Digitize And Punish: Racial Criminalization In The Digital Age

Author: Brian Jefferson
Publisher: Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 232p.
Reviewer: Patrick C. Lalonde | May 2021

Jefferson provides an encyclopedic and truly comprehensive history detailing the extent to which racial criminalization is amplified through the application of digital technologies throughout the entire United States criminal justice system and within urban spaces specifically. While Jefferson begins the narrative at the outset of the Twentieth Century, the bulk of the analysis spans from the birth of the “War on Crime” and computerization in the 1960s; through the personal computing revolution of the 1980s; to the proliferation of databases like CompStat in police departments, courts, and penal institutions in the 1990s and the aughts; and to the potentialities of cloud computing, Web 3.0, as well as Web 4.0 and the Internet of things in the modern era. Jefferson meticulously walks the reader through the interconnection between the carceral state, state agencies, the private sector, and academia as complicit and indeed advantageous in advancing the continued repression of black and latinx communities (negatively racialized populations) within an increasingly digitized criminal justice system.

Arguments regarding negatively racialized communities are well-developed, well-researched, and contribute to an overall damning indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system in both its historical incarnations and present configuration. Such arguments make this book an excellent modern companion to prior works by Du Bois, Wacquant, Fekete, Bowling, Phillips, and others who have advanced similar indictments of racism and oppression within the criminal justice system and in other areas of social life. Particularly, this work does much to advance Wacquant’s (2000) compelling argument – the prison as a carceral ghetto and the ghetto as an urban prison – into the realm of technologization and digitized surveillance.

While the temptation certainly exists in any social science examination of a social problem to envelop the reader with statistics to prove points, Jefferson takes great care not to overwhelm the reader with percentages and correlations, opting instead to provide the reader with rich description of digitization and racialization within the criminal justice system while turning to numerical data only where necessary simply to enhance arguments. Such analysis guides the reader clearly and succinctly through the plethora of technologies designed to accomplish continued and increasing discrimination against negatively racialized communities. Through such rich description, the author compellingly convinces the reader of the four main arguments of the book: 1) digital technology and its related sciences have helped extend the Wars on Crime and Drugs, 2) IT corporations have become primary drivers of criminal justice digitization, 3) the convergence of mass criminalization and smart cities is transforming geographies of carceral power, and 4) a thorough critique of racialized governance must confront its sociotechnical dimension.

An interesting aspect of Jefferson’s work is the case study approach to examining digitized criminalization of negatively racialized populations in New York City and Chicago specifically. While, at times, these case studies read as rather fragmented across chapters and might have been more clearly stated and compelling to the reader if they were instead compressed into a single chapter (each), the examples of New York City and Chicago are nonetheless enlightening and provide much potential fodder for discussion and debate in terms of digitizing policing and criminal justice within urban areas of the United States. Particularly, the efforts of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in pushing zero-tolerance and CompStat policing models in New York City are well-documented in the book. The slippage from Giuliani to Bloomberg in New York, the parallels in the City of Chicago, and present-day national crime prevention models leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that the carceral project of modern-day American cities centers its efforts on the digitized criminalization of negatively racialized populations.

A valuable narrative considered in the conclusion of the book explores potential avenues for resisting digitized racial criminalization, providing actual examples of real-world successful campaigns designed to reduce and abolish the criminal justice system’s addiction to digital technologies as a magic balm designed to alleviate any and all social problems (read: the continued “threat” of a devalued and excluded racialized workforce in modern capitalism). It is refreshing to read a book where the author includes potential solutions and a roadmap for resistance to students and practitioners rather than simply “resting” on the problem itself (as so many contemporary examinations of social problems are all too comfortable doing).

The preceding chapter – How to Program a Carceral City – is also extremely valuable in situating for the reader where urban carceral projects are heading in the future and what the impacts on the social world will be. Datacenters and so-called “smart cities” couched as improving our lives and making us safer and more secure are, as the author elegantly points out, just the latest incarnation of tools of oppression and “At the core of this monstrosity is the power fantasy of city administrators, corporations, and large parts of the public to establish a human filtration system” (p. 182). As the social world generally and the criminal justice system specifically continue to double-down on digitization, the risk to negatively racialized populations is all too evident, alarming, problematic, and yet also lost in the fantasy of “perfect” and “objective” data and technology. The author does well to so elegantly guide the reader in realizing the devastating potential of digitization for amplifying historical oppression within the criminal justice system while also then providing the reader with a potential roadmap for its abolition.

One rather confusing aspect of the book is the author’s quick dismissal of the works of Baudrillard and Deleuze within the introduction section. While it is clear the author is arguing that digitized criminalization of negatively racialized populations is not produced by but rather is reproduced / amplified (from existing forms of oppression) by digitization, it is unclear why the works of Baudrillard and Deleuze should therefore be excluded from this narrative. Indeed, at several points throughout the book, the theoretical work of Baudrillard and Deleuze might actually have provided an “assist” to the arguments made by the author. For instance, several times throughout the book, the author contends (in varying ways) that “digital data are increasingly important in representing, understanding, and organizing social reality” (p. 11). Such arguments would naturally blend nicely with Baudrillard’s (1981) conclusions that simulations are increasingly structuring the social world in such a way that the distinction between “real” and “fake” becomes irrelevant (which digitization and data also seem to be producing).

Similarly, Deleuze’s (1992) discussion of ‘dividuals’ (or data doubles) abstracted from data and replacing individuals as the subject(s) of governance could potentially help theoretically explain the leap from governing race through social institutions (disciplining) to, contemporarily, governing race through data in the absence of anything like individual historical narratives (control). This connection is only confirmed when the author states “No distinctions are made between the individual who sells narcotics to support a family and the individual who sells them for a gun cartel in computational criminology’s system of reference, yet both are coded as targets for heightened police scrutiny” (p. 55). In short, the ahistorical and cold calculative nature of digitized criminal justice detailed in the book actually fits with the perspectives of Baudrillard and Deleuze rather nicely.

In short, the reader (after reading the quick dismissal of Baudrillard and Deleuze) is left wondering “How can we theoretically understand racial criminalization and over-incarceration within the modern digitized criminal justice system?” Perhaps greater theoretical attention beyond very brief consideration of Foucault on governance and an equally brief mention of the extremely important work of W.E.B. Du Bois on racial injustice in the United States would have further grounded the author’s findings within potentially illuminating and explanatory theoretical perspectives. Coupled together, a discussion of simulation and digital subjectivity could have enabled the author to reconcile his arguments regarding the reconceptualization and amplification of pre-existing racial prejudices within the modern context of digitization (and, often, to the exclusion of human subjectivity).

Greater reconciliation of the relationship (or lack thereof) between digitization and space could have also contributed further to solidifying the author’s arguments theoretically. As the author states, “In these instances, the technology helps the correctional apparatus modulate rehabilitation centres, schools, and workplaces into disciplinary satellites… Disciplinary society and control society collapse in such a scenario. The digitized expression of carceral space does not replace discipline with control; it cross-fertilizes the two” (p. 84). Again, Baudrillard’s (1981) discussion of the “sattelization of the real in the transcendence of space” and even Foucault’s (1975) “carceral archipelago” in relation to surveillance and governance seem like natural theoretical conclusions to explore in relation to these arguments.

Other than the limited theoretical concerns addressed above, this book remains an excellent companion to anyone conducting research on an increasingly digitized criminal justice system (and especially for policing scholars conducting this research). The overwhelming value of this book is its meticulous historical research and rich description spanning primarily from the 1960s to 2020 that ultimately provides an excellent foundation for researchers analyzing developments in the area of digitized discrimination of negatively racialized populations within the United States criminal justice system in 2021 and onward.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1981 (1983). Simulations. Translated by P. Foss, P. Patton, and P. Beitchman. New York, NY: Semiotext[e].

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59: 3-7.

Foucault, Michel. 1975 (1995). Discipline & Punish. Translated by Sheridan, A. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Wacquant, Loic. 2000. “The New ‘Peculiar Institution’: On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto.” Theoretical Criminology 4(3): 377-389.

Patrick C. Lalonde, Ph.D., Criminology Faculty, Douglas College, New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada

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