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The politics of punishment

Jock Young and Roger Mathews examine the contradictions of Labour’s penal policy and detect signs of change.

Whereas crime rates have generally decreased in both Britain and America, prison populations have continued to grow year on year. Many who witnessed the rapid increase in the prison population under the Conservative administration between 1993 and 1997 expected that the incoming Labour government would at least halt if not reverse this escalation. But since New Labour came into office in 1997 the prison population has increased by over 40 per cent reaching over 72,000 at the last count.

This continued increase in the prison population has been seen as a product of a 'populist punitiveness' which involves politicians talking tough and introducing ever more stringent penal policies in order to secure public support. To some extent this was true of the incoming Labour government who had made 'law and order' their issue prior to the election and did not want to be seen to renege on their claims to take crime seriously.

However, even during the first, nervous period in office, there was no endorsement of the Conservatives’ claim that 'prison works', and there is clearly a growing antipathy to the widespread use of imprisonment. Greater use of imprisonment has become increasingly seen as expensive and in many ways counter-productive. Imprisonment is seen to be damaging to individuals, their families and their communities. Thus there is growing evidence that if prison populations are continuing to increase that this is not the desired objective of Labour Party policy.

A detailed examination of these developments, however, indicates that they are not wholly attributable to a growing punitiveness, but are the result of more diverse and subtle processes which are embedded in current penal policy. The disillusionment with the role and impact of imprisonment in official circles is evident in the recent report from the Social Exclusion Unit who claim that:

‘Many prisoners have experienced a lifetime of social exclusion. Compared with the general population, prisoners are thirteen times more likely to be unemployed, ten times as likely to have been a regular truant, two and a half times as likely to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence, six times as likely to have been a young father, and fifteen times as likely to be HIV positive' (Social Exclusion Unit 2002)

Not only is prison seen as the final repository for the excluded but it is held that it compounds and intensifies social exclusion and that rather than reduce crime it produces recidivists. The Social Exclusion Unit go on to explain that:

‘There is a considerable risk that a prison sentence might actually make the factors associated with re-offending worse. For example, a third lose their house while in prison, two-thirds lose their job, over a fifth face increased financial problems and over two fifths lose contact with their family. There are also real dangers of mental and physical health deteriorating further; of life and thinking skills being eroded; and of prisoners being introduced to drugs. By aggravating the factors associated with re-offending, prison sentences can prove counter-productive as a contribution to crime reduction and public safety.’

New Labour's views on penal policy and penal reform have been outlined in a cluster of lengthy government sponsored publications which have appeared over the last year or two. Embedded in these publications are a number of core themes and policy directives. These publications include: Through the Prison Gate (2001) which was a joint review produced by the Prisons and Probation Inspectorate; Reducing Re-Offending by Ex-Prisoners (2002) which was written by the Social Exclusion Unit and examined the problems of re-offending and the resettlement of those leaving prison; The Halliday report, Making Punishment Work (2001) which represents a detailed re-examination of sentencing policy; The Auld Report entitled Criminal Courts Review (2001) which provides a comprehensive review of the organisation and functioning of the court system; and more recently the government White Paper Justice for All (2002) which provides a response to some of these previous publications and attempts to set out an agenda for the reform of the criminal justice process.

These documents in conjunction with a number of related official publications provide the basis for a substantive revision of the operation of the courts, sentencing, probation and prisons. They present a 'root and branch' review of penal policy whose starting point is a recognition of the current failures and deficiencies of the system. There is a shared belief that current policies are deeply flawed and that the institutions and agencies which implement these policies are in urgent need of restructuring.

The main elements of the emerging penal policies contained in these publications include: 1) greater centralisation and co-ordination of decision making; 2) blurring of the boundaries between agencies and modes of intervention; 3) increased efficiency and efficacy in the criminal justice system; 4) greater diversity, flexibility and consistency in sentencing; and 5) the decarceration and diversion of convicted offenders.

The existing criminal justice system is seen as poorly co-ordinated. The key agencies and institutions are held to provide a disparate and patchy service which is in urgent need of tightening up. Thus alongside the introduction of a National Probation Service it is suggested that there is a need to establish a new Criminal Justice Board, to bring magistrates courts and crown courts into a single court agency with its own Inspectorate,. The aim is to develop a National Correctional Policy Framework as well as a Sentencing Guidelines Council chaired by the Lord Chief Justice which will be responsible for setting national guidelines for the full range of criminal offences.

There is no single principle of sentencing presented, but instead what is offered is an eclectic mix of policies seeking to pursue different, but not always compatible objectives. Central is the notion of retribution and the belief that offenders should be punished in a way which is proportionate to the offence. Within this 'punitive envelope' there is also considerable emphasis on rehabilitation and the resettlement of prisoners. Thus in contrast to the previous Conservative administration which emphasised incapacitation and deterrence the emphasis on retribution is seen to be necessary to protect vulnerable communities and the rights of victims. However, it is suggested that prison sentences should be used as sparingly as possible and the period of detention should be used to develop forms of individual and social rehabilitation.

Alongside retribution and rehabilitation there is a growing interest in restorative justice and reparation. The attractiveness of restorative justice to a government which wants offenders to face up to the implications of their actions and provide a better deal for victims is not difficult to see. Although adding greater diversity to the range of sentencing options there is no contradiction between the development of restorative justice and the introduction of a 'punitive package'. Restorative justice is not the antithesis of punishment but one of the mechanisms through which punishment can be exercised.

A clear message which emerges from these various reports and publications is that every effort should be made to limit the use of imprisonment and that only serious, persistent violent and sexual offenders should be given custodial sentences. The remainder should be dealt with by the growing array of community based sanctions which are currently available.

One promising proposal for limiting prison use is the introduction of intermittent or 'part-time' prison. This form of detention will involve offenders spending some part of the week - probably weekends - in prison. During the remainder of the week they will be able to work and maintain their normal social and domestic responsibilities. Although it is admitted that 'its possible costs and benefits are uncertain and difficult to estimate' and that this recommendation is neither based on a review of the evidence or public consultation it does potentially involve a radical revision of both the concept and the use of imprisonment.

Elements of the initial vision outlined by Tony Blair in 1993 have been developed and expanded since New Labour have come to office. Those who claim that New Labour simply offer 'more of the same' are mistaken. Whether one agrees with the policies which are being developed there is little doubt that they are radical and different. They do not embody the 'spin' or gloss on policy which many critics have accused New Labour of presenting. Nor are they engaged in a window-dressing exercise designed to give the impression that something is being done. Neither does this represent a 'get tough' vote-catching strategy.

Indeed, some of the main components of these policies embody what radical criminology has been advocating for years: an emphasis on crime prevention which involves addressing social economic inequalities; protecting the most vulnerable sections of the community; giving a better deal to victims and witnesses; developing more consistent and appropriate systems of sentencing; improving service delivery from the police, courts and prisons; limiting prison use and making greater use of community based sanctions; developing forms of restorative justice and reparation; developing rehabilitation programmes in prisons ; and finally trying to facilitate the resettlement of those leaving prison. Most of the more progressive and innovative policy developments being considered or promoted by New Labour have their basis in radical criminology.

It is not that all of these policies are particularly new in themselves. Rather their significance lies in their attempt to engage in 'joined-up' thinking in which certain themes and objectives are pursued with some consistency. It is in the combination of these themes and the ways in which they are translated into policies that the novelty resides.

There are, as we and others have suggested, a number of tensions embedded in these proposals. It could hardly be otherwise. Significantly, the direction of change does not accord with that which has been suggested by the leading criminologists of social control. These policies are not an expression of punitiveness, populist or otherwise. Nor are they simply an expression of neo-liberalism or minimal statism. This is a 'hands on', steering and rowing enterprise, involving an enormous amount of time, resources, commitment management and money. Neither does it represent an expression of the 'limits of the Sovereign State'. Rather a new conception of 'sovereignty'.

It is clear that New Labour believes that in a period of globalization and rapid social change that providing greater security, reducing crime, and improving the service delivery of criminal justice agencies are realistic and necessary objectives of the national state. It suggests that one of the major tasks of a left social democratic government in modern complex pluralistic societies is to develop a public power which can ensure security and the rule of law, in order to allow diverse communities to co-exist without excessive or unnecessary conflict.

The is an edited extract from the forthcoming book New Labour, crime control and social exclusion to be published by Sage.