Confronting penal excess

Rebecca Roberts calls for a new voice in the debate.

Each year, in the United Kingdom more than two million of our fellow citizens are subject to some form of penal sanction, including imprisonment, house arrest, community punishment, fines, cautions and penalty notices. This will strike many as excessive.

There are differing views on the efficacy of sentencing reform and community sentences in scaling back levels of punishment in society. The evidence indicates that the drivers of the prison population and criminal justice expansion are also subject to political, social and economic currents. As part of the ‘reform sector strategies’ project at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) we talked to penal reformers and found an acknowledgement about the importance of ‘social justice’ – but a lack of clarity about how this can translate into campaigns and opportunities to bring about change in the ‘real world’.

There are some very vocal and well organised campaigns focusing on penal conditions and reforming criminal justice processes. However, because of urgent concerns around penal conditions and the fast moving policy environment there has been a focus on ‘firefighting’ – dealing with the immediate issues of the day. Reformers are also concerned about criminal justice expansion and wider issues of inequality and social injustice but it is difficult to find space for this voice and it is often missing, or silenced or sidelined in policy debate.

On 13 September 2012 CCJS hosted an event attended by around 50 people with the goal of scoping out the possibilities for establishing a coalition of individuals and organisations for tackling penal excess. The call to action we circulated in advance of the meeting proposed that a new coalition should look at how to deliver campaigns and projects that demonstrate true and long lasting alternatives to criminal justice. It outlined four possible areas of focus: 1. Expose the realities and failures of criminal justice; 2. Oppose and resist any expansion of criminal justice; 3. Promote a radical reduction in the size of criminal justice; 4. Develop policies for a safer society that do not resort to criminal justice.

Penal excess

‘Penal excess’ is not a popularly used term, and it might not quite be the right way of describing the ‘problem’. However, it has been used here to loosely capture the over-use, excessive and harmful aspects of criminal justice policy and practice. From the bloated nature of the criminal justice system to the invasion of criminal justice ethos and measures into social policy, a concern with penal excess is not just about prisons – this is about the courts, policing and the range of sanctions and measures– and the infiltration of criminal justice into social policy.

Beyond criminal justice

People have told us that they are keen to support ‘social justice’ considerations but that more work needs to be done to understand and shape this into practical campaigns and programmes. The point about referring to ‘social justice’ is to locate the discussion away from criminal justice reform and looking more broadly at interventions at a range of levels, i.e. from tackling social and financial inequality, to thinking about local projects that focus on needs based approaches that avoid the use criminal justice interventions all together.
Angela Davis (2003) talks about searching for a ‘continuum of alternatives’:

We would not be looking for prison like substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment – demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.

Through working collaboratively on a number of fronts, it is hoped that we can establish the argument for a radically reduced criminal justice system as a credible voice in the debate – and to discover and promote social justice programmes to offer genuine alternatives.

While we are concerned about poor conditions and harmful practices within the criminal justice system, for me this is not about improving community sentences or finding better rehabilitation and treatment programmes. This space is already occupied in the campaigning and policy world.

We want to connect with people who understand the harmful nature of penal excess and recognise that the path to a safer society lies outside of criminal justice. This isn't about ignoring violence, theft and other harms – we need to develop policies for a safer society that do not resort to police, prisons and punishment.


Davis, A. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete?, New York: Seven Stories Press.