An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2010

Clearing the “troubled assets” of America’s punishment bubble

Jonathan Simon

Jonathan Simon is the Adrian A. Kragen Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. His publications include Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (2007) and Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890–1990 (1993). He coedited After the War on Crime: Race, Democracy, and a New Reconstruction (with Mary Louise Frampton and Ian Haney Lopez, 2008).

An analogy can be drawn between the troubled assets that contributed to the recent economic crisis and the “troubled assets” of mass incarceration. The former now endanger the survival of the U.S. financial sector (indeed, our entire economy); the latter endanger the fiscal viability and democratic legitimacy of the state. The crucial challenge facing reformers is how to “clear” the complex aggregations of human beings, social and financial capital, information networks, political alliances, and managerial practices that were produced during the long period in which we inflated both the economic and carceral bubbles. In both cases, we must establish new norms and procedures for assessing risk and promising security. We also must recognize the opportunities that the present disasters have created for reinvigorating our economy and democracy. California is the extreme example of this public-sector crisis and is useful as a means to identify strategies for unwinding mass incarceration.

As George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and other students of cognition have demonstrated, metaphors are far more than literary frills that excite and, perhaps, expand the imagination. Instead, they are cognitive colonizers, spreading from one part of our thinking to affect other areas. They can reorganize how we understand ideas and concepts and how we act on that understanding.1  When powerful metaphors sweep through government, they can reorganize our democracy, too. The “war on crime” has proven to be one such metaphor, recasting lawbreakers as enemy combatants, victims as idealized citizen-subjects, and law enforcement as combat forces directed at enemy positions rather than breaches of the penal code.2  In this essay, I propose a counter-metaphor to the war on crime (albeit a more limited and temporary one) that will help us think in new ways about how to resolve the social and institutional legacies of that “war.”

We would benefit from thinking about the enormous escalation of the prison population in America between about 1980 and 2005–what sociologists call mass imprisonment3 –as analogous in important respects (although not in all) to the expansion and remarkable inflation of the residential real estate market in America during roughly the same period (especially in the last decade-and-a-half ). The market eventually burst, unleashing social destruction.4 .  .  .


  • 1George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  • 2David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • 3David Garland, “Introduction: The Meaning of Mass Imprisonment,” Punishment & Society 3 (1) (2001): 5; Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).
  • 4While incarceration rates began to rise in most states in the late 1970s, it was not until the early 1980s that they began to grow at an increasingly faster rate. Most economists would place the real estate bubble in the late 1990s and this decade, but significant inflation of housing prices in many of the future affected areas–Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California, for example–began in the 1980s as well. In another recent article, I explore what I take to be important correlations and causal connections between the growth of American homeownership and the salience of crime to the important role of home values in personal wealth. My claim in this essay is not that there is a causal relationship between the housing and prison booms, but rather that we can learn to think differently about how to respond to the crises in the latter from some of the ways we are learning to understand the former.
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