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Punishment Politics

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2008

    Superb critique of the Labour government's appalling crime control policies

    Michael Tonry is Director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. The first half of the book examines the Labour government¿s changes to the criminal justice system, the role of rhetoric and symbolism, and English exceptionalism. The second half examines the government¿s policies on racial disparities, sentencing and violence. Until the early 1990s, only the USA had `an hyperbolic law-and-order politics and cruel, simplistic policies¿. Then, even though crime rates were falling in all Europe¿s larger countries during the 1990s, the Conservative government started to copy the USA. Now, the Labour government employs `the most hyperbolic anti-crime rhetoric of any in Europe, language that elsewhere characterizes xenophobic right-wing fringe parties¿. And we have the highest imprisonment rate in Europe and the most rapidly rising prison population. But have these American policies worked in the USA? `Three-strikes-and-you¿re-out¿ and mandatory minimum sentences have not cut crime but they have produced unjustly severe punishments and, once enacted, proven very hard to repeal. Zero-tolerance policing did not cause New York City¿s crime-rate declines in the 1990s (most other large American cities enjoyed similar declines whatever their policing styles), but resulted in large increases in police violence and racial confrontation. These American policies have had huge social and economic costs ¿ much the highest imprisonment rate among Western countries, the lengthiest prison sentences in the world, increasing numbers of executions, a third of its young black men under criminal justice system supervision, and vast sums spent on prisons that would be better spent on education or health care. The Labour government rejected evidence-based policies and decided to adopt American-style policies that they knew didn¿t work. They copy Clinton¿s political approach to crime (`don¿t let your opponents look tougher than you do¿). The results are sky-rocketing prison populations, worsening racial disparities, demoralised officials and avoidable suffering by offenders, their loved ones and their communities. Tonry describes Sir William Macpherson¿s definition of institutional racism as `extraordinarily artless and almost incoherent¿. It is also unhelpful because it does not address the problem of practices that are not meant to treat blacks worse, but do, particularly sentence reductions for guilty pleas. Punishment practices and imprisonment patterns have little effect on crime rates and trends. Harsher penalties do not deter. Yet judges still impose increasing custody rates and lengthening sentences. Their sentences are also wildly inconsistent: JPs¿ rates of sentencing to prison for the offence of driving while disqualified varied from 11.8% to 82.7%. Leaving sentencing to the discretion of individual judges doesn¿t work. Tonry proposes presumptive comprehensive sentencing guidelines with a governing rationale based on the concept of just deserts for the offence committed. Research shows that most of British people propose sentences less harsh than those that judges now impose. Most also think that the sentences now imposed are less harsh than they are. He also proposes to cut the sentences proposed in the guidelines by a third. Tonry tries to blame English culture for England¿s harsh punishment and prison regimes. Yet he admits that France and Germany have also recently developed more punitive public attitudes, but have not similarly moved towards harsher regimes. And he acknowledges that ¿the English judiciary appears to be at the heart of the problem.¿ So it is wrong to blame the public for the policies the people do not decide, or even influence, Britain¿s policies. The ruling class imposes the policies it wants, and then tries to shuffle off responsibility by lying that it is only reflecting public opinion.

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