Sociological Perspectives on Punishment

One way of controlling and reducing crime is to punish offenders. Given that punishment typically involves restricting people’s freedom and sometimes inflicting harm on people, it requires some justification as a strategy for crime control. Two main justifications exist for punishment: Crime reduction and retribution. These methods link to different penal policies.

Reduction

One justification for punishing offenders is that it prevents future crimes. This can be done through:

  • Deterrence – Punishing the individual discourages them from future offending – and others through making an example of them. This relates to Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory that crime and punishment reinforce social regulation, where prison sentence for a crime committed reaffirms the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

  • Rehabilitation – The aim is to change offenders’ behaviour through education so they can earn an ‘honest living’ on release

  • Incapacitation – Removing the capacity for offenders to re-offend through long term prison sentences, cutting of hands, chemical castration or the death penalty.

Retribution

Reducing crime is not the only function of punishment, it also performs a straightforward ‘retributive function’ – in which the criminal is simply punished for harming another person, and the victim gets a sense of satisfaction that the criminal is ‘paying for their crime. This is an expressive rather than an instrumental view of punishment – it expresses society’s outrage at the crime.

Left Realism

Left realists believe that prison alone is an ineffective method at reducing crime. They believe it needs to be combined with the practice of restorative justice…which involves the offender actively doing something to make up for the harm done as a result of their crime. This may involve measures such as reparation, (paying back) mediation, (offender meeting victim) reintegrative ‘shaming’, (facing offenders with the consequences of their actions and family conferencing which seeks to bring offender, victim and members of the community into some form of dialogue and ‘healing’ process. All this is very unlike the anonymous processing and exclusionist shaming of the courts and prison sentences.

Home office research suggests meeting the offender benefits 80% of victims who choose to participate. For some victims it is about forgiveness – letting go of anger in order to move on with their lives. But for many, meeting the offender is about confronting them with the real impact of their crime, asking the questions that never get answered in court, and the hope that – for some offenders at least – understanding the impact of their actions might help to prevent them reoffending.

The research evidence on RJ is stronger than for almost any other criminal justice intervention. Research using randomised control trials (Home Office/Ministry of Justice seven-year, £7m evaluation of the impact of RJ) has found that offenders who met their victim compared to those who did not, the frequency of reoffending fell by 27% (ie 27% less crime after RJ). However, at present fewer than 1% of victims of crime have access to a restorative justice process. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/17/restorative-justice-cuts-crime)

Marxism

According to the Marxist Sociologist David Gordon prison benefits the Capitalist system in three major ways:

  • The imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system, keeping potential revolutionaries from forming together and taking political action.
  • The imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it
  • By punishing individuals and making them responsible for their actions, defining these individuals as ‘social failures’ we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty that create the conditions which lead to crime. Our attention is diverted away from the immorality and greed of the elite classes.

NB – We are not talking about small numbers here – Focussing on the USA, David Garland argues that we have entered the era of mass incarceration. Approximately 2.3 million people are in jail in the US (about 750/100 000)

Focusing on the UK, the prison population has doubled since 1993 from approximately 40 000 to nearly 90 000 today.

There is evidence to support the Marxist view that it is mainly the marginalised who end up in jail – Looking at stats on prisoners we find that…

10% of men and 30% of women have had a previous psychiatric admission to hospital before they come into prison.

48% of all prisoners are at, or below, the level expected of an 11 year old in reading, 65% in numeracy and 82% in writing.

71% of children in custody have been involved with, or in the care of, social services before entering custody.

NB2 – While Right Realists would claim that locking more people up is a causal factor in the crime rate going down over the last two decades, this claim is challenged. This correlation may be a coincidence – other factors (such as abortion and the rise of ICT meaning more people stay indoors) may also play a role in this).

 Interactionism

Once a person is labelled as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The deviant person becomes stigmatised as a criminal or deviant and is likely to be considered, and treated, as untrustworthy by others. The deviant individual is then likely to accept the label that has been attached, seeing himself or herself as deviant, and act in a way that fulfils the expectations of that label. Even if the labelled individual does not commit any further deviant acts than the one that caused them to be labelled, getting rid of that label can be very hard and time-consuming. For example, it is usually very difficult for a convicted criminal to find employment after release from prison because of their label as ex-criminal. They have been formally and publicly labelled a wrongdoer and are treated with suspicion likely for the remainder of their lives.

Total Institutions and The Mortification of the Self

Erving Goffman (1961) argued that places such as mental asylums, concentration camps and prisons function as ‘total institutions’ – places which are closed off to the outside world and where inmates’ lives come under the complete control of the institution.

According to Goffman, becoming an inmate in a total institution involves a process of “mortification of the self” – inmates are subjected to degrading and humiliating treatments designed to remove any trace of individual identity. For instance, personal clothing and items are confiscated, inmates are strip searched, their heads are shaved, and they are issued an ID number. The point of such treatment is to mark a clear separation between the inmates’ former selves and their institutional selves. Inmates are constantly under surveillance and they have no privacy. Minute behaviour is observed and assessed, and if necessary, sanctioned.

As a result of having every aspect of their daily lives controlled, inmates effectively lose the ability to construct their own identities and function independently. Rather than making sick people well, asylums make them more insane, and rather rehabilitating, prisons actually make prisoners more criminal.

Post and Late Modernism

In his classic text, entitled ‘discipline and punish’ Michel Foucault’s points out that punishment has changed from being very direct, immediate and physical – involving torture and sometimes death to being more focused on incarceration and rehabilitation. However, although punishment today may be less severe than in the past, the state has expanded its control over its citizens in more subtle ways and ‘invades’ our private lives much more than at it ever used to. This is especially true when you look at the way criminals are treated today. While prisoners are unlikely to be subjected to torture or death (unless you’re Muslim, black or stupid and live in Texas) they are subjected to an ever increasing array of what Foucault calls ‘technologies of surveillance’ – they are kept under surveillance programmes and are expected to reform their behaviour.

Prison is the most obvious example of this – with prisoners under (potential) constant surveillance, while those who avoid prison might have to subject themselves to being tagged, visit probation officers, or turn up to ‘rehabilitation classes’ (such as drug counselling or anger management) all of which involve surveillance and behavioural modification.

Foucault sees the growth of prison as a means of punishment as reflecting the move from sovereign power to disciplinary power – Sovereign power involves direct physical coercion to get people to obey the laws, and under this system punishments are carried out on people’s physical bodies – punishment is harsh – it is a spectacle.

Today, however, political and economic systems are maintained through ‘disciplinary power’ – power is exercised through surveillance – people change their behaviour because they know they are being watched. Prison seams more humane than physical punishment but in reality it is much more invasive as a means of social control.

NB – As with Marxism above, we are talking about huge numbers 7 million people (1/32 of the population) are either in jail, on probation or parole, and Garland uses the concept of Transcarceration to refer to this shift. Certain people move between various state institutions – from care – to prison – to mental hospital – throughout their whole lives, effectively being under constant surveillance by the state.

David Garland – The Punitive State and The Culture of Control

David Garland argues that there has been a relatively recent shift in attitudes towards punishment.

He argues that in the 1950s the state practised ‘penal welfarism’ – in which the criminal justice system did not just try to catch and punish offenders, but also tried to rehabilitate them, so that they could be reintigrated into society

However, since the 1950s individual freedoms have increased, while social bonds have weakened, life is more uncertain and less predictable, and (despite the fact that crime is now decreasing) the public are more worried about crime than ever.

As a result, the state has now abandoned ‘penal welfarism’, it is much less concerned with rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, it’s primary concern is now convincing the public that it is taking a tough approach on crime and reassuring communities that something is being done about crime.

Garland argues that we have now moved into a new era in which a ‘punitive state’ enforces a ‘culture of control’ – there are three main ways in which the state now seeks to control crime and punish offenders:

  • The state increasingly identifies potential groups who are at risk of offending at a young age and take early interventions. This links to the Actuarialism (risk management) strategy referred to in a previous topic.

  • The state locks increasing amounts of people up, Garland argues we have entered the era of ‘mass incarceration’ and ‘transcarceration’.

  • Politicians increasingly use the issue of crime control, and ‘being tough on crime’ as a means to win elections – in effect, crime control has become a political tool which politicians use to win power, rather than being about reducing crime perse.

Evaluations of Garland

  • This is an important contribution in that it draws our attention towards the ‘political nature of crime control – and it helps to explain the increasing prison populations and ‘transcacerated’ population even though crime has been decreasing for decades.

  • This is a rather cynical theory – Garland seems to be saying that politicians today simply use their ‘tough on crime’ approach to get votes and maintain power, rather than trying to do anything which will really address the underlying causes of crime. Is this really the case?

  • Michel Foucault would probably argue that this theory is too simplistic in terms of its understanding of political power – it diverts our attention away from other agencies of social control in preventing/ constructing deviance through surveillance.

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