October 18


04:00 pm - 05:00 pm

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The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research

What makes the US carceral state so resilient, not just in recent decades but across centuries?

Dignity Defied: Legal-Rational Myths and the Surplus Legitimacy of the Carceral State

Jonathan Simon, University of California at Berkeley (USA)


A decade ago, it seemed that American mass incarceration was on the precipice of a
transformation, stimulated by a legitimacy crisis as great as any faced by the carceral state in a
century. A decade later far more modest steps toward reform have been accomplished and mass
incarceration in the United States has proven stubbornly resilient and evidence of improving
prison conditions in the United States remains scarce.

This prompts a deeply historical question,
to which answers must of necessity be speculative. What makes the carceral state so resilient,
not just in recent decades but across centuries?

Bringing together the literature on the historical
political-economy of punishment with new institutionalist accounts of the role of myth and
ceremony in formal organizations and the bureaucratization of modern societies, this article
identifies five “legal-rational myths” about crime and punishment that have perennially delayed
a reckoning with its lack of alignment with central public values like respect for human dignity
and racial justice.

The article turns to California as the epicenter of this most recent legitimacy
crisis to chart how myths work to bolster the carceral state against efforts to shrink or abolish it.


Jonathan Simon is a Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law’s at the Center for the Study of Law & Society, UC Berkeley. Simon’s scholarship concerns the role of crime and criminal justice in governing contemporary societies, risk and the law, and the history of the interdisciplinary study of law.

Image Credit: Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety (Atlantic Magazine 1982).

This online event is part of the Social Analysis of Penality across Boundaries Workshop Series organised by Professor Richard Sparks, Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research, and Professor Máximo Sozzo, Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Argentina.

This event will take place via Zoom.