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Why do we punish? An important question we need to keep asking

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Question everything

Tomorrow I am at the University of Northampton Open Day for our criminology programmes, and I have decided to focus on the theme of punishment, and so it seemed appropriate to also focus on this for my blog this week. I want to introduce prospective students to this question of why we punish offenders, given that when students come to us – and I have found this in every HEI I have worked in – up until that point, little consideration is given to the assumption that offenders must be punished and that they must face harsh punishment, as this is the key function of our justice system.

 

We all spend the next three years challenging these assumptions through an examination of the purpose of punishment, sentencing practice, the legalities of what the courts can do, the likelihood of cases getting to court, that a life sentence very rarely means ‘life’ and the problems we have with overcrowding in prisons and high re-offending rates. I introduce students to the work of Joe Sim, Ben Crewe, Yvonne Jewkes, George Mair and Rob Canton among countless others to provide research evidence and theory which should help them answer the question – why punish? Yet, I still find students at the end of their programme who have not shifted from this position of punishment as central to justice, required to support victims and as necessary to uphold law, order and maintain a civil society. I don’t wholly disagree – there are high risk offenders, there are types of offending which cause harms beyond direct victims, and there is a need for intervention to protect the public. What I try to get across to students, is that there are equally circumstances in which we need to ask whether a criminal justice response is the most effective, morally just and if it truly reflects a civil society.

 

In my experience of teaching one of the ways this debate is raised is to examine case studies, how the justice system dealt with them, how they were presented in the press and what we know now. I will be examining the Shannon Matthews case on Saturday – an emotive, harrowing and high-profile case which will no doubt get prospective students – and their parents – talking. I don’t intend to change hearts and minds during a 45-minute presentation and discussion, but it is really to make it clear that a criminology programme will challenge what people think they know and believe about crime and the justice system. I think it is vital that criminology, as a social science, maintains its foundations as a critical examination of policy, law, practice, theory and those established common sense beliefs about how crime should be dealt with. I tell students during these sessions and induction weeks that telling friends and family they study criminology presents an interesting issue for them, as everyone has an opinion they will want to express. This is especially the case for Karen Matthews, Shannon’s mother, who continues to be vilified in the press after her release from prison. It takes time to get across to students that to examine our assumptions about what we think we know about Karen and what she did is not to condone it, but to explain it, understand it and perhaps look at it less with emotion, and more with empathy.

 

Rob Canton’s book ‘Why Punish’ is a very good resource for these debates – it presents these questions from moral, philosophical, sociological and political perspectives. It is one of the most thorough examinations of punishment, the penal system and the rationale we present for this, from deterrence, incapacitation, retribution and rehabilitation. The case of Karen Matthews would seem to present an obvious answer – we punish because it is reprehensible to kidnap a child and to fraudulently obtain money from this act, and then to deceive friends, family and community. We punish to send a clear message of response, to vindicate laws and to seek justice for Shannon, and we punish because that is what the justice system is meant to do. The re-examination of punishment requires an acknowledgement of the emotional reactions to crime, that our assessment of what should happen to offenders comes from a place of indignation, fear, a need for justice and a requirement that the state must act to implement this. So, in the case of Karen Matthews, perhaps the question is not to ask why was she punished for her crimes, but to consider why this continues in the form of press attention and condemnation. For those less high-profile cases, we need to consider how many among the 82,764 (Ministry of Justice, 2018) people in prison truly pose a risk to others, need treatment and support and not just incarceration, will not benefit from retributive condemnation or attempts at deterrence and where there were alternatives in community sentencing which could have addressed their offending behaviour.

 

This may seem a lot to ask of prospective students and parents who come along to find out what we do, but it is simply to emphasise the importance of asking this question, among many others. The harms of imprisonment are well documented from Foucault, to Sykes, Sims and more contemporary research into the impact of overcrowding, violence, drug use and the high numbers of prisoners with mental health issues (such as Nurse et al 2003; Huey & Mcnulty, 2005; Crewe, 2007). This must all be understood in the context of high re-offending rates which tell us whatever your views on the purpose of custodial sentences, they don’t work to prevent further offending. As well as being an important question to ask, it is also a difficult one – it proposes to ask the public to think differently about crime and offenders, to demand politicians and policy makes use methods which are more effective, less harmful in terms of the consequences of engagement with the criminal justice system, and which still represent ‘doing justice’. I am expecting, and hoping, for some interesting debate and discussion, and that students get a clear idea of not only what we do, but why we do it and why we will continue to do so.

 

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

 

Canton, R. (2017) Why Punish? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Punishment, Palgrave, London.

Crewe, B. (2007) Power, Adaptation and Resistance in a Late-Modern Men’s Prison, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 47, Issue 2, 1 March 2007, Pages 256–275.

Huey, M. P., & Mcnulty, T. L. (2005). Institutional Conditions and Prison Suicide: Conditional Effects of Deprivation and Overcrowding. The Prison Journal, 85(4), 490–514.

Ministry of Justice (2018) Prison population Figures: 2018, MoJ, London.

Nurse J., Woodcock, P. & Ormsby, J. (2003), Influence of environmental factors on mental health within prisons: focus group study British Medical Journal, 327:480.

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