Saturday 29 October, 6.15pm until 7.30pm, Courtyard Gallery
As Conservative Home Secretary in the 1990s, Michael Howard famously rejected concerns about a rising prison population by insisting,‘prison works’. In an apparent reversal of Tory thinking, however, the current Conservative Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke is determined to reduce the numbers of people in prison. A 2010 government green paper on prison reform argued for a greater emphasis on unpaid work and compulsory treatment programmes, suggesting prison should be treated as a last resort. Prisons were in the news again in February, when MPs rejected proposals to give some prisoners the right to vote, in defiance of the European Court of Human Rights, and again in May, when Kenneth Clark suggested not all rape convictions are equally serious and deserving of the same kind of sentence. The latter controversy also reignited debate about whether victims should have a greater say in sentencing.
All these developments raise questions about the very meaning and purpose of prison. One view is that its fundamental point is to express society’s outrage at crime and punish offenders. Many consider such explicit talk of punishment, with the implication of vengeance, to be barbaric and even immoral. But is there not a case for affirming as well as enforcing society’s values and norms through the legal system, and indeed taking responsibility as a society for shaming and punishing wrongdoers, rather than seeing vengeance as a purely personal concern for the victim? Another view is that punishment should encourage criminals to see the error of their ways and rehabilitate them so they can re-enter society as law-abiding citizens. While this is often considered the ‘liberal’ view, liberal thinkers from JS Mill onwards have argued it is illegitimate to coerce adults solely ‘for their own good’, so is rehabilitation really more about social control than compassion? This last question is particularly pertinent when it comes to drug-related offences, with some seeing drug addiction as an illness to be treated or contained, and addicts as not fully responsible for their behaviour. Moreover, developments in neuroscience have caused many to question the ethics of punishment more generally. With more and more criminal behaviour being attributed to genetics, or mental disorder, some have argued that the idea that criminals act freely when they commit crimes is outdated. How can it be right to punish those who commit crimes simply because their brains or their genes told them to?
Should prison be about upholding standards of behaviour or engineering better citizens? What is punishment for, and what does our approach to this question say about society?
Listen to session audio:
former cabinet minister; author, broadcaster and columnist
|Dr Piers Benn|
writer and philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; editor, Culture Wars; editor, Debating Humanism; co-founder, Manifesto Club
leading criminal lawyer, Hughmans solicitors; author, Just How Just?
professor of law, George Washington University; author, The Supreme Court: the personalities and rivalries that defined America
trainee barrister; convenor, London Legal Salon
When he was Conservative home secretary in the 1990s, Michael Howard famously declared that ‘prison works’. But what is it for prison to ‘work’? And how can we tell whether or not it does?Piers Benn, Independent, 9 October 2011
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has blamed the 'broken penal system' for the riots that erupted across England last month.BBC News, 6 September 2011
Generally those who wish to lessen the suffering of prisoners get too readily dismissed as bleeding hearts or soft on criminals. All the while, the public's legitimate demand for punishment has created, because we lack alternatives, the biggest prison boom in the history of the world.Peter Moskos, Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 April 2011
A prominent group of cognitive neuroscientists, joined by sympathetic philosophers, lawyers, and social scientists, have drawn upon the tools of their discipline in an effort to embarrass, discredit, and ultimately overthrow retribution as a distributive justification for punishment.O. Carter Snead, Brookings, 29 December 2010
The most effective way to shrink the prison population, of course, is not just to reform probation and parole but also to deter groups of potential lawbreakers from committing crimes in the first place.Jeffrey Rosen, New York Times, 8 January 2010
"I travel far to participate in the BOI; it’s a unique festival of free speech and debate that consistently combines energy, fearlessness and provocation with thoughtful, informed consideration of contemporary politics and culture."
Wendy Kaminer, US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture