We, in Britain, live in 'troubled times' in both our domestic economy and our penology. Unprecedented fiscal debt and the millstone of an excessive and unsustainable penal population compete for urgent remedial action in social policy terms. For too long until very recently, the myth that 'Prison Works' has remained un-refuted, due largely to an intellectual paralysis within the political elite: a paralysis fuelled by tabloid intransigence, manipulation of what is euphemistically termed 'public opinion' in relation to offenders and offences, and to an obstinate, 'traditionalist' refusal within the judiciary to surrender any element of its perceived independence to the dictates of reason. And all at a time when most crime rates across Europe generally, and in Britain specifically, have been falling markedly.
Neither can the academic discipline of criminology escape its share of censure for the present situation. Persistent failure to dismantle the 'myth of deterrence', in both its 'general' and 'specific' forms as one of the principal justifications of penal sanctions has contributed significantly to the emergence of what has been termed "populist punitivism", and to an escalation in court sentencing practices for the supposed, yet un-measurable, social benefits of public protection. Increasing, and morally indefensible resort to indeterminate incarceration for the purposes of public protection has served only to deepen the penal crisis. Though criminologists may not have condoned this situation, their collective academic and operational objections to its development have not, hitherto, been strident enough to provoke a change of political and governmental direction.
The causative aspects of crime within the social structure of many modern democracies have been manifested in increasing disparities of affluence and relative deprivation between the rich and the poor, the employed and the unemployed, the more educated professional / managerial classes and the less-educated or manual employee classes within societies. In addition to causing some measure of justifiable resentment among the 'have-nots', the considerable differentials of access to, and outcomes of social rewards and benefits have contributed towards the creation of 'under-classes' within which crime has traditionally flourished as a means of, though not a justification for, illegal activities perceived as appropriate in restoring perceptions of 'social balance'. Thus criminal justice policies designed to be 'tough on crime' without being similarly robust in addressing the underlying causes of crime impact most heavily (and arguably unreasonably) on the already socially disadvantaged. It is, therefore, scarcely a matter of surprise that these already disadvantaged persons are disproportionately represented within penal populations.