In this article, I first examine the viability of comparative criminological research in a globalised world. Further, I test the validity of some global explanatory models against the local situation in countries that appear to resist the dominant trend, such as the Netherlands and Canada. I then zoom in even further to the intra‐national differences in some federal nations, such as Canada and Australia, where this situation is often linked to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people and the consequences of colonialism. Finally, I discuss the future of comparative criminological research.
Keywords: Punitiveness, welfare, neoliberalism, colonialism, Indigenous / Aboriginal.
I argued in a previous article (Tubex 2013), that comparative criminology is a rather young discipline, as crime and justice were not hot topics in the optimistic, generous and positive decades following the Second World War. However, the global economic crisis of the seventies, the subsequent decline of belief in the penal welfare state, and the increase in crime rates and prison populations dramatically changed this picture. Criminologists started to look across borders in an attempt to understand the causes of increasing prison populations. David Garland’s pioneering Culture of Control (2001) set the benchmark for an understanding of the recent trends in penal policy. Partly as a reaction to his work, comparative criminologists have produced a wealth of information and evidence over the last two decades, providing insight into what is impacting on prison populations and explaining different levels of punitiveness. Therefore, it is timely to critically examine the extent to which the current evidence is capable of explaining convergences and divergences in penal practice. To make international comparison possible, I use imprisonment rates 2 as a measure for punitiveness, while remaining highly aware of the limitations of using this tool.
Before doing this, I first question the viability of comparative research in a globalised world, as levels of punitiveness are increasingly linked to global processes. It becomes apparent, however, that there is great diversity in the way countries have been responding to global trends and, even within countries, there are significant regional differences. I argue that, despite the impressive output of comparative criminology over recent years, it is still an ongoing struggle to understand what is driving penal policies and practices, and that new directions might be needed.
The sense of comparative research in a globalised world
The impact of globalisation on crime and criminal justice is an important consideration from the perspective of comparative research. One reason for this is the link between globalisation and punitiveness, the main point of interest of comparative criminology. Baker and Roberts (2005) point to the various reasons why ‘new punitiveness’ is associated with globalisation. They argue, however, that globalisation does not necessarily cause punitiveness, as it is not a universal trend. Globalisation is a complex phenomenon, which has definitely affected penal policies, privileging punitive responses and facilitating ‘policy transfer’, but it can as well ‘spark diverse, jurisdiction‐specific responses’ (Baker and Roberts 2005: 122).
A further reason is the fact that globalisation, of itself, presents specific challenges to the credibility of nation states: as crime increasingly displays international dimensions, it is becoming more and more difficult for nation states to deal with it. Globalists claim that a global criminology instead of comparative criminology is needed to understand what is happening in this field (Larsen and Smandych in Nelken 2011).
Comparative criminologists have defended their discipline, pointing to differences between countries due to local features, values and cultures. Further, it has been argued that, for every global model explaining levels of punitiveness, there are exceptions, as will be discussed later in this contribution. In addition, there is at the same time the contradictory process of glocalisation: the persistence of national and even regional autonomy in the face of global pressures (Meyer and O’Malley 2005). Globalisation doesn’t spell convergence, according to Lacey (2011); therefore, comparative research on national and regional levels is crucial to understand the mechanisms by which master narratives affect penal policy in different ways, in different countries. Meaningful comparative research needs to move back and forth between the global and the local, refining the global model with local empirical data and findings, as features within individual countries might explain how and why they deviate from the leading pattern. Along the same lines, Savelsberg (2011) concludes that both the study of globalisation and cross‐national comparative research are needed, and that they need to be closely linked, as global trends are translated in a nation‐specific way and filtered through local institutions. Nelken (2011) agrees with this view, pleading that comparative research is particularly well placed to study the interaction between the global and local forces and the ways how to best do this. Therefore, and according to these authors, despite globalisation, comparative research still has a place within criminology, identifying local dynamics and ways out of the doom scenario of mass imprisonment (Lacey 2008).
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