After Penal Populism: Punishment, Democracy and Utopian Method

Copson, Lynne (2016). After Penal Populism: Punishment, Democracy and Utopian Method. In: Dzur, Albert W.; Loader, Ian and Sparks, Richard eds. Democratic Theory and Mass Incarceration. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 162–186.


In a context of growing concerns about the role of public opinion in informing responses to crime, this essay highlights two opposing strategies for seeking to protect criminal justice policymaking from the excesses of penal populism: insulationism and reinvigorationism. It argues that particular concerns about the relationship of criminal justice policymaking to public opinion reflect a broader climate of knowledge production within contemporary society, such that the contemporary production of criminological knowledge itself forms part of the apparent problem of penal populism. Consequently, the aim of this essay is to suggest that the most effective response to the apparent problem of penal populism lies in a reconsideration and democratization of the relationship between expert knowledge and public policy in contemporary society. Drawing on the example of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, it advocates the need for new forms of producing and utilising expert knowledge as a means of creating ‘spaces of hope’ through which more meaningful policy alternatives, and engaged publics, can be imagined and developed, proposing Ruth Levitas’ ‘method of utopia’ as one possible means of doing so.

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