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Essay: Marxism, Capitalism and Penal Crisis: How the Prison System Fails to Protect Working Classes

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Marxism views the penal system as inherently flawed, due to the nature of capitalism creating inequality between the bourgeoise and proletariat. Quinney (2002), argued that that criminal law in society gives recognition to powerful influences. This argument flaws the penal system and other institutions as they are run by members of the powerful upper class and therefore works to promote their agenda, which is to protect society by imprisoning those deemed a ‘risk’ and ‘delinquents’ in order to maintain capitalist social order: ensuring the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This approach can be viewed in modern society with the growth of imprisonment as a punishment since the industrial revolution, an example of this is seen within the prison population, with traditional blue-collar crimes such as theft and drug prosecutions being the two biggest offence groups, even though drugs offences have fallen over the past few years (Ministry of Justice, 2017). However, white collar crime prosecutions are at 6-year all time low, with only 8,304 prosecutions in 2016, a 12% drop compared to 2015 even though report of fraud have dramatically increased (Binham, 2017).

The average prisoner is described as being overwhelmingly male, over 60 or between 18-20, lacking formal qualifications, likely to have been in care and unemployed, suffering from mental health problems and previously excluded from school (Easton and Piper, 2013). Further supporting the claim that the penal system is based around capitalist social order. Marxism would therefore support the claim that “the penal system is in a state of crisis” due to the imprisonment unfair imprisonment and harsher punishment of working classes in comparison to cooperate, white collar crimes.

The feminist perspective supports the claim that “the penal system is in state of crisis” due to its patriarchal orientated perspective towards female inmates leading to failures with rehabilitation and sentencing. Due to the stereotyping of women as caring, maternal figures, women inmates’ sentences are perceived as a method of treatment to restore female inmates back to their stereotypical roles rather than punishment for their crimes committed (Hudson, 2003).

Sentencing for women is often reduced in order for them to return back to their maternal role and can therefore be deemed as not harsh enough, this is supported by Farrington and Morris (1983) familial model of justice. The model argues that sentencing of female inmates depends on whether they have dependants, rather than considering the nature of the offences committed (Hudson, 2003) GIVE STAT ABOUT WOMEN WITH DEPENDENT AVG SENTENCE COMPARED TO MALE. Therefore, due to the chivalrous treatment of feminine inmates in the penal system, imprisonment as a personal deterrence can be argued as biased towards female inmates. However, women are also punished by the penal system for lacking femininity and not meeting traditional roles, as they are more likely to be punished and sentenced more harshly due to their lack of feminine qualities (Heidensohn 1985, Carlen 1983). Sentencing disparities, not only for female inmates, further supports the claim that the penal system is in a state of crisis.

England and Wales prison population in 2017 had quadrupled since 1990, with now around 85,700 individuals compared to 17,400 (House of Commons Library, 2018). This growth can be contributed to the punitive turn that occurred in society, with a growing feeling of distrust with the criminal justice system. The punitive turn has seen changes in public and political debate which have influenced changes in penal legislation like sentencing guidelines, this can be seen after the murder of 2-year-old James Bulger. Bulgers murder led to public outcry against the supposed failures of the penal system and influenced the reversal of many reformative policies from the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which aimed to reduce the use of imprisonment for non-violent offenders (Millie et al, 2003).

The punitive turn has contributed to the current penal ‘crisis’ as it has led to a growth in mandatory minimum sentencing for crimes once without, it has additionally increased the average sentence of many non-violent and violent crimes due to the influence of public opinion. Millie et al (2003) found that all 5 judges interviewed unanimously agreed that the severity of sentencing had increased, and this can be seen through the introduction of Disorder Act 1998 and Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 (Pratt, 2006).

The punitive turn in England and Wales has contributed to the penal crisis as now offenders are being imprisoned for longer, and the effects of prison can have devastating effects on inmates and their families, whilst in and out of prison.

Prison conditions additionally support the claim that the penal system is in a state of crisis, due to the impact that it has on the mental and physical on prisoners. The 1991 Woolf Report recommended a number of improvements that aimed to benefit the lives of prisoners and make prisons safer for both staff and inmates after the Strangeways Riots, and many of these recommendations were adopted.

The growing prison population has consequently led to overcrowding, in March 2018 58% (67) prisons were overcrowded (House of Commons Library, 2018). Overcrowding has negative effects on the safety of both staff and prisoners, educational facilities within prison, conditions of prison, and experience of prison. Easton and Piper (2013) spoke about the transition from prisons having a rehabilitative role to acting as a ‘warehouse’ for criminal due to overcrowding, this is due to resources being stretched and less opportunities are available for educational programmes due to oversubscription. Prisons fail to provide ‘constructive and purposeful employment’ as recommended in the 1991 Woolf Report (Easton and Piper, 2013) when overcrowding is present. Time spent in educational programmes has additionally seen a dramatic decrease over the past 30 years, with a target of 24 hours a week consistently not been met due to overcrowding and underfunding (Easton and Piper, 2013).

The use of restorative justice in some circumstances refutes the statement regarding the penal crisis, as it shows that the penal system is still successfully fulfilling its functions and achieving justice.

Restorative justice arguably forces the offenders to face the full consequences of their crimes by allowing victims to redress their grievances with offenders. Youth offender programmes within the UK have used the practice of restorative justice, and they have proved successful as instilling personal respect and forces offenders to take responsibility and come back into the community, in the hope that avoiding the stigma through community cohesion will reduce the rate of reoffending (Allen, 1996). Research supported the use of restorative justice and found that restorative conferences reduced the rate of reoffending by 27% and were appreciated by the victims as a platform (Easton and Piper, 2013).

Traditional forms of restorative justice have also proved successful, with the use of Gacaca’s after the Rwandan genocide. Gacaca’s offered a chance for victims, perpetrators and the community to be heard, and the outcome allowed the community to heal. Gacaca’s incorporated traditional forms of justice, used normally for village conflict and run by the village elders. Participant of Gacaca’s have spoken about their success QUOTE OR STAT.

One solution to the penal crisis is the use of privatisation within prisons. Advocates of privatisation of the prison system argue that it would allow competition for contracts from private companies into the public sector, this move they argue would see improvements in the penal system as the strain would be taken off government and the public sector would be ‘subjected to discipline of the market’ (Annison et al, 2014). Advocates argue that private prisons reduce rates of recidivism, with inmates being less likely to reoffend and with less serious offences if they did reoffend compared to public-sector prisons (Lanza-Kaduce et al, 1999).

However, Bales et al (2005) found that the majority of private probation companies have failed to meet target on reoffending rates and found no difference between private and public sector prison service reoffending rate, contradicting claims they were more successful at reducing the strain on the penal crisis.

Reducing overcrowding in prison would additionally work to resolve the prison crisis. ‘Front-end strategies’ offer a short-term solution to the overcrowding problems within prison, as they aim to reduce prison admission or sentencing lengths through increasing the use of community correctional programmes (Pyle, 1997). Rutherford (1988) argues that alternative mean of punishment would resolve the penal crisis, punishments such as suspended sentences, compensation orders, and community service would remove pressure from the prison system and reduce the number of custodial sentences. Some young first-time offenders in England and Wales are given opportunities to partake in victim awareness programmes and family group conferences, with Shapland (2007) finding that victims and offenders that participated in these types of schemes were overall happy with the outcome (Easton and Piper, 2013). Blagg and Smith (1989) argue that scheme work to reduce reoffending rates due to the labelling theory (Hudson, 2003). The labelling theory would argue that these types of programmes would reduce the rate of reoffending as the punishment isn’t as severe and life-altering compared to imprisonment, and therefore less stigma is attached, making community integration easier.

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