The end of penal populism; the rise of populist politics

Prof John Pratt1

1Victoria University Of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

ince its emergence in the Western democracies in the 1990s, penal populism has radically reshaped and reorganized many aspects of penal policy in modern society. In general terms, this has brought about a shift from the emphasis given to protecting the rights of individuals from excessive use of the state’s power to punish to, instead, using those powers, often in the form of innovative measures previously thought to have no legitimate place in the modern world, to protect the public from those individuals thought to put them at risk. In so doing, it acted as a kind of dam, to contain the anxieties and uncertainties unleashed by the neo-liberal restructuring of these societies, simultaneously allowing it continue apace. However, the recent ascendancy of populist politics indicates that penal populism is no longer able to maintain this function.  Its toxic contents have spread throughout the social body, with the result that, in carrying out its new roles and hunting down its targets (sometimes before they have even committed a crime – at risk of doing so can be sufficient), punishment in modern society moves still further away from the boundaries of what had previously been possible. The paper argues that the reasons for this lie in the effects of the 2008 global fiscal crisis, the mass movement of peoples around the globe, and the rise of social media which ensures that ‘the establishment’ no longer provides the exclusive public discourse through which risks and dangers are understood.


John Pratt is a Professor of Criminology and Fellow of the Royal Society of new Zealand who has undertaken extensive research in the field of comparative penology and punishment.  His publications have been translated into 11 languages. These include Punishment and Civilisation (2002); Penal Populism (2007); and Contrasts in Punishment (with Anna Eriksson) in 2012. He received the Radzinowitz Award from the British Journal of Criminology in 2009 for his two part article on penal exceptionalism in Scandinavia. He been invited to lecture and give conference addresses on his research in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia. In 2013 he was award the Mason Durie Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for his ‘renowned international reputation in the sociology of punishment and comparative penology.’


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