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“Penal Crisis” and Its Social Roots Essay

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Updated: Dec 25th, 2020

Introduction

Nowadays, more and more people in the West come to realize that the currently enacted correctional paradigm does not fit for the task of combating crime. The reason for this is thoroughly objective: the dramatic rise of the incarceration rate that has taken place through the last few decades in most Western countries did not result in improving the overall criminological situation, in the factual sense of this word.

Quite the contrary, there appears to have always been a positive correlation between the adoption of the “tough on crime” policies (behind the rate’s growth), on the one hand, and the process of many large cities in North America and Western Europe becoming increasingly crime-ridden, on the other. The US and the UK stand out particularly illustrative in this regard. For example, according to Pfaff (2016), “From the mid-1970s to 2010, the U.S. prison population steadily and relentlessly rose from around 250,000 to 1.6 million; the incarceration rate from around 120 per 100,000 to 510 per 100,000” (p. 951).

As of today, the prison population in this country has grown to be over 2 million. The issue in question concerns the UK as well, “The prison population in England and Wales… has increased by over 30 percent compared to 10 years ago, and is nearly double that of 20 years ago (the highest in Europe)” (Ryan & Ward 2015, p. 107). There are two discursive implications to the above-stated. First, it will be appropriate to refer to the described situation in terms of a “penal crisis”, just as it is being done by several contemporary criminologists and social scientists.

Second, there is good logic in assuming that this crisis has been induced by the adoption of Neoliberalism as a quasi-official ideology in the US and the UK during the early 1990s. This paper will explore the soundness of both hypothetical suggestions at length while outlining the issue’s most problematic aspects and arguing that there is a well-defined economic rationale to it. It will also be argued that the dramatic growth of the incarceration rate in the US and the UK is best assessed from the Marxist sociological perspective (Bichler & Nitzan 2014).

The rise in the number of prisoners in Western countries

As one can infer from what has been said earlier, there is a certain paradoxical quality to the fact that the prison population in the US and the UK continues to expand rather exponentially. The reason for this is that such an observable trend is inconsistent with the Neoliberal assumption that the proper functioning of the “free market” economy and the continuation of social progress are two closely interrelated categories (Ward & Green 2016).

After all, the very notion of “social progress” presupposes that as time goes on, more and more people grow intrinsically motivated to act in a socially appropriate manner, which in turn is supposed to result in reducing the number of inmates in jails. Also, under the condition of social progress, the practice of sentencing convicts to do time in jail is supposed to serve the purpose of making them immune to the temptation to commit new crimes.

For as long as the penal situation of the US and the UK is concerned, however, this is far from being the case. The rate of criminal recidivism in the US has been estimated to be the world’s highest. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, close to 70% of those who have served their initial sentences end up being charged with committing another criminal offense within 3 years after having been released from prison (Seigafo 2017).

There are also other visible inconsistencies to the trend. One of them has to do with the fact is that the rapid expansion of the prison population in the US and the UK comes hand in hand with the ongoing commercialization of the correctional domain in both countries. To illustrate the validity of this statement, it will suffice to say that since the early 1990s, it has become a widespread practice to employ private contractors for dealing with the population of convicts, “The skyrocketing costs of the prison system have worked as a magnet for private actors involved in the business of private deten­tion and related “prison services” such as prisoner health care, phone services, transportation, food catering, and so on” (De Giorgi 2016, p. 13).

The US-based Correc­tions Corporations of America (CCA), GEO Group, and the UK-based G4S are the most well-known of them. While sticking to their contractual obligations with the government, such contractors are primarily driven by the prospect of being able to generate a substantial monetary profit. It is needless to mention, however, that the activity of serving justice is hardly compatible with the activity of making money.

The fact that the described “penal crisis” is gaining momentum as we speak can also be shown about the ongoing stigmatization of convicted criminals, the problem of overcrowding, and the rapidly increasing overrepresentation of ethnically visible convicts in jails. For example, while reflecting on the correctional situation in the UK, Hart and Schlembach (2015) noted, “Prisons in the UK have been dangerous and overcrowded institutions for decades.

They house increasingly disproportionate numbers of vulnerable and marginalized groups” (p. 290). The same applies to the US, “The US prison population is disproportionately selected among the unemployed/underemployed, modestly educated, and largely disenfranchised poor populations of color” (De Giorgi 2016, p. 10). This raises a certain concern about whether the legacy of institutionalized racism continues to affect the functioning of the penitentiary system in the Anglo-Saxon West.

What is especially odd about the outlined trend is that it is utterly inconsistent with the implementation of the policy of multiculturalism that has been taking place in the US and the UK since the late 1980s onwards. After all, within the policy’s conceptual framework the extent of one’s criminal-mindedness is assumed to be irrespective of the particulars of his or her ethnocultural affiliation (Urbina & Álvarez 2016).

As of today, there are two conceptual approaches to interpreting the significance of the current penal dynamics in the UK and the US. They, in turn, can be loosely termed as Neoliberal and Marxist. According to the proponents of the former, there is a “technical” quality to the rise of the incarceration rate in both countries. As De Giorgi (2016) noted, “Mass incarceration tends to be portrayed (by liberals) as a technical problem, a temporary aberration in an otherwise rational criminal justice system… an accidental stumbling block in a long history of penal progress” (p. 7).

These individuals prefer to rationalize “mass incarceration” and “penal commercialization” as having been brought about by an objective need to increase the cost-efficiency of operating jails, which in turn was predetermined to emerge by the economic downturn of the late 2000s. It is also often suggested that the concerned phenomenon is reflective of the fact that the very realities of a post-industrial living call for the revision of many classical assumptions about the nature of a crime and what account for the best strategies for countering it.

In particular, the advocates of Neoliberal penology claim that the primary focus of law enforcement should be shifted from preventing crime to “managing crime”. As McLaughlin and Muncie (2014) suggested, “The new penology is neither about punishing nor about rehabilitating individuals. It is about identifying and managing unruly groups… Its goal is not to eliminate crime, but to make it tolerable through systemic coordination” (p. 512).

In plain words, the emphasis must be put on ensuring the criminological safety of specifically the well-off residents of the “white suburbia” at the expense of legitimizing (even if informally) the practice of racial profiling and keeping the representatives of “unruly groups” behind bars for as long as possible. This is exactly what has been happening as of late in both the UK and the US (Lynch 2015).

There is, however, a much more logically sound explanation as to why the incarceration rate in both countries has been steadily rising, as well as to the rest of the mentioned paradoxical aspects of the phenomenon in question. It has to do with the fact that since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the world’s rich and powerful are no longer pressed to share some of their riches with the rest, as a way of reducing the severity of class-tensions within the society that commonly lead towards the outbreak of the Socialist revolution (Jacobs 2017). Hence, the rapidly widening gap between the rich and poor in the West and the suddenly emerged “necessity” in clamping down on people’s civil rights (to increase “safety”) and reducing the amount of social welfare spending by the government (to increase “cost-effectiveness”).

In this regard, the mentioned upsurge of the incarceration rate in the US and the UK appears to be merely symptomatic. In this regard, De Giorgi (2017) came up with yet another enlightening observation, “The US carceral state… keeps fulfilling the role penal institutions have historically played in capitalist societies: transforming the poor into criminals, criminals into prisoners, and prisoners into a disposable labor force” (p. 113).

Therefore, the rapid growth of the number of “private jails” across the UK and the US should be perceived for what it is: yet another indication that the workings of the “free market” economy are quintessentially immoral and inconsistent with the notion of social progress by definition. After all, slave labor has been considered the most “cost-effective” since the time of antiquity and this continues to be the case today. The realities of the ongoing commercialization of the penitentiary domain in both countries substantiate the validity of this suggestion. For example, as of 2014, the share of convict-labor in all the electronic products manufactured in America accounted for 36% and it continues to grow.

Among the most well-known American companies that have signed convict-lease contracts with the privately owned prisons are Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Starbucks, IBM, Boeing, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, etc. The CCA pays convicts about 50 cents per hour on average while requiring them to work for no less than 6 hours a day. However, it is not uncommon for prisoners in certain privatized facilities to be paid as little as 17 cents per hour (Burkhardt 2014).

Such a situation is explainable. By the early nineties, the cost of labor in the US and the UK has grown much too high for most of the locally-based manufacturing companies, hence the phenomenon of outsourcing. However, there is also another way to address the challenge: using increasing the population of convicts in the privately owned jails and legitimizing “slave labor” in those facilities.

The most logical way to go about achieving this objective is by providing ever-harsher sentences for even the comparatively minor criminal offenses. For example, in the US the federal law provides a five-year sentence without the right to parole for storing 1 ounce of crack cocaine, 4 ounces of marijuana, or 3.5 ounces of heroin (Eaglin 2017). Thus, there is indeed a good reason to think of the current “penal crisis” in the US and the UK as having been deliberately triggered by the very nature of how the “free market” economy addresses the challenge of remaining sustainable. Consequently, this implies that the rate of incarceration in the Anglo-Saxon West will continue to increase while effectively turning both the US and the UK into nothing short of “carceral states”.

Conclusion

Just as it was implied initially, the currently deployed correctional paradigm in The UK and the US exhibits ever more signs of becoming indifferent to the cause of rehabilitation. Instead, the societal practice of sentencing criminals to spend time in jail now serves only two utilitarian purposes: to keep “criminally-minded” (read ethnically visible) citizens off the street, on the one hand, and supply large manufacturing companies with “slave labor”, on the other (Rucman 2019).

Once assessed from a broader perspective, such a situation will appear to be predetermined by the fact that the form of political governing in the US and the UK is not de facto democratic. After all, neither the British nor American ordinary citizens are allowed to elect their Prime Minister/President by mean of a direct vote. The governments of both countries prefer to defend democracy abroad, as opposed to developing it at home.

Therefore, for as long as there remains the status quo in this respect, there can be no effective solution to the earlier described “penal crisis”. This conclusion correlates well with the paper’s overall argumentative logic.

References

Bichler, S & Nitzan, J 2014, ‘No way out: crime, punishment and the capitalization of power’, Crime, Law and Social Change, vol. 61, no. 3, pp. 251-271.

Burkhardt, B 2014, ‘Private prisons in public discourse: measuring moral legitimacy’, Sociological Focus, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 279-298.

De Giorgi, A 2016, ’Five theses on mass incarceration’, Social Justice, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 5-30.

De Giorgi, A 2017, ‘Back to nothing: prisoner reentry and neoliberal neglect’, Social Justice, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 83-120.

Eaglin, J 2017, ‘Constructing recidivism risk’, Emory Law Journal, vol. 67, no. 1, pp. 59-122.

Hart, E & Schlembach, R 2015, ‘The Wrexham Titan prison and the case against prison expansion’, Critical and Radical Social Work, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 289-294.

Jacobs, G 2017, ‘The political economy of neoliberalism and illiberal democracy’, Cadmus, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 122-141.

Lynch, M 2015, ‘The classlessness state of criminology and why criminology without class is rather meaningless’, Crime, Law and Social Change, vol. 63, no. 1-2, pp. 65-90.

McLaughlin E & Muncie J 2013, Criminological perspectives, SAGE, London.

Pfaff, J 2016, ‘The complicated economics of prison reform’, Michigan Law Review, vol. 114, no. 6, pp. 951-981.

Rucman, A 2019, ‘What is crime? A search for an answer encompassing civilisational legitimacy and social harm’, Crime, Law and Social Change, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 1-16.

Ryan, M & Ward, T 2015, ‘Prison abolition in the UK: they dare not speak its name?’, Social Justice, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 107-119.

Seigafo, S 2017, ‘Inmate’s right to rehabilitation during incarceration: a critical analysis of the United States correctional system’, International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, vol. 12, no. 2, 183-195.

Urbina, M & Álvarez, S 2016, ‘Neoliberalism, criminal justice and Latinos: the contours of neoliberal economic thought and policy on criminalization’, Latino Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 33-58.

Ward, T & Green, P 2016, ‘Law, the state, and the dialectics of state crime’, Critical Criminology, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 217-230.

Rehabilitative Paradigm in Corrections and the Reasons Behind Its Ineffectiveness

One of the most notable aspects of the justice system’s contemporary functioning is the fact that its representatives claim to be willing to embrace the so-called “rehabilitative” correctional philosophy, when the penal focus is shifted from punishing the convicted criminal, as something that has the value of a thing-in-itself, to making it more likely for him or her to be able to integrate into the society once released (Tripodi 2014).

Among the most convincing indications that the concerned correctional reform is well underway is commonly mentioned the establishment and the growing popularity of a number of the conceptually innovative penitentiary facilities in the US and the UK, such as prison farms, restitution centres, reformatories, study release centres, etc. At the same time, however, there is now enough evidence that the functioning of these correctional institutions is very ineffective, to say the least.

In this regard, one will only need to mention the fact that the rate of criminal recidivism in both countries reaches a staggering 70% (Fazel & Wolf 2015). This essay will explore the issue at length and expose the objective preconditions for the implementation of the rehabilitative correctional paradigm in the West to continue sustaining setbacks.

Throughout the course of history, the concept of corporal punishment never ceased undergoing a qualitative transformation to be up to date, in the discursive sense of this word. For example, before the Industrial Revolution, the punishing of a convicted criminal often involved inflicting physical pain on the person or disposing of him/her altogether. Nevertheless, after the establishment of the secular nation-states in the early 19th century, more and more policy-makers in the West were beginning to realise that criminals too, in fact, represent a certain “human capital” (Bierie & Mann 2017).

As a result, during the 19th century, the concept of penal punishment was transformed from being concerned with punishing the “body” to serve the purpose of punishing the “mind”. This development coincided with the legal legitimisation of the concept of penal imprisonment: after having served time in jail; convicts are expected to be able to reintegrate socially (Hessick & Berman 2016). Nevertheless, contrary to how many people view it, the considerations of conventional morality played only a minor role in bringing about both developments. Rather, the penal progress in question was made possible by the fact that in the society that undergoes industrialisation, human resources are in particularly high demand.

Nevertheless, the beginning of the post-industrial era (in the early 1960s), triggered by the societal shift from industrial manufacturing to producing technologies, resulted in causing social scientists to reassess the discursive implications of the term “human capital”. This could not be otherwise, because in the post-industrial society one’s value as an individual cannot be discussed outside of the person’s educational attainment, as well as his or her varying ability to indulge in the synthesised (creative) type of thinking (Cohen & Yang 2019).

Therefore, there are now no socially predetermined conditions for policy-makers to sincerely believe that the imprisonment of convicted criminals may serve any rehabilitative purposes, whatsoever. The reason for this is apparent: the suppression of criminal leanings in a convict (the ultimate purpose of incarceration), will not result in increasing his or her “human capital” value. In post-industrial society, one’s body has no value apart from the fact that it contains valuable organ transplants. It is specifically the person’s cranial capacity (mind) that nowadays defines his or her chances of social advancement (Gritsenko & Orlov 2017).

During the industrial era, it was assumed that it is namely the convict’s willingness to adhere to the socially imposed rules and regulations that qualifies him for rehabilitation more than anything. Nowadays, however, it becomes ever clearer to everybody that the time served in jail hardly results in encouraging an inmate to work on expanding its intellectual horizons. Quite to the contrary. The longer a convicted criminal remains in jail, the more he or she becomes affiliated with the virtues of a pre-industrial living: ethnic solidarity, ritualistic religiosity, racial intolerance, etc.

The worst thing of all, however, is that such a person becomes convinced that the application of direct physical violence is the only effective way to address life’s challenges (May et al. 2014). The reason for this is that while imprisoned, people naturally come in extremely close touch with their atavistic nature as “hairless primates”. Just as it is being the case within the ape pack, most imprisoned convicts preoccupy themselves with trying to impose dominance over each other on a full-time basis.

For example, the qualitative aspects of one’s long-term incarceration in just about any American prison cannot be discussed outside of what accounts for the influence of prison gangs on defining the actual realities of imprisonment. In this regard, we can mention the fact that it is specifically the convicted members of different ethnic gangs that contribute the most to the formation of a social climate in every particular jail. In fact, it now became a common practice among the personnel to cooperate with the convicted gang leaders as the most effective instrument of keeping the rest of inmates under control (Butler, Slade & Camila 2018).

Because of this, the current correctional situation in the West (especially in the US and the UK), marked by the skyrocketing rate of incarceration, may seem to be deprived of any rationale, whatsoever. After all, it has been proven by biologists a long time ago that punishing one’s “mind” will never change the way in which the concerned person perceives the surrounding social reality and its challenges.

The reason for this is that, as the recent breakthroughs in the field of neurobiology indicate, the actual individuality of a person is defined by the morphological specifics of his or her brain’s structuring. What this means is that the very idea that it is possible to “re-educate” criminals is fallacious. Because they are nothing but the representatives of just another species of primates, people cannot help being preoccupied with sexual mating (sex), securing access to nutrients (food), and trying to attain social prominence (domination). Therefore, it will prove impossible to “re-educate” a convicted thief so that he never considers stealing again, for example.

After all, by stealing a particular resource a person is able to preserve much precious metabolic energy that he or she would have been required to waste on acquiring the same resource in a socially appropriate manner. Once assessed from the biological perspective, the criminal act of stealing makes a perfectly good sense (for as long as the perpetrator is able to get away with it, of course). In the eyes of evolution, driven by blind mutations and the equally blind principle of natural selection, it is being of no relevance, whatsoever, whether the person is moral/law-obeying or immoral/criminally-minded.

All that matters is whether he or she can succeed in spreading its genome or not (Ozkan 2017). Unfortunately, the proponents of the rehabilitative approach to serving justice refuse to acknowledge this simple fact, because of their naïve belief that Homo Sapiens is the final product of evolution.

Thus, the current popularity of “rehabilitative justice” in the West is best explained with respect to the fact that the paradigm’s practical implementation provides justification for the continual expansion of bureaucratic apparatus within the penitentiary system (Giroux 2017). The actual well-being of inmates has never been of any importance to the paradigm’s advocates, despite all the politically correct and well-meaning rhetoric on the part of the former.

Nevertheless, the true purpose of the ongoing popularisation of the penal concept in question is to revitalise the economy by mean of providing large manufacturing companies with access to dirt-cheap labour in their home countries. As De Giorgi (2017) aptly suggested, “The reproduction of a large army of disenfranchised poor people rendered politically powerless to resist their exploitation… is not an unintended consequence or a collateral effect of the prison, but rather one of its constitutive features and historical raisons d’être” (p. 113).

For as long as the society remains capitalist and continues to profess the ideology of extreme individualism (Neoliberalism), it is not in the position to expect that it can achieve much progress in the way of combating crime. The implementation of even the most progressive penal reforms, in this regard, is bound to sustain an eventual fiasco.

The apparent failure of rehabilitative penology in the UK and the US provides us with the clue as to why it is going to be the case. After all, within the model’s discursive framework, the notion of “rehabilitation” stands for the assumption that after having served their sentences, former convicts will be willing to work as common labourers while paid a minimum wage salary. However, it is not only that such an assumption is conceptually erroneous, but also deliberately misleading.

That is, its promoters strive to prevent people from being able to distinguish rehabilitation from exploitation, which in turn is supposed to strengthen the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic grip onto the society. As the same author stated in his other article, “The mainstream penal discourse… is fundamentally incompatible with any acknowledgment of the structural ties between the rise of the penal state and the dramatic increase in social inequalities in the collective West” (De Giorgi 2016, p. 9).

Does this mean that the social reintegration of former criminals is impossible by definition? The answer to this question is negative. The actual rationale behind this answer is reflective of the fact that even though people’s behaviour is indeed instinctual to a considerable extent, the representatives of the Homo Sapiens species are social beings. As practice indicates, one’s prolonged existence in a socially withdrawn mode inevitably results in setting the individual on the path of self-destruction.

What this means is that there must be a powerful incentive for the locked up convicts to be naturally drawn to the prospect of becoming a part of the society again. The reason why many of these individuals end up being charged with committing another criminal offence within a short time after their release from jail is that the surrounding social reality is not quite social, in the traditional sense of the word.

Because of the continual dominance of the Neoliberal ideology in the West, citizens are being encouraged to assume that the main purpose of one’s life is to consume goods and services on a continual basis, as something that has a value of its own: the activity that supposedly makes the concerned individual truly happy and “free” (Falkoff 2015). However, by adopting a consumerist lifestyle, people cannot help growing ever more atomised, in the societal sense of this word, and therefore more likely to consider perpetrating a crime as the most effortless (although risky) instrument of social advancement (Plattner 2017).

This provides us with a partial clue as to the apparent inefficiency of rehabilitative penology in the West: the paradigm’s conceptual premises do not take into consideration the highly systemic nature of how the society comes into being in the first place. As a result, all the talks about making it easier for the released convicts to succeed in trying to reintegrate socially are being increasingly deprived of any practical sense, especially given the fact that the rehabilitative model’s postulates are now being commonly perceived as merely declarative (Grasso 2017). In the US and the UK, once criminal, always criminal: the is the direct consequence of the ongoing stigmatisation of crime along the racial and class lines.

As one can infer from what was said earlier, for the rehabilitative justice-model to prove workable, the society’s developmental philosophy must be adjusted to serve purpose of human advancement, as opposed to encouraging people to act on behalf of their consumerist instincts. How this could be achieved in practice represents a separate topic for the discussion.

At this point, it can be confirmed that the line of analytical reasoning, deployed throughout the paper, is fully consistent with its initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed very little point in discussing the practical viability of different approaches to administering criminal punishments outside of what accounts for the socio-political and economic climate within the society. This exposes the erroneousness of the constructivist outlook on crime and presupposes that the time has come for criminologists to consider conceptualising the former as a thoroughly positivist category. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely for such a development to take place any time soon, as it will put in question the whole system of political governing in both countries. The present paper is meant to contribute to the cause.

References

Bierie, D & Mann, R 2017, ‘The history and future of prison psychology’, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 478-489.

Butler, M, Slade, G & Camila, N 2018, ‘Self-governing prisons: prison gangs in an international perspective’, Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 10, pp. 1-16.

Cohen, A & Yang, C 2019, ‘Judicial politics and sentencing decisions’, American Economic Journal. Economic Policy, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 160-191.

De Giorgi, A 2016, ‘Five theses on mass incarceration’, Social Justice, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 5-30.

De Giorgi, A 2017, ‘Back to nothing: prisoner reentry and neoliberal neglect’, Social Justice, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 83-120.

Falkoff, R 2015, ‘The practice of misuse: rugged consumerism in contemporary American culture’, Configurations, vol. 23, no.1, pp. 123-131.

Fazel, S & Wolf, A 2015, ‘A systematic review of criminal recidivism rates worldwide: current difficulties and recommendations for best practice’, PLoS One, vol. 10, no. 6, pp. 3-10.

Giroux, H 2017, ‘Poisoned city in the age of casino capitalism’, Theory in Action, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 7-31.

Grasso, A 2017, ‘Broken beyond repair: rehabilitative penology and American political development”, Political Research Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 2, pp. 394-407.

Gritsenko, V & Orlov, V. 2017, ‘Universal labor and the future of value,’ Science & Society, vol. 81, no. 1, pp. 35-53.

Hessick, C & Berman, D 2016, ‘Towards a theory of mitigation’, Boston University Law Review, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 161-218.

May, D, Applegate, B, Ruddell, R & Wood, P 2014, ‘Going to jail sucks (and it really doesn’t matter who you ask)’, American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 250-266.

Ozkan, T 2017, ‘Delinquency and evolution: a test of the Savanna Principle’, Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 316-335.

Plattner, M 2017, ‘Liberal democracy’s fading allure’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 5-14.

Tripodi, S 2014, ‘Emphasis on rehabilitation: from inmates to employees’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, vol. 58, no. 8, pp. 891-893.

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