Penal elitism: Anatomy of a professorial category
In recent decades, many scholars have invoked the concept of penal populism to explain the adoption of “tough on crime” measures and a wider politics of “law and order” across the post-industrialized world. But scholars who invoke the concept often betray an implicit commitment to its twin ideology—penal elitism—the belief that penal policymaking should not be subjected to public debate and that matters pertaining to crime control and punishment should be left to experts or specialists. The doctrine contains four key properties: isolationism; scientism; a narrow notion of “the political”; and a thin conception of “populism.” Isolationism involves creating buffers around arenas of social life—including criminal justice systems—to remove them from what is held to be undue democratic influence. Scientism is the overvaluation of scientific reason and the dismissal of a public believed to be emotional, irrational, or exceedingly simplistic. Politics conceived narrowly limits “the political” to that which takes place within the formal political system, ignoring the wider notion of politics as the exercise of symbolic power in everyday life, which extends far beyond the political system as such. The thin conception of “populism” ignores the fact that populism is an ideology promising to protect the public from harms of neoliberal capitalism that nevertheless fails to offer a plausible alternative to market rule. In this article, I argue that in place of either penal populism or penal elitism, academics should engage in democratically grounded practices to reverse harsh justice by including the public in a reformulated politics of punishment.
Shammas, Victor Lund