Penal Populism and Public Opinion: Lessons from Five Countries

Penal Populism and Public Opinion: Lessons from Five Countries

Penal Populism and Public Opinion: Lessons from Five Countries

Penal Populism and Public Opinion: Lessons from Five Countries


Although criminal justice systems vary greatly around the world, one theme has emerged in all western jurisdictions in recent years: a rise in both the rhetoric and practice of severe punishment at a time when public opinion has played a pivotal role in sentencing policy and reforms. Despite the differences among jurisdictions, startling commonalities exist among the five countries-the U.K., USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand--surveyed here. Drawing on the results of representative opinion surveys and other research tools the authors map public attitudes towards crime and punishment across countries and explore the congruence between public views and actual policies. Co-authored by four distinguished sentencing policy experts, Penal Populism and Public Opinion is a clarion call for limiting the influence of penal populism and instituting more informed, research- based sentencing policies across the western world.


I remember an era when the only feature of penal policy that politicians discussed was capital punishment, and even that was forgotten at election time. The increases in crime-rates—real and apparent—after World War II discredited “liberal” strategies and provided right-wing penologists and judges with new ammunition.

It was inevitable that rising rates of crime—or reported crime—would sooner or later thrust law enforcement and sentencing onto political platforms, but nobody foresaw the extent to which by the end of the century law enforcement would become a shuttlecock between parties.

This book, the product of collaboration between authors with experience in at least five jurisdictions, documents the process with an impressive collection of empirical data. Politicians and penal reformers may call the result cynical. In fact, it achieves as much realism as is scientifically possible. The science of interpreting public opinion has become much more sophisticated than it was in the days of simplistic opinion polls. For example, at last it can be said that “It is bad practice to ask people questions when it is clear that the majority lack the information necessary to make a sensible response.”

This book's main theme is the interplay between politicians and voters, complicated by the oversimplifications and distortions of the news media. Hard cases make bad law, and spectacular cases make knee-jerk policy. The authors see this as a downward spiral that could descend even further. Is it a spiral which can be halted? Chapter 10 outlines expedients that may combat it. Among its suggestions is the creation of a “policy buffer”—an institution without politicians whose task it would be to advise and supply relevant information about penal proposals. None of the authors’ jurisdictions has quite succeeded in imposing a brake of this kind on governments; and civil servants are not as authoritative as they used to be.

In the sixties and seventies, England had an Advisory Council on the Penal Systems, which considered ministers’ ideas and reported publicly on them. Some of its reports initiated sensible reforms, but ministers (and civil servants) became impatient with the time it took and abolished it.

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