A Canadian Exception to the Punitive Turn? Community Responses to Policing Practices in Winnipeg's Inner City

By Comack, Elizabeth; Silver, Jim | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Canadian Exception to the Punitive Turn? Community Responses to Policing Practices in Winnipeg's Inner City


Comack, Elizabeth, Silver, Jim, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Within the criminological literature, increasing attention has been fixed on the "punitive turn." Governments, backed by populist demand, are resorting more and more to criminal justice policies and practices aimed at "getting tough on criminals." Mass incarceration, mandatory sentences and three-strikes laws, the use of the death penalty, supermax prisons, indefinite detention, sex offender registries and community notification laws, boot camps, prison chain gangs, and zero-tolerance policing strategies are typically included in the list of such punitive policies and practices (Pratt et al. 2005; Sudbury 2005; Pratt 2000; Garland 2001; Wacquant 2000; 2001; 2006; Simon 1997; 1999). The extent to which this "new punitiveness" has taken hold has been the subject of much discussion and debate. Jeffrey Meyer and Pat O'Malley (2005:202), for instance, suggest that "the accuracy of accounts of a new punitive age may be geographically bounded."

Some writers have argued that Canada is an exception to trends identified in other countries, especially the United States. According to Meyer and O'Malley (2005), Canada has not followed the path of its neighbour to the south. Citing the availability of therapeutic programming in federal prisons, the relative stability of incarceration rates, the lack of public support for "get tough" policies, and the disavowal of an American-style response to crime, they maintain that Canadian criminal justice "cannot be subsumed under a general model of a global punitive turn" (Meyer and O'Malley 2005:213). Similarly, John Pratt (2007) argues that Canada has resisted the rise of a penal populism that advocates for more punitive, "get tough" crime control strategies. According to Pratt (2007:153):

   There seems to be widespread consensus in Canadian political and
   bureaucratic circles that the United States' crime control options
   have been a disaster and should not be repeated in Canada. This has
   meant that, in relation to penal policy, populist strategies have
   been able to make little headway there. While the simplistic and
   guileful slogans--three strikes, zero tolerance and so on--which
   emanate from penal development in the United States have been
   flashed around the world, Canada has had the benefit of more old
   fashioned neighbourly communication with that country and sees its
   realities very clearly. As a result it prefers a 'Canadian way' of
   dealing with social problems, in much the same way that it wants
   other aspects of Canadian life to reflect the identity of that
   country rather than the United States.

Such broad claims about Canadian criminal justice policies and practices are problematic. Criminal justice interventions--from policing to courts to prisons--are complex, and can differ from region to region and city to city. As Pratt and his colleagues (2005:xvi) have acknowledged, there is often considerable variation not only between countries, but also within them, as "trends evident at a national level often mask quite striking intra-national differences."

Casting criminal justice policies and practices as a "punitive/non-punitive" dichotomy ignores the diversity, contradictions, and tensions that often characterize such initiatives (Matthews 2005:195). Policing is a case in point. Just as punishment can be "volatile and contradictory" (O'Malley 1999), police service delivery can be a multifaceted endeavour involving strategies or rationales from the traditional incident-based model of policing, to community policing, to zero-tolerance policing. In addition, while police departments may borrow strategies that become popular in other jurisdictions, whether or not they take hold will depend upon the particular nature of the social problems that prevail in the communities in which they are implemented and the receptiveness of the citizenry to these initiatives.

Similarly, resting claims of a "punitive turn" on populist sentiments that call for "get tough" approaches to crime suggests that populism is, by definition, a backward or reactionary form of political mobilization. …

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A Canadian Exception to the Punitive Turn? Community Responses to Policing Practices in Winnipeg's Inner City
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