Book review: Criminal Justice and Political Cultures: National and International Dimensions of Crime Control, eds. Tim Newburn & Richard Sparks

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a review published in Law & Politics Book Review 14(7):534-537, July 2004.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. Review of 'Criminal Justice and Political Cultures,' edited by Tim Newburn and Richard Sparks. Law & Politics Book Review 14(7):534-537.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND POLITICAL CULTURES is an edited volume that deals with the interplay of national and international dimensions of crime control in a variety of settings. More than half of the chapters in this book were published before in journal format, but all chapters grew out of a conference held at Keele University in 2001 on the travels of crime policies across national jurisdictions.

The opening chapter by editors Tim Newburn and Richard Sparks offers a nice introduction to the other chapters in the book, as well as to some of the underlying themes they should address. Under the general heading of globalization, the editors argue, a new literature has appeared in the areas of criminal justice, crime policy, and socio-legal studies, dealing with the withering away of the state. Addressing, in particular, the convergences that exist in various (western) crime models and practices, the key issues that the chapters focus upon are the mechanisms, directions and outcomes of crime policy flow from one society to the next. Among the critical analytical distinctions that should be considered, Newburn and Sparks argue, are the historical antecedents of contemporary developments, the nature of the transfers (varying from voluntary to coercive), actors and agencies involved, the substance and contexts of transfers, and their outcomes. A central concern to be addressed in this book is an analysis of the contextual determinants of importation and exportation of criminal justice policies—in particular, both the cultural and political climate in which criminal justice travels. Several of the chapters exemplify the strength of this approach, while some miss the mark.

Susanne Karstedt devotes her chapter to a discussion of some of the lessons that can be drawn from other chapters. She makes bold claims regarding a number of necessary conditions for transfer of crime policies, even if such conditions are phrased on logical rather than empirical grounds—e.g., when she argues that crime policies are not merely technologies but that they also have to be conceptualized as integrated concepts. Conceptual integration is an odd requirement to postulate, because criminal justice systems are among the most chaotic of all social subsystems and have a notorious lack of coherence in many respects, whether practical or conceptual. An interesting idea that Karstedt introduces is the notion that the travels of crime policies on the international scene take place alongside of their embeddedness in various national cultures. That idea, however, is not developed in this chapter.

With characteristic pompousness, Pat O’Malley wades further than before into the petrified forest of his own capricious imagination, less hindered than ever by any sense of empirical or theoretical validation for his notoriously barren speculations. Holding on to his incessant references to risk, O’Malley now ponders the variability of criminal justice policies across nations that are said to be neo-liberal. Shocked by the cross-national differentiality he observes, he goes on to look for clues in the political rationalities in which national crime policies are “articulated” (p.30). A focus on Australia and the USA leads O’Malley to derive a certain validity for this approach, but it is based upon an understanding of (western) crime policies that is unknown in any reality. Otherwise, this chapter is but a resurrection of Foucault, the French author who is mimicked so much by O’Malley that he can no longer cite him.

Ian Loader’s chapter on policing in Europe offers more empirically oriented discussion. Focusing on a distinct reality of crime policies, however, Loader should have studied this reality more empirically or, at the very least, he should have looked at the existing literature a bit more carefully, for many of his attempts to theorize have little foundation. In particular, Loader’s contention that intergovernmental accords are the primary vehicle of police cooperation in Europe is false, because such accords are a very recent and only modest factor in the wider and much more developed constellation of international policing that takes place at the institutional level of police agencies. It is not useful to postulate a centrality of the third-pillar in EU policy to account for policing. Attention for the democratic deficit impact of policing is not, but it need not be singularly framed in the European unification context.

Dario Melossi is well placed to offer a comparison of Italian and US experiences on punishment. In the very best tradition of sociological thought, Melossi compares the punishment cultures in these countries in the context of their cultural and historical traditions. He focuses in particular on the diverging religious histories in Italy and the United States, but he also avoids a simplistic cultural determinism to argue for a broader model of elective affinity. This comparative approach, however, has little to say about the actual interconnections between the two societies.

With Pat Carlen’s chapter on the imprisonment of women in England and Canada, the comparative approach is continued. In Canada, Carlen shows, the incarceration of women was criticized for being disproportionately oriented at poor and minority women. But when this critique failed and female imprisonment rose, the strategy was reconstituted as one that would be oriented at treatment programs. In England, a similar development took place, albeit with a harsher orientation towards the female inmate as an accountable individual.

In their chapter on the convergence of crime control policies in the United Kingdom and the United States, Trevor Jones and Tim Newburn make good on the intentions set out in the beginning of the book. Jones and Newburn analyze the cross-border convergence of crime control across industrialized nations in terms of the public policies that mark capitalist societies, thereby merging the perspectives of criminologists and political scientists. Most essentially, what this approach brings out is that while there are many convergences in crime policy between the US and the UK, there are also divergences. For instance, at a rhetorical level among key policy actors, zero tolerance policing has been as popular in the UK as in the US, but in practice the policing model was hardly copied in the UK at all. Similarly, prison privatization has taken place in both societies, but in the UK it was only very reluctantly introduced. Likewise, sex offender registration practices exist on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the UK public officials have largely resisted any elaborate notification schemes. Jones and Newburn thus show that it is useful, even necessary, to look at various components of policy (policy making and policy implementation) and how these play out to imply selective convergence.

John Muncie addresses the harshening of the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system alongside of a diminution of the welfare state. As youngsters are less considered to be in need of help when they violate rules and are instead looked at as offenders plain and simple, an adulteration of the juvenile justice system occurs. This toughening of the response towards delinquent juveniles is not only a factor of the transfer of policies among nations, it has also been dealt with at the supranational level, although mostly in negative ways as various actions by the United Nations to halt the criminalization of children’s misconduct have found little support among nations. Therefore, the author aptly suggests, that the transfers of criminal justice policies have to be coined in terms of the dual processes of delocalization and relocalization, because cross-border transfers are always enacted in a manner that is driven by local conditions, enabling partial adoption of and resistance to external influences.

In one of the more empirically attuned chapters, Dirk van Zyl Smit and Elrena van der Spruy discuss the importation of criminological ideas in South Africa. At the level of policing, post-apartheid changes implied an emphasis on community policing and a more democratic police style, followed by a shift towards police effectiveness in the late 1990s. It did not take long, in other words, for the post-apartheid dreams of a new South African policing style to be shattered. In the prisons, the days since the end of apartheid also implied an initial democratization and reform in terms of rights. But again, policy-level changes have not always brought about the anticipated impact on the ground. More promising are the changes that took place in the judiciary, according to van Zyl Smit and van der Spruy; however, the international influences present in these developments are insufficiently explored.

The chapter by Kevin Stenson and Adam Edwards again abandons a useful empirical orientation in favor of speculative theorizing. Focusing on the changes in local-level, urban crime control strategies in the UK, the authors discuss the usual convergence with the US experience and reaffirm that regionally-variable conditions play a part in this process.

Fortunately, David Dixon and Lisa Maher, in the final chapter, return to a more methodologically sound analysis, to assess illegal drug markets in a working-class suburb in Sydney, Australia. Part of the response to the drug market there was directly influenced by the introduction in Australia of police practices that flourished in New York City. Again it is noted that this transfer was not a mere adoption but involved a more selective and active adaptation.

The various chapters in this volume approach the theme of the interplay between national and international criminal justice trends in a variety of ways. Criminal justice systems are not studied as technical or administrative matters but in relation to the political cultures in which they have grown. There is little or no overlap among the chapters’ discussion points, and that is as it should be. Some of the chapters, however, are merely pseudo-intellectual trampoline exercises—there is a lot of jumping up and down and it looks quite spectacular at times, but it does not lead anywhere. By far the most interesting chapters are those that analyze actual processes and structures of criminal policy transfers in the concrete settings of variable national cultures.

Nearing the halfway point of the first decade of the 21st century, it is still far from redundant to compile a book on the internationalization of criminal justice and its meaning and impact at the level of national cultures and traditions. As such, this edited volume is a welcome addition to the growing literature devoted to unraveling the processes and structures of the formalized responses to crime beyond the confines of bordered jurisdictions. That said, it is now also time to do more than merely speculate on the changes that have taken place in the world’s criminal justice systems over the past half century or merely to theorize in abstracto on the possible directions these changes may take in the coming years. The time has come, in other words, to take globalization seriously, not as a challenge to social-science research, but as its subject matter.

See related writings on sociology of law.