What is Penal Populism?
“Democracy which began by liberating men politically has developed a dangerous tendency to enslave him through the tyranny of majorities and the deadly power of their opinion”
Ludwig Lewisohn, The Modern Drama, p.17
Penal populism consists of the pursuit of a set of penal policies to win votes rather than to reduce crime or promote justice.
According to Professor John Pratt, a leading international authority on penal populism, the original concept of ‘penal populism’ lies in the work of Sir Antony Bottoms. In 1995 Sir Bottoms coined the term ‘populist punitiveness’ to describe one of the four main influences which he saw at work on contemporary criminal justice and penal systems. It was intended to convey the notion of politicians tapping into and using for their own purposes, what he believed to be the public’s generally punitive stance. The term changed to penal populism when J.V. Roberts stated that ‘penal populists allow the electoral advantage of a policy to take precedence over its penal effectiveness.”
Professor Pratt’s work proposes that penal populism is about more than the political exploitation of an opportunity to increase votes. Rather it is the product of deep social and cultural changes which began in the 1970’s and which now extend across much of modern society. It represents a fundamental shift in the axis of contemporary penal power, leading to a stronger resonance between governments and various extra-establishment individuals, groups and organisations which claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’, in relation to the development of penal policy.
Rethinking's Position on Penal Populism
Rethinking’s concern with the emergence of penal populism is four fold:
‘Penal populism’ results in rises in the imprisonment rate, which are usually unrelated to the crime rate
Imprisonment is ineffective in deterring offending, and only rarely rehabilitates
The mass media’s involvement shapes, solidifies, and directs public sentiment, while simultaneously reflecting it back as the authentic voice(s) of ordinary people
Populist responses to crime are strongest and most likely to influence policy when presaged around a common enemy who seem utterly different from the rest of the population; e.g. gangs, paedophiles or young offenders. It is less likely to be directed at white collar crime, traffic offending or vigilantism.
Pre – Election Responses
It has become obvious to both the media and the public that political parties are likely to play the ‘tough on crime’ card, pre-election. Prior to the election, both in New Zealand and the UK, there were some interesting responses from the media:
NZ Herald Editorial: Tough justice a hardy campaign perennial (2008)
49 KB "If one thing can be relied on in an election campaign, it is that the Opposition and the minor parties will scream that we need to get touch on crims....."
NZ Herald: Patrick Gower: Search for the solution to crime (2008)
94 KB "Public opinion polls consistently find widespread unease about law and order. It is a perennial electoral battleground, and most of the policies and argument feel familiar. The slogans and ideas stay the same: Three strikes. Life means life. Zero tolerance...."
The Independent: David Wilson: Seduced by the politics of penal populism (2006)
71 KB "Would 10,000 new offences make us all feel safer and keen to re-elect New Labour?..."
Look for more of the same in 2011.