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Populist Politics and Criminal Justice Policy-Making

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Populist politics and criminal justice policy-making refers to the influence public opinion and fear of crime has on politicians and policy. Moral panics and punctuated equilibrium emerging in the 1970s allowed populist politics to become dominant in society; influencing criminal justice policy making as politicians focussed on what was popular in the media, with moral panics causing the dominance of fear of crime within society leading to policy rupture and political parties toughing it out to get the most votes by appearing to have the harshest stance on crime (Farrall, Hay, Jennings & Gray, 2017).

Fear of crime has always been high within society due to the media’s dramatic depictions of crime (Cavender, 2004), only highlighting negative aspects of the criminal justice system which continues the rise of the publics fear and anger towards crime. Regardless of the studies showing that crime rates are actually falling, The media plays a key role in keeping our fear of crime high in order to be the voice of the public, pressuring Politicians and threatening that the public will vote against them if they refuse to listen to their demands (Hay, 1995).

Crime initially started off as a small issue for governments but became a major issue for both the media and policy makers as policy making became more publicly influenced and political due to moral panics (Farrall, Hay, Jennings & Gray, 2017), which sparked fear about certain crimes and victimisation even in groups that had no real reason to be scared, one of the first key examples is the Mods and Rockers phenomenon in the 1960s that the media presented as a teen takeover when in reality it was far from that (Savage, 2014).

Prior to the 1970s there was no central focus on crime related issues within Government manifestos but as time went on penal pessimism and a dissatisfaction with the Government emerged and concerns about law and order became a focal part of electoral strategies (Loader, 2006), however, despite this new stance and the new focus, there was a period of continuity and was followed by a period of inactivity until the 1990s (Hay & Farrall, 2011). Thatcherism in the 1970s can be seen as a historical concept used to understand the development of policies and how Thatcher came to power due to an economic crash under the Labour government and the Conservatives distancing themselves from the Labour party and appearing to be the new guardians that could save the country (Hay & Farrall, 2011).

The James Bulger case of 1993 was the turning point in UK politics and the prevalence of moral panics in society, it was detrimental to a rapid change in policy and Government focus (Case Study, 2005). In the late 1980s the UK had adopted a positivist approach to juvenile offenders with focusses on rehabilitation and reintegration into society; the use of custodial offences against juveniles was very low until the Bulger case led to a more punitive approach being taken and a media frenzy on both a national and international scale, with the media launching an attack on the justice system, criticising it for its lack of ability to deal with juvenile offenders (Case Study, 2005). The media demonised children, causing a moral panic among the public about whether their children could also be killers; the public was outraged and there were calls for harsher sentences regarding children, particularly the killers of Bulger who the public demanded get a higher sentence than the original 8 years, causing the Home Secretary to increase the sentence to 15 years; it became a trial by press with media coverage damaging the trial and criminal justice issues dominated the headlines (Hay & Farrall, 2011).

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Historic struggles with morals and a sense of good and bad have always been prevalent in society and critical theorists view this as being a government aid in order to create public anxiety in which they could then solve by implementing new legislation or reintroducing old legislation that is suddenly going to control the evil, which from the 1990s became children (King, 1995), this led to decades of labour focussed reforms on the youth justice system (Goldstone, 2010)

After 1990 the government’s stance changed due to public expression over young offenders and the Bulger case heightened this outrage, causing increasing pressure on governments to act, resulting in parties attempting to out-tough each other in a war to get votes and be elected, crime became central to a parties manifesto and the age of criminal responsibility was lowered so that children aged 10-14 could face criminal court proceedings and charges, demonstrating the sheer impact an individual case can have on the future of criminal justice agendas due to public influence and governments needing to act to stay in power (Hay & Farrall, 2011).

Some studies have shown that the public support harsher punishment, having a more punitive stance towards offenders (Hutton, 2005), but at the same time, other studies have shown that the public are less harsh when mitigating factors are presented, tending to support alternatives to custodial sentences (Hough & Roberts, 2011), this suggests that public opinion is not representative and that the media often influences not only criminal justice policy making but also public opinion and reflects what they believe the public should think, rather than what the public actually thinks (Hay, 1995).

Being tough on crime became a vote winner, leading to the labour party winning the 1997 election with the slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ and pledged to ‘halve the time it takes persistent juvenile offenders to come to court’ (Labour Party, 1997), showing that being tough on crime, especially juvenile crime at that point, did in fact win them the votes.

Despite both parties stances being punitive and claiming to be tough on crime, in reality the government was working towards reducing the amount of children passing through juvenile detention centres and more protections and procedural rights for prisoners (Tonry, 2007) but the new labour was being formed, becoming more like the conservatives in regards to crime, (Hay & Farrall, 2011) moving away from their usual method of developing policies based on welfare and rehabilitation and moving towards the new neo-conservatives that emerged in the US and UK in the 1990s’ (Garland, 2001). This had a detrimental effect on offenders as harsher sentences were given out in order to show that the government was acting to tackle crime and responding to public opinion and more custodial sentences were handed out causing prison rates to soar and the UK having one of the highest prison populations in Europe, (one that cannot be financially sustained), despite the evidence that crime rates have been steadily falling in the past 20 years (Garland, 2001).

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Populist Politics and Criminal Justice Policy-Making. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“Populist Politics and Criminal Justice Policy-Making.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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