Crime and Punishment in the 21st Century

The third event in the Myths and Realities joint series last year at the British Library attracted a large audience to hear Professors Mike Hough and Ian Loader challenge some of the everyday thinking and lurid headlines we have come to see so frequently. These make developing a sensible and effective crime policy increasingly difficult.

Professor Jon Silverman of the University of Bedfordshire chaired a lively debate, which opened when Professor Hough from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at King’s College, London asked why there is a mismatch between the public perception and actual crime trends. Despite the downward trend over the last twenty years in crime that people report in the British Crime Survey, many think that crime is on the rise nationally – whilst simultaneously feeling that it is going down in their locality. Both the media and politicians foster this misunderstanding by their reporting of events and responses to them. This distrust in justice needs to be tackled.

Professor Loader of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford took this further by showing how the political consensus of twenty-five years ago had been destroyed. “Liberal elitism” was characterised by a wish to balance order and decency, to forge expert consensus on criminological policy and to manage public opinion when it challenged this. However, since Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, crime had become a key battleground of electoral politics; it had “hotted up” as it had taken an emotive and populist turn. He suggested we need to see a cooling down – was a NICE for criminal justice a way forward? Certainly we needed to build a deliberative politics of crime.

The third speaker, Lindsey Poole, spoke from the experience of running the Thames Valley Partnership. She contrasted the policy approach which tended to be ‘top down’ with the reality of delivering many very different and frequently changing programmes on the ground – often with limited resources.  Like Alice in Wonderland the same people kept appearing in different meetings wearing different hats as local groups aimed to engage different sections of the community and public sector in delivering diverse services.

The lively discussion showed that the power of the media is indeed strong and much of the politicians’ rhetoric leaves the public uncertain who or what to believe – which cannot be a good basis to develop the rational and effective policy on crime that many of us want.

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