Monday, 22 October 2012

Reflections on ‘tough but intelligent’ criminal justice

By Andrew Henley

In David Cameron’s speech on prisons he has insisted that criminals can be punished and rehabilitated at the same time. In calling for what he claims is a “tough but intelligent” approach to criminal justice policy, the Prime Minister (perhaps unwittingly) re-ignites some interesting debates about the social purpose of the prison. Is it a place of punishment or a place or rehabilitation – or both? Can it meaningfully fulfil both purposes, and indeed, should it even attempt to achieve two potentially conflicting objectives simultaneously?

My initial reaction is that Cameron’s speech has merely added to the existing confusions which exist in the public imagination regarding what prisons actually do to those contained within them. They are cast both as facilitating ‘tough sentences’ (for the PM “retribution is not a dirty word”) but also as a site of reformation which will have a “positive impact” on prisoners. Yet neither Cameron, nor any of his recent predecessors or their ministerial appointees, has offered any indication of what the right balance of punishment and rehabilitation actually looks like. Indeed, how are prisoners themselves supposed to make sense of a criminal justice system which seeks to simultaneously inflict ‘pain’ upon them in various forms (by restricting their liberty, imposing various material deprivations on them in the name of ‘security’ and by limiting their contact with family and friends) whilst also attempting to affect in them forms of positive self-change (by addressing offending behaviour, tackling drug or alcohol addictions and teaching new skills). Does not the prisoner’s experience of the punitive elements of incarceration fundamentally undermine its supposedly reformative parallel objectives? And if so, are the more retributive aims of imprisonment either necessary or appropriate?

Cameron’s insistence on ‘tough sentences’ is certainly indicative of a strongly-held political belief in punishment – indeed, he was insistent that criminals both “deserve and need” punishment. And yet whilst claiming that he was not going to outbid other politicians on toughness, I managed to count twenty uses of the word ‘tough’, ‘tougher’ or ‘toughen’ in his speech (and four more ‘tough’s for good measure in answer to the first question). In delivering his speech, Cameron certainly sounded, or intended to sound…. tough! Yet, if we are to equate ‘toughness’ with ‘punishment’ and ‘punishment’ with ‘pain delivery’, then how are we to know when we have reached what Michael Ignatieff referred to as 'a just measure of pain’ in our criminal justice interventions?

Sadly, the detailed answers were missing from Cameron’s speech as to how the competing interests of punishment and deterrence (the tough bits) might be balanced against the need to reform and rehabilitate individuals (presumably the ‘intelligent’ bits). One can only assume that the PM sees punishment itself as in some way reformative, since in acknowledging the importance of a much-vaunted ‘rehabilitation revolution’ he described the justice secretary, Chris Grayling’s ‘driving mission’ as being “to see more people properly punished, but fewer offenders returning to the system.” Cameron went on to say: “To achieve that, we’re saying to charities, companies and voluntary organisations – come and help us rehabilitate our prisoners.” One can only assume, therefore, that this proposed outsourcing of the traditionally state-managed criminal justice objectives signals not only the further deterioration (or extinction) of the National Probation Service, but also a leading role for both corporate interests (G4S anyone?) and ‘Big Society’ providers in delivering the punishment/rehabilitation complex.

Andrew Henley is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology.

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