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Copyright (c) 2010 University of Chicago
The University of Chicago Legal Forum

Article: Consuming Obsessions: Housing, Homicide, and Mass Incarceration since 1950


The University of Chicago Legal Forum

2010 U Chi Legal F 165


Jonathan Simon +


When we think about the relationship between crime and the economy, the nexus most likely to come to mind is employment. 1 In this Article I propose a very different framework for thinking about the economic context of crime--one based on housing. Like the employment-crime nexus, the relationship between housing and crime can point to a multitude of different dynamics, concerning the incentives to commit crimes and the incentives of the public to react to fear of crime. Here, I focus on just one dynamic: many Americans switched from renting to owning their homes during the second half of the 20th century, and this shift, I will argue, made the public more fearful of crime and thus more inclined to support aggressive law-and-order policies. Alongside the well-documented rise in violent crime (homicide in particular) in the early 1960s, 2 the post-WWII trend of suburbanization 3 helped to lay the foundation for "mass incarceration." 4

Since the 1960s, violent crime has been a central issue for government at all levels. 5 The crime surge of the early twentieth century did create governmental responses at all levels, including the federal government. 6 However, the scale and duration of the government's response was qualitatively different. In the 1920s and 1930s, states and the federal government built new prisons and engaged in escalated rhetoric about crime. Since the 1970s, states and the federal government have engaged in an unprecedented program of prison building and tougher penal policies, producing a more than ...
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