Jonathan Simon on Governing Through Crime

Annotating Criminology
3 min readMay 16, 2021
Jonathan Simon

“Among the major social problems haunting America in the 1970s and 1980s, crime offered the least political or legal resistance to government action.”

In Governing Through Crime, Jonathan Simon explores how the US’s “war on crime” transformed American democracy and engendered a culture of fear. He highlights how “crime control” shaped the political order and became a lens through which other socio-economic issues got perceived and acted upon.

Simon begins by contrasting between the “conventional syllogism” of governance, and the policies that underpin the idea of “governing through crime”. He says that while governance has always implied a threat of crime for tackling resistance, such a crime was generally perceived as the last response, as the “endpoint”. However, in the governance that started in the 1960s, crime was seen as the first response. Arguing that crime and government are in deep sense intertwined, Simon says:

“Though criminal laws often speak in terms of prohibitions, and penal sanctions demand greater degrees of submission to authority, the work of governing through crime, seen in its larger totality, involves the effort of responsible actors of all kinds in contemporary American society who struggle to provide security for their families, their students, their customers, their employees, and others.”

Citizens As Consumers Of Tools Against Criminal Risk

Simon submits that in the paradigm of governing through crime, crime regulates the self-governing activities of people. There’s a “penal state” that subjects people to repression of criminal justice system, and then there’s a “security state” that induces people to become “eager consumers of public and private governmental tools against crime risk”.

Both the conservative and the liberal political parties, Simon reiterates, preach embracing risk and responsibility in sectors such as health, employment, or investment. However, when it comes to “governing through crime”, they envision a “zero-risk” environment. This makes the “knowledges of crime” transcend their expert domain to enter political governance and engineering of social life:

“When we govern through crime, we make crime and the forms of knowledge historically associated with it — criminal law, popular crime narrative, and criminology — available outside their limited original subject domains as powerful tools with which to interpret and frame all forms of social action as a problem for governance”.

Assumptions To Avoid

Simon argues that the “poor” and the “African Americans” are not the only subjects of governing through crime:

“Crime does not govern only those on one end of structures of inequality, but actively reshapes how power is exercised throughout hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, and gender.”

He says school, and middle and upper-class residential developments are the best examples of this:

“Perhaps the increasingly ubiquitous gated community is for civil society what the prison has become for the state: the most concentrated and active nexus of a broad constellation of practices, mentalities, strategies, and rationalities that seem to be growing as the shadow side of the new technologies and rationalities of freedom.”

Therefore, a significant feature of governing through crime is to guide and equip subjects in the “socially valourised pursuit of security and justice”. The effects of this are not limited to political leaders but they also influence all those in position of “responsibility” for others.

The book further delves into how state remains a “very influential site” for governing through crime, how domestic relations are governed through crime, and the racial aspects of ‘war on crime’.



Annotating Criminology

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology