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Vic Uni lecturer questions punitive punishment

Politicians who bid for votes by promising tougher sentences are contributing to a growing intolerance that could spiral out of control, says Victoria University criminologist Dr John Pratt.

In Dr Pratt’s new book, Punishment and Civilization, he details the changes patterns of punishment from the 19th Century through to the modern day by looking at New Zealand, Britain, the United States and Canada. The book was launched at the British Criminology Conference in July and will receive its Australasian launch in October in Brisbane.

"From a time when societies which punished the least, such as the Netherlands, were thought to be the leaders of the civilized world, it has become the United States, the western country which punishes the most which has defined public debate, with its now familiar language of "life means life", "three strikes, you’re out" and "zero tolerance."

Dr Pratt says this new punitive sentiment has created a massive dilemma for modern societies. "Governments can go along with what the public wants and this leads to a massive increase in imprisonment but if they don’t it can lead to outbreaks of uncontrolled public hysteria or vigilante-type attacks against anyone it wants to get rid of, as happened in Britain a couple of years ago."

New Zealand’s latest General Election, in which parties were deemed "politically virile" by trying to outbid each other for votes by promising tougher sentences, is a good example, he says. Particularly worrying, he says, is that Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright was later attacked for pointing out what has been known for 200 years – that prison does not reform criminals.

"That the Governor-General gets shouted down for telling the truth is worrying because if she can’t tell the truth about crime and justice than who can and what does it say about New Zealand society today when people who try to tell the truth are subject to such abuse?"

But it wasn’t always this way. Dr Pratt says from the early 19th century to the 1970s, punishment was progressively fenced off from public view and became the exclusive role of the State and its bureaucracies. “Public executions disappeared and a veil of secrecy was drawn across the prisons, where reform and rehabilitation became the formal policy of the State’s penal experts, although the prisoners themselves had a very different view. Punishment became a largely anonymous, remote affair and became one of the identifying features of the civilized world.

"But in the 1970s, as economic crises hit and the welfare state began to unravel, the public lost faith in politicians and their bureaucratic experts. An increasingly anxious and insecure public has demanded greater involvement in penal affairs – New Zealand’s1999 referendum being an example. A new axis of penal power has developed where increasingly governments have looked to follow public demands, with its bureaucratic experts left to rubber stamp the result or left on the sideline.”

Dr Pratt says he’s not sure where the push for stiffer sentences will end. "The tolerance of much larger prison populations, the recent reintroduction of public shaming penalties in the United States and parts of Australia are taking us into penal territory previously though quite unacceptable in the civilized world."

Issued by Victoria University of Wellington Public Affairs
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