turned into a generalized disbelief that our public institutions could remediate social problems and empower people to master their lives and community safety. There to replace the “consensus” was the growing War on Crime paradigm with its skeptical view of people and their organizations and its promise of control through “toughness” and punishment. When schools, workplaces, families, other institutions seemed to lose their way, well, there was still the hope of slapping cuffs on the problems or putting them behind bars.
That success in our War on Crime was so erratic and debatable wasn’t as clear then as now (and it’s still not clear to a lot of folks even now), and the assurances of opportunistic politicians gave voters and citizens reason to give the guarantees of their taken-for-granted freedoms away bit by bit. Simon says (come on, you knew I’d say that at some point), “Governing through crime is making America less democratic and more racially polarized; it is exhausting our social capital and repressing our capacity for innovation. For all that, governing through crime does not, and I believe, cannot make us more secure; indeed it fuels a culture of fear and control that inevitably lowers the threshold of fear even as it places greater and greater burdens on ordinary Americans.”
While this may sound at first touchy-feely, Simon sees governance values of both liberals and conservatives at risk. “The Left will find most disturbing the hardening of inequality formed by governing through crime, whether in its racially concentrated prisons or gated communities. The Right will find that across a whole range of dimensions, governing through crime subverts the Right’s mandate of responsible independence at the level of the firm and family.”
Simon holds the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 responsible for the turning of crim just policy into the paradigm he sees as so dangerous. I once planned my dissertation on the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and its impact and learned more about clear goalless and unthought policymaking than I really ever wanted to know. The “control” orientation epitomized by this Act led to other wonders, like sentencing commissions and removal of judicial discretion.
That, of course, led straight into the debates and policies we’ve had in corrections sentencing for the last decades. And as we sought control over the discretion of practitioners letting crime frolick like “Girls Gone Wild,” we had to protect ourselves closer to home—in our schools, at our jobs, with our families, literally in our secured condos and gated communities. For gravy, he minutely details examples in all the arenas.
How does Simon propose to stop the damage to our civil society he describes? He prefers the now generally forgotten War on Cancer, another limitless fear, that came at the same time as Nixon’s War on Crime. This is frankly the weakest part of Simon’s presentation, but he seems to embrace a health model focused on prevention and knowledge-based networked action. He seems to recognize the problem of his “solution,” especially in a time in which fear is magnified by terrorism. He concludes, “These conditions will mean little in the absence of social movements and political leaders ready to break the hold of crime on American governance and animated by the conviction that the American people are being exposed to risks that are largely ignored by institutions laboring under a burdensome set of formal and informal mandates to manage crime and its risks.”
So you don’t leave this book filled with enthusiasm and optimism, despite his hope it will lead to more discussions of how to redress our fear-based society. He’s certainly right that the best crime control policy is the nurturing and strengthening of a confident, self-assured society that recognizeds that crime and fear can’t be eliminated but can be contained and controlled by productive, self-governing individuals and communities. He documents it all well, although you may find yourself wondering how collective bargaining fits into the thesis (it is a stretch). This book is a needed review and summary of what’s been going on for the last 3-4 decades, a document to save future historians time. It’s not uplifting, but it is thorough and thought-provoking. And sad. And worth your time. When you’re done, I bet you won’t look at our country and its principles, its past and its future, the same again.