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The literature on contemporary Western punishment presents us with a number of possible approaches to political ideologies and penality. The first approach requires us to ask what different political ideologies have to say about crime and punishment. This entails a close analysis of the ideologies’ main claims on matters of power, authority, and collective co-existence, to see if and how such claims have played out in the penal sphere. Analyses of social democratic penality serve here as useful case studies for such an approach. Such analyses also illustrate the second approach to questions of political ideology and penality. This approach requires us to ask what impact crime has had upon the fate of different ideologies. Have the changing incidence and changing perceptions of crime come to threaten the legitimacy of dominant ideologies? The third approach is that of critique of ideology: penality is studied as ideology, to discern what it conceals about reality and existing power relations. Here the analysis of contemporary UK offences of dangerousness acts as a case study for such an approach. To the extent that offences of dangerousness are rooted in neoliberalism, the discussion also introduces us to debates concerning neoliberalism and penality, in particular the idea that contemporary punishment expresses both the ascendancy of neoliberal doxa, and the decline of existing macro-ideologies such as social democracy. This decline can be seen as a move toward a post-ideological era, in which crime and punishment have come to replace political visions and utopias. However, recent scholarship on political ideologies argues that the latter are ubiquitous and permanent features of political thinking. This implies that the contemporary era cannot be described as post-ideological. Rather, it is an era in which macro-ideologies such as social democracy—which provided a holistic view of social order and comprehensive ideational resources to construct it—have been replaced by thin ideologies—which offer us narrower visions and ambitions. Examples of such thin ideologies include populism and technocracy. It is then possible to study the link between thin-ideologies and penality, a study that is here exemplified by the analysis of populism and penal populism, and technocracy and epistemic crime control. An analysis of thin ideologies and penality can also be undertaken with a normative project in mind, namely that of identifying within these thin ideologies, possible ideational resources that might be used to imagine a better penal future: one that is more moderate, more democratic, and less punitive.


Monica M. Gerber

Why do people support the harsh punishment of criminal offenders? Understanding public punitiveness is relevant because punitive measures have been increasing worldwide since the year 2000, while public perceptions are an important factor driving penal policies. These punitive trends have taken place even though crime rates have generally not increased and even decreased in many parts of the world. Punitive attitudes—understood here as general support for the application of harsh sentences to criminal offenders—have been captured measuring people’s beliefs about specific sanctions and their intensity, the support for specific sentencing policies, and the evaluation of the penal system, among others. Research on the factors explaining public punitiveness can be broadly classified into two categories: utilitarian and retributive perspectives. According to the utilitarian perspective, punishment is a means to reduce future crime and control the behavior of offenders, usually through deterrence and incapacitation. From this perspective, punitiveness should be driven by concerns about high crime rates, fear of crime, and victimization experiences. From a retributive perspective, punishment serves a symbolic function by retaliating a wrong more than preventing future crimes. Two retributive and symbolic functions of punishment are discussed in the literature: On the one hand, it is argued that punishment helps clarify moral and normative boundaries; on the other hand, punishment can also help clarify status boundaries and maintain dominant groups’ power. Other factors found to influence people’s attitudes are political ideology (e.g., right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation), situational antecedents (e.g., the presence of a social threat or specific characteristics of victim and offender), and the media.