by Peter Wagner, May 30, 2002
The heavily revised third edition (2000) of Crime Control As Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style is an essential guide to understanding the incarceration boom and considering how we can turn it around. The first book of Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie, Limits to Pain, argued that the criminal justice system is in fact a pain delivery system, with the size of the system controlled not by the number of committed acts labeled as crimes but by the amount of pain that a society is willing to impose on its citizens. Crime Control as Industry expands upon that theme, and tracks how an industry has arisen to manage crime. And like any industry, the crime control industry is not about to say on its own: “Stop, we have enough of the market. We don’t need to grow.”
Christie does an important job providing an international perspective to incarceration, comparing disparate incarceration rates between otherwise similar European countries. Hope can be found in his story of Finland becoming accustomed to a high level of pain delivery and then deciding in the 1970s that its incarceration rate associated the country more with its enemy the Soviet Union than with its political allies in Western Europe. Finland’s incarceration rate quickly dropped from the highest in Europe, to the second lowest after Iceland at 54 per 100,000.
Christie traces the extent to which crime control has come to dominate the economic structure by absorbing the unemployed into the roles of keeper and kept and then supplying services to each. Limited by space, let me highlight two of Christie’s many sharp observations. First Christie argues that the applicable political economy to describe prisons is not slavery, but of the old work-houses, where the objective was not profit for the State, but for private parties to relieve the State of its unwanted population at the lowest cost possible.
The second sharp observation is that justice itself has been mechanized to cope with the influx of raw materials and remove a democratic restraint upon growth. Mandatory minimums and the sentencing guidelines have served to remove discretion from judges, turning them into little more than secretaries for the legislature. While judges are in a unique position to learn details about victims and the accused; and could adopt sentences to match the needs of the offender and the community; that takes time. Time costs money, and the industry’s conveyor must be kept moving, hence the removal of judge’s discretion.
In the United States, the combined populations in prison, on parole and on probation exceed the incarceration rate of the old gulags. Christie’s excellent book asks: Do we want a societal culture with this much depersonalized pain delivery?