The Myth of Penal Populism

Albert W. Dzur

in Punishment, Participatory Democracy, and the Jury

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199874095
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199980024 | DOI:

Series: Studies in Penal Theory and Philosophy

The Myth of Penal Populism

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Criminal justice scholars such as Bottoms and Pratt argue that citizen participation has played a decisive role in the expansionary penal state. Their “penal populism” thesis is exemplified by the classic case of three-strikes legislation in California, which was propelled forward by distrust of officials, erosion of barriers between electoral politics and criminal justice policy, equation of effective punishment with severity, and emotive political rhetoric. As a remedy, Lacey, Pettit, Zimring, and others recommend greater professionalization and more insulation between criminal justice policymaking and the public. This chapter challenges this approach on practical and normative grounds, arguing that sealing off the criminal justice process from the public blocks education, assumption of responsibility, and trust-building experiences. Penal populism, it argues, is not a matter of too much citizen participation, but of a mass mobilization lacking constructive elements of other citizen movements. The restorative justice movement is instructive, as advocates reject the idea of the public as naturally punitive. Programs involve citizens as needed resources for humanizing mainstream criminal justice procedures, as, for example, lay volunteers in circle sentencing and family group conferencing dialogues.

Keywords: Bottoms; citizen participation; criminal justice; Lacey; penal populism; Pettit; Pratt; restorative justice; Three-Strikes; Zimring

Chapter.  8386 words. 

Subjects: Political Theory

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