Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Jonathan Simon. Oxford, 2007. Pp vii, 330.

Etched into the public mindset is a familiar bundle of ideas about criminal law. At its core is the premise that criminal sanctions are exceptional punishments, categorically distinguishable in application from civil penalties and used primarily against people harming society by causing violence or severe injury to identifiable victims. Although this model is astonishingly persistent, nearly every aspect of it is open to question. Casting aside distinctions that pivot on the presence of identifiable victims or harms rather than risks, the American regulatory state is heavily dependent on—if not addicted to—criminal enforcement. As its economy, population, and bureaucratic capacity have grown over two centuries, the United States has achieved the largest prison population in human history, with the highest imprisonment rate in the industrialized world. In the process, the empire of criminal justice in the United States has become as broad in its reach as it has been exceedingly harsh in its effects.

Every year, well over a million people face arrest for drug possession. Hundreds of thousands are prosecuted for drug, weapons, and immigration violations. Mandatory minimums in these contexts sometimes produce striking results. A midlevel drug dealer in Utah recently received fifty-five years in prison for several hundred dollars of marijuana sales to undercover cops while the defendant was in possession of a gun. Outside the contexts more prosaically associated with criminal justice, political and contractual relations increasingly fall under the purview of criminal law. Depending on what a prosecutor decides, breach of contract can easily become mail or wire fraud. Mayors or governors making political deals that offer no direct financial benefit to themselves can become targets of bribery prosecutions. Prosecutors punish crimes of property or violence while also deploying criminal sanctions against transgressions of environmental, occupational safety, and financial regulations.

These conditions reveal an intimate bond between crime and governance. To a considerable degree, Americans today are governed through corresponding patterns of crime definition and enforcement embedded in the work of their public institutions. As a result, choices about how to govern in the American system have evolved into dilemmas about the proper uses, abuses, and future prospects of criminal justice. In Governing through Crime, Jonathan Simon provides an illuminating new study training attention on those dilemmas through an analysis of the enormous breadth and harshness of the modern American criminal justice system.