Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Liberals and punishment

Richard Grayson writes on the Guardian website today:
Fundamental to the Conservative approach is the view that prison should be primarily about punishment. For Liberal Democrats, prison is primarily about preventing re-offending
Is this right? I always thought there was a strong element of redemption in the liberal justification of punishment, but perhaps that concept no longer makes sense in our secular society.

My impression is that this emphasis on preventing reoffending is a recent development. When I did a philosophy degree some 30 years ago deterrence was certainly among them, but I cannot recall any mention of the idea, popular now, that if someone is in prison then at least he is not on the streets committing more crime.

That interpretation of preventing reoffending was at the heart of many of Labour's numerous crime bills over the past 13 years. And Liberal Democrats consistently voted against those measures.

Nor should we treat an element of retribution in punishment as necessarily illiberal. Without it there can be do notion of the punishment fitting the crime. Indeed, on an extreme utilitarian view you do not even have to wait for someone to commit a crime before you lock them up.

Labour came close to adopting such a view when it set up centres to detain people diagnosed with a "dangerous and severe personality disorder" - a programme recently questioned by Professor Peter Tyrer.

To their credit, the Conservatives voted against this detention without crime - a decision that, I am told, went to their shadow cabinet. So perhaps what constitutes a liberal view of punishment is a more complex question than Richard allows.

I suspect the depressing truth is that punitive institutions carry on from generation, happy to espouse whatever justification - retribution, redemption, public protection - is currently fashionable. Remember that close confinement was once regarded as a form of torture.


Frank Little said...

Rehabilitation is one road to preventing reoffending, surely? Of course, this means staffing up prisons and probation services, which would not appeal to the Daily Mail constituency.

Jonathan Calder said...

Perhaps rehabilitation is the secular successor to redemption?

Jock Coats said...

I thought this would cause a pingback:

What have prisons got to do with justice?

Joe Otten said...

Is there really any inconsistency between these various objectives of imprisonment?

Anyway I would suggest that we have prisons full of mentally ill, illiterate, disfunctional people, rather than calculating criminals, because the deterrence aspect of justice works, and the rehabilitation doesn't.

This is not an argument to undo deterrence, but to fix rehabilitation.