Rethinking Penal Policy: Towards a Systems Approach

Roger Matthews, Middlesex University

The main explanations which have been presented to account for the recent changes in penal policy and the growth of the prison population in recent years include: 1) an increased punitiveness amongst both politicians and the general public, 2 one consequence of this punitive turn has been the increasing bifurcation of polarisation of the penal system, 3) the inability of alternatives to custody such as intermediate sanctions to take the pressure off the prison system, 4) the emergence of the 'New Penology' which by focusing on aggregate populations has shifted attention away from inidividual reform to the management of the 'underclass' and has thereby broadened the scope of regulation, 5) the formation of prison-industrial complex in which the prison has become increasingly an object of investment, a provider of employment and vehicle for the exploitation of prison labour. These explanations, it is argued are at best partial and at worst misleading. the paper argues that there are other important, but largely neglected processes which have fuelled the expansion of the prison system and shaped developments in penal policy in recent years which have been less conscious and less deliberate (and consequently more difficult to counter) than many of these explanations suggest.

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Updated 05/20/2006