New Labour, New Legitimacy? The ‘making punishment work’ agenda and the limits of penal reform

Scott, David (2007). New Labour, New Legitimacy? The ‘making punishment work’ agenda and the limits of penal reform. In: Roberts, Rebecca and McMahon, Will eds. Social justice and criminal justice. London: Harm & Society Foundation, pp. 71–81.



In this paper I consider the thorny question of whether the policies and penal reforms undertaken by the New Labour government in the last ten years have made the penal system more legitimate. Penal legitimacy has always been important, but in a time when the massive growth in prisoner populations shows no signs of abating, questions of the validity of the penal institution itself become ever more pressing. To answer this question requires first a definition of what we mean by the term legitimacy. I understand penal legitimacy to exist when the application and distribution of the ways and means of dealing with wrongdoers successfully attain both political validity and a sense of moral rightfulness (Scott, 2006, 2007a). This dictates that there are both political and moral dimensions to considerations of an appropriate response to dealing with wrongdoers, and the current way of achieving this through punishments in the criminal justice system.

For a number of liberal penologists penal legitimacy is intimately tied to prisons and the criminal justice system conforming to public opinion, meeting certain practitioner expectations, fulfilling given administrative goals and targets, or meeting certain ends such as crime reduction, public protection or the rehabilitation offenders (Sparks et al., 1996). By contrast, radical penal activists and [neo] abolitionists have looked beyond the criminal justice system when thinking about legitimacy, pointing to wider concerns about the moral and political limitations of the power to punish, ultimately raising concerns about who we punish, why, and even if we should punish at all (Fitzgerald & Sim, 1979; Hudson, 2003; Scott, 2006). In this paper I highlight the inherent limitations of recent penal reforms by ‘New Labour’ since 1997 and point tenuously towards new directions and alternative visions for thinking about responding to wrongdoers rooted in the principles of accountability, democracy, human rights, and social justice.

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