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.

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