Monday, July 15, 2013
In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu famously observed that the legal system of a given state ought to exist in harmony with its overall organization of power. In a republic, he argued, the people are sovereign. Thus there must be laws regulating mass education to enhance civic virtue, teaching the people to love the laws of their country above their individual self interest. The laws of crime and punishment, too, must comport with the spirit of the government they support. In a healthy republic, wrote Montesquieu, a virtuous people require little punishment. If Montesquieu is correct, the rise of the American carceral state signals a profound challenge to the democratic nature of our government. This essay reviews three recent books on the rise of the carceral state as part of a broader discussion of the role of criminal justice in making citizens.