If you were travelling through various parts of the southern United States or Australia during the 19th or early 20th centuries you might occasionally have seen gangs of men out at work, hoeing fields or laying down railway tracks, under the watch of a nearby overseer. A closer inspection might reveal them to be wearing distinctive clothes, such as striped or orange jumpsuits, and that their heads had been shaved to mark them out as offenders undergoing punishment. Sometimes they would have been linked together by a single long chain passing through manacles worn around their ankles, a practice which gave them the popular names ‘irons gang’ or ‘chain gang’.
The fact that this took place in public, and in conditions designed to drive home that the offenders were to be treated with contempt, was part of the point. Members of the public could be brutal in their behaviour towards such offenders; verbal abuse, or even attacking them with thrown objects, could pose as much of a danger as the overseer or the work itself. By the 1950s the practice had largely disappeared, though not entirely – well into the 1990s and even the 2010s some jurisdictions in the USA continued to use them to ‘send a message’ about the potential costs of criminal action.
And now, apparently, our Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, thinks that reintroducing some of that ethos into how we oversee community offences would be quite a good idea.
In England and Wales one of the stated purposes of sentencing offenders (per Part 12 Chapter 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003) is the reduction of crime, including by deterrence, but also the making of reparation by offenders to those affected by their offences, and the reform and rehabilitation of offenders.
Even if you confined yourself to the first of these points, a glance at the evidence would show you that there is no relation between the public shaming of offenders and the reduction of crime. As Professor Wendy Fitzgibbon has noted in a 2015 study on the use of community supervision produced with the Howard League, rehabilitation is only possible when those subject to it are ‘supported to gain social capital and build up their lives towards resilience and desistance’. Most of us understand this intuitively – why would you have any incentive to reintegrate into society if that same society had devoted so much time and energy to grinding you under its heel?
In remarks last week the Justice Secretary did acknowledge that ‘literally millions of hours’ of unpaid work are performed every year by those undergoing community service. You might occasionally see some of these offenders out and about – my partner and I once saw a group of young people performing their unpaid work by picking up litter on the Isle of Dogs while we were out walking – but it’s not something which tends to draw a lot of attention. Which, given what we know about the relationship between shame and rehabilitation, is just as well.
Nevertheless, the Justice Secretary seems to think that these penalties are less than effective unless they are made as public as possible. The implication of all this is that communities will only trust that offenders are being appropriately punished if they can be seen doing the work they do, presumably deterring other would-be offenders in the process by showing them the humiliation that awaits them if they are caught.
In some ways, talking about the paucity of evidence for the effectiveness of this policy is missing the point; if the Justice Secretary was interested in evidence then he would never have gone near this outdated notion.
To be sure, we should be concerned with the shaky evidential foundations for this proposal. But there is also something fundamentally vicious about a society which insists that the most appropriate way of building public trust in the justice system is by turning prisoners or offenders into a kind of carnival sideshow for everyone else to gawp at. This is not, in Buckland’s words, a way of ensuring that ‘justice is seen to be done’; it is a way of providing a kind of grotesque catharsis – a spectacle for the vindictive pleasure of the ‘law-abiding’ onlooker, which no doubt would prove just as edifying in its own way as the stocks and pillory of a different time.
We must not lose our capacity to shudder with disgust when we contemplate a future in which visible groups of offenders in high-vis jackets, marked out for hostile treatment by the public, are as common a sight as chain gangs were in times past. Perhaps we might begin to get an idea of what that might feel like if we pre-emptively took to calling them ‘Buckland gangs’? At the very least the Justice Secretary would be forced to think before attaching his name to such a legacy.