Since the mid-1970s onward, the vast majority of Western countries have experienced a significant plus continual rise in their incarceration rates, leading to the problem of overcrowded prisons. We examine the extent to which the ‘incarceration boom’ of many modern societies can be attributed to the phenomenon of penal populism.
Specifically, we argue that some short-lived actual crime waves during the late 1970s and 1980s may have initially generated a small amount of rational penal populist sentiment among the public, it is the strong divisions within the increasingly heterogeneous public (both politically and ethnically), the central government, and the popular media industry of many democratic developed nations which have ultimately sustained the growth of both penal populism and prison population numbers.
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Furthermore, we focus on the types of crime that are most commonly targeted by strong penal populist sentiments in the public and criminal justice system, and suggest that all such categories of crime can be fundamentally linked to the cultural ‘purification’ of children which has taken place in virtually all Western societies during the latter half of the twentieth century. Finally, we consider the limitations of penal populism, referring to those few post-industrial states where such populist punitiveness has been largely resisted, and postulate what the end-stage consequences of a penal populist movement spanning over the past three decades are likely to be.
The term ‘penal populism’ denotes a punitive phenomenon that has become characteristic of many modern industrial societies, especially within Western liberal democracies since the late twentieth century onward, whereby anti-crime political pressure groups, talk-back radio hosts, victim’s rights activists or lobbyists, and others who claim to represent the ‘ordinary public’ have increasingly demanded of their governments that harsher policies and punishments be enforced by the relevant organs of the criminal justice system (e.g. law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, legislators, etc.) in order to combat the perceived rise in serious crime rates (Pratt, 2006).
One direct consequence of the increasingly severe ‘tough on crime’ measures – such as ‘Life means Life’, ‘Three Strikes’, and ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies – exercised in many economically advanced countries from the mid-1970s onward has been an unprecedented rapid rise in the incarceration rates of these respective nations, leading to the problem of overcrowded prisons.
The United States epitomises the tempo of the modern change in national imprisonment rates, and currently has the worst problem of prison overcrowding on a global scale. Indeed, ‘American incarceration numbers [have] increased fivefold between 1973 and 1997’(Caplow and Simon, 1999, p63). More recently, ‘in 2004 the United States surpassed Russia in incarceration rates to become the world leader.
With 2.2 million individuals inside (assuming a U.S. population of 290 million in 2004, that is an incarceration rate of approximately 759 adults in prison per 100,000 residents of the United States) and upwards of 7 million individuals either on parole,
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