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Contrasts In Punishment: An Explanation of Anglophone Excess and Nordic Exceptionalism.


Pratt, J. and Eriksson, A. (2013). Abingdon: Routledge. 272 pp. (hbk) 90.00 [pounds sterling], ISBN 978-0415-52473-5

As academics and practitioners become increasingly frustrated at the punitive criminal justice policy and the condemnatory public discourse around offending in the UK, they are inclined to look to the Scandinavian nations as examples of an alternative approach. Pratt and Eriksson's excellent book provides a detailed account of these differences in approach to criminal justice, locating penal policy in a social and historical context. The book provides hope to Anglophone penal reformers in identifying a different approach but also highlights the scale of the task; the punitive penal policy in Anglophone countries has such strong social and historical roots that it is difficult to see how any significant change could come easily or quickly.

A refreshing aspect of 'Contrasts in Punishment' is how little attention is paid to American influences, with discussion of the Anglophone countries concentrating on England, New Zealand and Australia. This focus means that the material presented feels fresh, interesting and original and provides the authors with a structure to discuss penal approaches without simply highlighting the relative degrees of American influence on each nation. This starts in the introduction where a discussion of recent prison builds in two nations highlights their differences in penal policy. In Norway, a prison is built that has exercise facilities, space for family visits and that looks like the outside world. In New Zealand, every expense is spared as prisoners are required to build their own cells from shipping containers. The photographs, used in the introduction and then sparingly throughout the book, are welcome illustrations of the differences the authors describe. Chapter one sets out the differences in punishment between the Anglophone countries and the Nordic countries of Finland, Norway and Sweden. When set out in this clear and structured way, the extent of these differences is strikingly obvious; the Nordic countries have much lower rates of imprisonment and treat their prisoners very differently. Nordic countries utilise smaller prisons, promote a higher quality of prison life and provide greater opportunities for work and education. Prison officers in the Nordic countries are trained in a different way, relate to prisoners with greater courtesy and less professional distance, and even look different, in terms of the uniforms they wear. These observations of the prison systems are the result of the authors' meticulous research--they toured forty prisons--and are presented in an engaging way. The two contrasting weekly menus, with weights and quantities recorded on the New Zealand menu but not the Finnish version, strongly and visually illustrate much wider differences in philosophy and approach.

Although the description of the differences between Anglophone and Nordic countries is interesting and engaging, it is the authors' analysis of the reasons for this that sets this book apart. They accept the cultural and structural differences noted by other scholars but suggest that these present as many questions as answers: why did cultural and structural differences emerge? What is the link between differences in welfare provision and approaches to punishment? Pratt and Eriksson argue that it is the difference in long term values between the Anglophone countries and the Nordic countries that have led to the cultural and structural differences, including differences in welfare and penal policy. The Anglophone countries emphasise self-advancement and individual success, the Nordic countries value inclusion, cooperation and moderation. Nordic languages have two words, likhet and lagom, that are characteristic of Nordic society and carry strong moral power, but that do not even have direct translations in English--the closest equivalent phrases being equality and moderation. The respective values systems went on to influence the development of the welfare state in the Nordic and the Anglophone countries. The Nordic countries value social cohesion so provide universal, high-quality childcare health and education, as well as generous social assistance. Anglophone countries promote individual responsibility so only offer a low level of means-tested benefits to those most in need.

These differences in long-term values between Nordic and Anglophone countries led to differences in penal approaches and, again, the authors take a well-informed historical approach to the discussion of the differences. Both Anglophone and Nordic countries replaced the use of the death penalty with the introduction of custodial sanctions but the Nordic countries did so more quickly and, importantly, did so with the intention that prisons should be places of rehabilitation, not punishment, and that they should remain a part of the community, a place where community values could still be demonstrated. Anglophone countries used imprisonment to create division and separation, Nordic countries promote cohesion. These differences only increased over time to the extent that now in Nordic societies there are increasing links between prisoners and the wider community, while in the Anglophone countries prison numbers continue to increase as the conditions worsen.

Pratt and Eriksson make no secret of their preference for the Nordic approach and readers will be persuaded that that an approach to penal policy that promotes inclusion and moderation is more humane and more desirable than the exclusionary punitiveness promoted in the Anglophone nations. It is a cause for some hope and optimism that these inclusive values can still exist and prosper and, as the authors describe in the final pages, hold society together even following the most horrific of crimes. That said, it is no criticism of this outstanding book to say that it does make sometimes frustrating reading for those who live and work in the Anglophone countries described. If the differences in penal approaches are a reflection of differing values that are deeply held with long historical roots, is there any prospect of successfully campaigning for reform? Depressingly, division, intolerance and exclusion are embedded in Anglophone culture to the same extent as likhet and lagom are characteristic of the Nordic societies.

Dr Brian Stout, Associate Professor of Social Work, University of Western Sydney
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Author:Stout, Brian
Publication:British Journal of Community Justice
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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