The Punitive-Social Action Paradox
Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.
It is an interesting time in the world of sexual offender policy and practice internationally, with what seems to be something of a paradoxical turn. Governments are becoming more conservative in how they respond to sexual offending (with increased and more punitive sentences) while simultaneously investing in viable community engagement/partnerships in an attempt to solve issues around sexual offender reintegration. This is interesting because it raises the questions of why this has happened and what the future is for sexual offender management, post-austerity? Is this truly an informed government response based on what different “publics” want (e.g., more punitive sanctions, greater public protection, and increased devolvement of criminal justice responses so that they can feel engaged as well as represented), a complex response to austerity, or too many political voices talking at the same time in the run up to election?
If we look at the UK as a case in point, there has been a series of changes in the structure, function, and role of the criminal justice system in dealing with offenders. This has come as a result of government policies (Conservative - Liberal Democratic coalition), heightened and ongoing media discourses (resulting from the Wales care home scandal, increased reporting of historical crimes, Operation Yewtree focusing on celebrity sexual abuse cases, and a refocus on online sexual abuse and child sexual abuse imagery), and austerity cuts. The outcome has been two interrelated but separate responses, creating a paradox (of sorts):
1. Changes to the existing systems - During the life of the current coalition government (2010 onwards), there has been financial change with continued reductions in police, probation, and prison funding across the board. This has resulted in major changes in the construction and layout in the criminal justice systems of the three judicial areas (England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). This has seen:
- The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners in England & Wales, based on an American model;
- The merging of the eight Scottish police forces into one ‘national’ police force;
- The restructuring of probation in England & Wales from a multitude of probation areas into one probation board with local boards empowered by self-determination and localism;
- The closure of prisons in the UK resulting in the restructuring of existing prisons (e.g., Ashfield prison has been converted from a youth offenders prison to a sexual offenders over summer 2013) and the resurfacing of conversations of a titan supermax prison for the UK; and
- A new approach to offender management and rehabilitation, including with respect to sexual offenders; touted by the Ministry of Justice as focusing on social capital and desistance.
All of these issues contribute to a belief that existing agencies are being asked to do more with less in an era when sentencing guidelines regarding sexual violence are being re-examined and more people are being prosecuted for sexual offences. These developments will require that alternatives to ‘traditional’ criminal justice responses need to be found.
2. Changes in the role of the public engagement - The current coalition government’s push towards greater community engagement, localism, and social action in the field of criminal justice has also presented challenges. The government believe that communities need to assist the criminal justice system in the reintegration of offenders, because offenders—especially sexual offenders—come from communities, and they will go back to communities upon release. However, in many cases, communities have been reluctant to assume these responsibilities.
This does not mean that community members will somehow replace Probation, Police, or Social Work. Rather, the expectation is that they will work in tandem, meaning that the public should play some key role in assisting offenders to reengage with the larger community during re-entry. This is based on the notion that positive social capital can help to reduce reoffending through encouraging desistance; because offenders with community engagement will feel less isolated, more integrated and are, therefore, more likely engage with others in ways that are more pro-social and, ultimately, less harmful. Such efforts can be seen in various restorative justice projects in the UK and internationally; for example, A.I.M, New Leaf, and Circles of Support and Accountability. The CoSA project in Hampshire and Thames Valley (now known as Circles South-East) recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, with an attendant evaluation.
The social action/community partnership approach also has a secondary public health function, apart from offender reintegration. This function is to educate the community about the realities of offenders and offending, so that they are better able to detect, prevent, and report. However, there is a real world misconception about social action and community engagement—cost. In the age of austerity, community-centric, social action approaches often use volunteers, who can be seen as cost-saving as opposed to the cost-neutral or cost-deficit approach of using professionals (e.g., Probation, Social Workers, etc). In reality, this is not the case, as volunteer programs have costs associated with design and implementation, training, and program support (i.e., they require some aspect of supervision by a trained professional). Cost-benefit analyses of CoSA projects in the UK and USA were recently published, each showing substantial benefits to the use of volunteers in sexual offender re-entry.
Although the focus here has been on the UK example, this punitive-social action paradox is truly a worldwide debate, with increased regulation and debate, changing attitudes regarding reintegration, and an increased public debate about “governmentality” and control in criminal justice. For instance, we have seen the following issues and events unfold over the recent past:
- Punitive Action: The investigation and prosecution of rape in India; a conservative turn in criminal justice policy in Canada; increased conversations about the role and responsibility of the internet internationally; and civil commitment, community notification, and zoning restriction debates in the USA.
- Social Action: The international growth in movements like Circles of Support and Accountability; increased public health debates worldwide regarding sexual violence prevention, including but not limited to school education; and the development of outreach programmes for persons at risk, like Project Prevention Dunkenfeld in Germany.
Dr. Kieran McCartan is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK.