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new penology


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In a series of influential publications Malcolm Feeley and Jonathan Simon (see especially J. Simon, Poor Discipline, 1993) have argued that a fundamental shift occurred in crime control strategies in the last decades of the 20th century, which has seen the emergence of a ‘New Penology’ at the expense of an ‘Old Penology’. Their analysis of the new discourses, objectives, and techniques in penal policy has opened up important debates over the cast of recent trends in criminal justice and the nature of a risk society. In particular, they identify how crime is increasingly addressed through strategies of risk management based on actuarial techniques (such as statistical distributions, probability calculations, and systemic goals) to minimize offending.

Their overall argument is that, while the ‘Old Penology’ was preoccupied with establishing guilt and diagnosing the appropriate treatment of the individual offender, the ‘New Penology’ is no longer concerned with such matters. Instead, it takes crime for granted and accepts that deviance is widespread. Crucially, it rejects the traditional interventionist philosophies of reform, transformation, and reintegration and is instead concerned with identifying, classifying, and managing groups assorted by levels of dangerousness. They chart how penal discourse has shifted from concentrating on an individual's criminal motivation and moral character to the management of aggregate crime rates using risk assessment technologies. The new goal is not to eliminate crime but to manage dangerous populations, especially through controlling the activities of the underclass by criminalizing poverty.

There is much evidence to suggest that actuarial techniques and discourses of risk are multiple and mobilized in different ways in various parts of the criminal justice systems of Europe and North America. Preventive detention, offender classifications, parole decisions, life sentences are all using such devices to manage and assess the risk posed by offenders. Yet the scale of these transformations cannot be overestimated as they range from the policing of streets, through to judges passing sentence and encompass not only life on prison landings but have also spread out to shopping centres, ‘gated communities’, and urban governance more generally.

Although critics tend not to dispute the description of the ‘New Penology’, there is considerable debate over how ‘new’ many of the trends are, the precise extent to which they have replaced ‘old’ concerns, and the way the account ignores the increasingly punitive language of vengeance also articulated by governments over this same time period. See also crime; deviance; risk society; underclass.

Subjects: Sociology.


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