“We Need to Talk about Punishment”

First event from the series: ‘Creating Spaces for Change’.

from Dr Mark Smith, Head of Social Work, University of Edinburgh.

The criminal justice system offers insights into the complex and, at times, downright perverse workings of public policy. Crime in Scotland, as across most of the developed world, is falling yet prison populations and community-based sanctions continue to rise. Last week there were 7626 people in prison in Scotland, one of the highest levels of incarceration in Western Europe. Only England and Wales, Jersey and Gibraltar locked up a higher proportion of their people than Scotland. Even Spain and Portugal, with their recent histories of authoritarian regimes, have lower prison rates than Scotland. Ireland locks up around half the number of men and a third the number of women than Scotland. The system is not working and is known to exacerbate many of the problems it seeks to address. Government reports recognise the problem yet have had little impact on sentencing or on underlying trends in criminal justice policy and practice.

An initiative under the auspices of the Scottish Universities Insight Initiative involving partners across different disciplines, universities and areas of civic society, including academics from Social Work, Law and the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh has been funded to explore why we continue to do what we know doesn’t work. The programme will host three events bringing together key players from policy and practice communities and from civic society.

The need to ask questions of Scottish public policy is highlighted in the findings of the Christie Commission, which calls for a realignment of the respective roles of the state, citizens and communities. At another level, questioning the status quo reflects a wider willingness in post-Referendum Scotland to de-stabilise what we might previously have taken for granted. This new mood is summed up by the Director of Common Weal, Robin McAlpine, in his introduction to the organisation’s recent Book of Ideas, in which he states: “Our aim here is first and foremost to disprove claims Scotland can’t do more, do things differently, achieve greater equality, move to a different kind of economy. There is an unprecedented mood in Scotland for something that represents a new politics.

A unique feature of this current proposal is that it seeks to tap into into this emergent national mood. The intention is to open up debate about how we might do things differently in the field of criminal justice and about what a ‘new’, more progressive, more humane approach to policy and practice in this area might look like. We take our cue from the spirit of participative democracy evident in the grassroots campaign led by Women For Independence, which influenced the Scottish Government’s decision to cancel their proposed new women’s prison at Greenock. The intention of this current initiative is to open up and harness this growing involvement of civic society on an issue of pressing social concern but one which, until now, has largely been the preserve of politicians, the legal profession and a populist press. In seeking to involve civic society centrally in this process of change we are making a case that ideas of justice ought to belong within a broader ‘civitas’ rather than primarily legal, academic and professional interests. The events that constitute the project will explore, through theory and practice example, how citizens and communities can play an active role in shaping, and sharing responsibility for, criminal justice responses and outcomes.

The starting point for our first event, held on St Andrew’s Day, was to explore the place of punishment in the Scottish psyche. The keynote speaker was Richard Holloway, the former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, writer and cultural commentator. His presentation exposed psychological and theological predispositions to punish. Religion, he said, formed the basis for many of these outdated forms of moral outrage but warned that even secular Scots are stuck in theological thinking of offenders as free-willed sinners. Punishment, he said, hangs over national thinking about justice like the Haar off the North Sea. In a related piece in the Herald newspaper Kenny MacAskill, MSP, former Justice Minister and an Honorary Fellow at the University, echoed the need for Scotland to reappraise its relationship with punishment, arguing that in an atmosphere of punishment and retribution, more human and ultimately more affirming qualities of redemption and compassion can be marginalised, if not forgotten.

Future events will explore institutional and discursive blocks to change and the series will end by considering what a more humane, progressive and indeed cost-effective justice system might look like.
The project has a blog at http://blogs.sps.ed.ac.uk/spacesforchange/

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