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15 August 2012

Rethinking position on penal populism

The instrumental approach to compliance has often been reduced to a sort of penal populism, and the associated policies boiled down to an over-simplistic “getting tough” approach. According to Professor John Pratt, a leading international authority on penal populism, the original concept of “penal populism” was initially outlined in the work of Sir Anthony Bottoms, a criminologist at Cambridge University.

In 1995, while describing one of the four main influences, which he noticed at work on contemporary criminal justice and penal structure, Sir Bottoms coined the phrase “populist punitivenes”. It aimed 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 held that ‘penal populists allow the electoral advantage of a policy to take precedence over its penal effectiveness.

Penal populism aims to pursue a set of penal policies to buy short-term benefits at the ballot box rather than to reduce crime and administer justice. It is the strategy by which the major political parties compete with each other to be tough on crime. Responsiveness and popularity form the major ingredients of populism and hence thereby serve the basis of classification for the two set of penal policies. Since responsiveness is a central feature of democracy and the aim of electoral system is to ensure that politicians comply with the wishes of their electorate, it is naive to complain about politicians being responsive to public opinion.

The effects of this over-simplistic approach have largely been disputed. Getting –tough on crime is just a conservative attack on crime as the populist responses are strongest and most likely to influence policy when presaged around a common enemy who seems utterly different from the rest of the crime. For example, the pedophiles, young offenders and the gangs they are less likely to be directed at white-collar crime, traffic offending or vigilantism. Also the concept of penal populism leads to the increase in imprisonment rate thereby overcrowding the prisons and certainly the imprisonment is ineffective and the deterring offending and the rehabilitation rarely occurs. Further the media drives the public sentiments and it goes on serving short term gains to the political parties leaving general public safety and justice administration at stake.