Drawing on theories of moral panic and punitiveness, and relying on relevant contemporary examples, this paper purposes to critically discuss how politicization of criminal justice influences penal policy.
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Perhaps the best theoretical approach that could best expound on politicization of criminal justice, a process through which the political class snatch the opportunities to make use of criminal justice issues to facilitate their endeavours (Blumstein, 2007), is the moral panic theory.
Stanley Cohen (1972) cited in Farmer (2010) is credited as the first person to use the phrase ‘moral panic’ to depict a situation where mainstream media and the police develop a twirl of respectable fear by focussing attention to a scenario, real or imagined, that threatens the values and interests of society. The main agenda of creating a moral panic, according to Farmer (2010), is to stimulate public anxiety with the hope of generating changes in critical areas such as policing and the administration of criminal justice.
Going by this theory, it can be suggested that politicians have mastered the art of creating a moral panic out of situations that do not call for such fear, but which they use to penetrate essential institutions, such as the criminal justice, to influence the penal policy to their benefits.
Although it cannot be denied that terrorism is a global threat, politicians in high positions of influence in society backed up by the popular media and other ‘right-thinking people’, employed an overly stylized and stereotypical demeanour to influence the community on taking moral positions and making judgements that the Muslim faith and terrorism cannot be separated.
The result of such stereotyping under the pretext of war on terror is that, presently, “…Muslim immigrant communities are in crisis in the secular West confronting the conditionality of their citizenship, even in the second generation” (Humphrey, 2007 p. 10). But what is more interesting is the fact that politicians used the perceived threat of terrorism to infiltrate the justice system and introduce policies that view legitimate Muslim immigrants as potential threat to national security.
Consequently, instead of the policymaking process in criminal justice taking place at many different levels as indicated by Ryan (1999), the politicians hijacked the whole process to introduce morally questionable policies through the backdoor.
The war on drugs, the threat of ‘superpredators’, and the August 2011 riots in Britain after a black man was supposedly shot by police, are all examples of situations which have triggered moral panics, but which we have seen politicians and ‘like-minded people’ react viscerally, impulsively, and mechanistically rather than assume a reasoned and informed policy approach to criminal justice which involves all stakeholders, including the public (Ryan, 1999).
The second framework that could be used to illuminate the politicization of criminal justice and subsequent control and manipulation of the penal policy is the theory of punitiveness. According to Green (2009), the term ‘punitiveness’ is used by many criminological scholars “…to indicate the presence of harsh public attitudes toward offenders” (p. 519).
Consequently, it can be argued that punitive dispositions among people, particularly those in positions of power and influence, can be intrinsically associated with specific fears and concerns about possible moral and social breakdown to a point where the actors are, actively or passively, forced to make ad hoc, impulsive, and arbitrary policies, which may not necessarily be reasoned or but which are taken to preserve the popular discourse – at least according to the actors (Blumstein, 2007).
While Nelken (2009) notes that many countries are characterized by increasing punitiveness in their criminal justice systems, Ryan (1999) observes that this trend is being stimulated by penal populism, which is being facilitated by political entities such as the New Labour (implying politicians).
The 2011 Britain riots illuminate the increasingly punitive character of criminal justice policies taking shape in the U.K., but which can be attributed to the political class in its attempt to irrationally deal with perceived moral and social breakdown rather than involving a reasoned and considered analysis of what transpired to ignite the riots.
The many convictions that have transpired ever since the outbreak of the riots in August give credence to the fact that Britain is following in the footsteps of neo-liberal societies, such as the U.S., “…who have the highest prison rates because they follow social and economic policies that lead to what they describe as exclusionary cultural attitudes towards [their] deviant and marginalized fellow citizens” (Nelken, 2009 p. 295).
It is important to note that it is these exclusionary cultural attitudes as described by Nelken (2009) that have served to enhance criminality among the Black youth in the American society (Farmer, 2010), as they are looked upon by the predominantly white leadership as people who are bent on committing crime.
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It should not escape mention that the recent riots witnessed in Britain were triggered by similar exclusionary cultural attitudes in that the victim, a member of the black community, was shot due to perceived gun crime.
This notwithstanding, we have seen how the political leadership have used this and other previous cases to make misconstrued political appeal linked to acting tough on crime, but which have nevertheless materialized in making Britain’s. Judiciary to also ‘act tough’ on the rioters by handing them heavy sentences due to the temptations that the political class triggered when they knowingly acted to arouse the public’s mood and attitudes about the crime committed during the riots. The above insights demonstrate how the politicization of criminal justice influences penal policy.
List of References
Blumstein, A (2007). The Roots of Punitiveness in a Democracy. Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology & Crime Prevention, 8 (1), pp. 2-16.
Farmer, S (2010). Criminality of Black Youth in Inner-City Schools: ‘Moral Panic’, Moral Imagination, and Moral Formation. Ethnicity & Education, 13 (3), pp. 367-381.
Green, D.A (2009). Feeding Wolves: Punitiveness and Culture. European Journal of Criminology, 6 (6), pp. 517-536.
Humphrey, M (2007). Culturalising the Abject: Islam, Law, and Moral Panic in the West. Australian Journal of Social Sciences, 42 (1), pp. 9-25.
Nelken, D (2009). Comparative Criminal Justice: Beyond Ethnocentrism and Relativism. European Journal of Criminology, 6 (4), pp. 291-311.
Ryan, M (1999). Penal Policy Making towards the Millennium: Elites and Populists; New Labour and the New Criminology. International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 27, pp. 1-22.