The Globalization of Punishment

Article excerpt

It is well-known throughout the corrections industry that the United States leads the rest of the modern world in levels of incarceration. The U.S. rate has increased from about 230 per 100,000 of the population in 1979 to 709 per 100,000 in 2000, according to Nils Christie's Crime Control as Industry. However, if such a rate and pace of expansion dwarf those in other English-speaking countries, it should not obscure the fact that in such countries, prison levels also have grown -- dramatically, in some cases -- to levels that were not anticipated nor planned for as recently as 15 years ago.

In New Zealand, for example, the incarceration rate increased from 75 per 100,000 in 1986 to 160 per 100,000 in 2000, per Department of Corrections records. In England and Wales, the incarceration rate increased from 93 in 1986 to 125 in 1997, according to a 1998 Home Office report. In Australia as a whole, the rate increased from 65 per 100,000 in 1996 to 106 per 100,000 in 1998. As in the United States, there are differing levels of incarceration across the Australian states. According to research by Carlos Carcach and Anna Grant, in New South Wales, the incarceration rate increased from 70 per 100,000 in 1986 to 125 in 1998; in Queensland, from 68 to 124. In contrast, the incarceration rate in Victoria only increased from 50 per 100,000 to 61 during the same period.

In other words, there are similarities as well as differences between prison developments in the United States and other modern societies -- similarities in terms of the expansion of prison populations and differences in relation to the pace and extent of this development. How might we begin to explain these seemingly ambiguous trends?

Prison Population Growth

It has become clear that many of the expectations associated with penal development in modern societies for much of the 19th and 20th centuries have been put into reverse or taken off on new tangents. During most of that period, governments generally were intent on restricting the use of incarceration, sanitizing penal conditions and developing community-based sanctions to act as alternatives to prison. As such, legislative barriers were placed in front of the prison for an ever-expanding group of offenders -- juveniles, the mentally ill, the elderly, alcohol-dependent offenders, women, first-time offenders and in some of these countries, even property offenders. By the 1970s, these trends had reached their apex as prison came to be seen as an expensive and inhumane folly.

Thereafter, all these expectations began to change. Instead of high levels of incarceration being seen as a sign of shame, they now are more likely to be regarded as an indicator of political virility, something to be proclaimed rather than embarrassed about. Again, there is a new belief in what prison might now be able to achieve: It works not in the sense of rehabilitating offenders, but in terms of at least being able to keep them off the streets for long periods of time. In these respects, punishment, like other aspects of modern life, has been "globalized," i.e., trends that can be found in the United States are likely to be replicated in other countries.

New Terms and Tactics

A new language of punishment has developed in these English-speaking societies, including terms such as "zero tolerance" and "three strikes" (or, in some cases just two or even one strike). There also are new tactics of punishment -- exemplified by the three-strikes laws themselves -- indicative of a growing intolerance of offenders and a determination to place responsibility for their actions on them and to meet this with longer prison terms. For example, offenders may face long, mandatory sentences (even life) in three-strikes provisions or derivatives, or with additional indefinite detention under the U.S. sexual predator laws and their equivalents elsewhere. Further, in England, there are two-strikes provisions for property offenders and a commitment to ensure longer prison terms for repeat offenders. …