A Better Politics of Crime? A Critical Analysis of the Argument for Insulating Penal Policy from Political Contention

AuthorLucas Moran
PositionLLB (Soton)
(2022) Vol. 12
A better politics of crime? A critical analysis of the argument for insulating
penal policy from political contestation
Lucas Moran*
Since the end of the 20th century, penal populism has been on the rise. This rise has resulted in most major political
parties in western countries adopting a tough approach to crime to maintain their popularity with the electorate.
This ‘penal arms race’ betwe en major parties results in impractical and draconian criminal justice policy, which
has the disastrous effect of overcrowding an already financially strained prison system.
In a political environment where being seen as soft on crime is electoral suicide, the argument in favour of
insulating and therefore depoliticising penal policy through an independent body is an intriguing one for
academics. This paper will examine this argument, drawing on the history of penal populism up to the present day
and reasons for its influence in the UK, before looking at the proposition for a National Centre for Criminal Justice
Excellence (“NICJE”).
hen looking at the current state of penal policy in many countries, particularly
those in the West such as the UK and the US, the depoliticisation of criminal
justice is a tempting proposition. The rise of penal populism at the end of the 20th
century, particularly in Western, neo-liberal democracies, has led to massive and unsustainable
prison populations in an era of austerity.1 This in turn has resulted in extremely poor prison
conditions and record levels of prisoner violence and self-harm.23 In examining this question,
the justifications for insulation from politics will be examined by looking at the culture of
control and political economy. Whilst acknowledging that penal populism is causing great
issues in how penal policy is developed, it will be concluded that outright insulation through
an independent body is not the answer and that instead the democratisation of criminal justice
and the encouragement of societal engagement in penal policy is a preferable approach when
searching for a better politics of crime.
In the middle part of the 20th century ‘penal welfarism’ formed part of a ‘bipartisan consensus’,
where all political parties in the UK shared very similar policies in regards to law and order.
These policies were largely non-punitive, and were often alternatives to imprisonment, such as
* LLB (Soton).
1 Roy Walmsley, ‘World Prison Population List’ ICPR, 12th ed, [2018].
2 Gov.UK, ‘Safety and Order’ (April 2019-March 2020) <https://data.justice.gov.uk/prisons/safety-and-order/>
accessed 1st April 2021.
3 Ministry of Justice, ‘Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales 2018’, 1.

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