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Prof not mugged by reality

  • December 9th, 2010

Oxford Professor  Nicola Lacey's lecture last evening began promisingly.

Billed as"The Politics of Punishment"  she delivered the Women in Law Committee's 2010  Shirley Smith Lecture.

She outlined the thesis of one of her books ( I missed the name but I think it must be The Prisoners' Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies – CUP 2008).

Her thesis is that proportional representation, as the electoral system  of what she called the "coordinated market economies" (i.e.Western Europe) supports the persistent dominance of left wing parties. Right wing parties can only interrupt this dominance intermittently. As a system of "negotiated" power sharing between the representatives of sectoral or socio-economic groups, PR sustains "settled" control by experts (criminologists, judges and lawyers) over criminal justice, buffering them against the ignorant demands of voters who would otherwise force politicians into an unwilling "race to the toughest"

In "coordinated' democracies even during unfortunate interludes of right leaning (synonymous to her with ignorant, harsh, un-progressive policies) electoral success, the right leaning parties are obliged by proportional representation to negotiate with smaller parties who can protect the settled consensus on penal policy.

She appeared to think that the answer to crime was unquestionable – more income equalising transfers would tackle its causes.

So far so good – all very much in worthy homage to Shirley Smith and consciously consistent with the constitutionally controversial comments of of our Chief Justice in last year's poorly researched and trite lecture in the series. 

Why then did I say a trite lecture began promisingly?

Because she acknowledged that reality in the form of New Zealand  had made a rude noise about her theory. It had forced her to look at the "remarkable" influence of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

We had now had proportional representation for 14 years, and the left wing predominance it favours. Yet our penal policy had become less "stable". To Prof Lacey the nasty "Westminster adversarialism" and responsiveness to the will of the people that characterised the "individualistic (cf "coordinated") liberal market economies" (I think she means English speaking) and their "majoritarian democracies" had proved far more persistent than the theory would have predicted.

But she was made of stern stuff. Reality might be threatening a mugging (cf Irving Kristol's famous description of a neo-conservative as a liberal mugged by reality) but she was more than up to sending reality packing.

The sainted Ms Clark's government had plainly been forced to compromise their better natures and their intelligence to put through the major 2002 crinimal justice law changes. They'd had to preside over a sustained shift of control of criminal justice from the experts to "our old friend the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust". 

There were many observations that would have repaid investigation. I'm sure she'd be a fascinating dinner conversationalist. But sadly she is from the European tradition of scholarship, the tradition that makes social 'science' an oxymoron.

What a pity these well intentioned people who want to honour Shirley Smith do not foster more genuine enquiry, and challenge to their bewildered preconceptions. It would have been great to hear such an intelligent woman defend her life work against intelligent challenge.

She was not especially time constrained, but there was no mention of the real dilemmas in penal policy – the significance of serious crime rates in explaining changes in imprisonment rates, the extraordinary success of the US in making its people much safer from crime (and safer than UK citizens). There were a couple of obligatory sneers at the US, and brief homage to New Zealand's dopey family group conferencing system but no apparent awareness of the awful trend of our youth crime, and the sorry comparison with trends in much of  the US.

It is youth crime trends that determine future serious crime and imprisonment rates.

You can hear Prof Lacey in a love-in with Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand this Sunday.


  • Stacey
  • December 9th, 2010
  • 8:17 pm


This post by you beggars belief. I also was at the lecture.
You write:
It would have been great to hear such an intelligent woman defend her life work against intelligent challenge.
Professor Lacey took questions, criticism at the end – you could have asked a question from the audience, or approached her personally afterwards on a one-to-one basis. She stayed around after the lecture and was one of the last to the leave the theatre. A number of people approached the Professor, she ready defended her work. I stayed and listened.  
Correct me if I am wrong, but you did not raise your arm to challenge the argument during audience questions, nor did you approach Professor Lacey personally at the end of the lecture.
If you didn’t hear the “intelligent woman defend her life work against intelligent challenge” it was because you were not listening.
I took an audio recording of the lecture. I have again listened to the lecture. Not once did she use the word “ignorant” when talking about voters orright leaning parties. Nor did she say or even appear to say or even think that her theory as a “answer to crime was unquestionable. She said it wasn’t and pointed to New Zealand as an example. She was much more tentative, much more nuanced and less stringent than you portray – she said her work may be a way to make sense of what is happening between states but by no means it an answer – and definitely not unquestionably.
In no way was the Clark government “sainted” as you portray in her lecture – it was the opposite, she was critical of the Clark Government throughout, she abhorred their swing as too little and too late.  

Please talk specifics when you state her lecture would have benefited from some “repaid investigation” to “foster more genuine enquiry” to overcome “bewildered preconceptions.”

  • icr
  • December 10th, 2010
  • 3:09 am

I must be missing something. Is the UK -a non-PR country -supposed to have a harsh penal policy? 

  • Stephen
  • December 11th, 2010
  • 10:19 am

I did not mean to imply that Prof Lacey declined to answer questions. But she was not asked them. I was genuine, not being ironical, in wanting to hear intelligent challenge. I’m sure her responses would have been worth listening to. The questions shut off before I was reached as a questioner. That too is not a criticism. The address was long and the organisers were entitled to close proceedings on time.

As to the words you complain about – I put quotation marks around words she used. The others are clearly descriptive.
Her comments about those who want more certainty of consequence for offending I summarised as attributing ignorance. That is mild. She dripped with scorn for politicians and the SST who see a need to over-ride the criminology establishment. Her entire analysis was predicated on the notion that expertise was being displaced by politicians responding, willingly in the case of those she dislikes as the right, and unwillingly in the case of the left caught up in the political necessity to exploit voter ignorance of the truths possessed by those she repeatedly referred to as the “experts”.

It is true that she acknowledged the challenge to her theory presented by the New Zealand experience, and she is also alive to the shifts occurring in Europe where anti-immigrant parties representing socio-economic groups are strongly in favour of policies she deplores. But she looked to explain it by flaws in political institutions.
There was no hint of questioning of her own unfounded judgments on what might be efffective penal policy.
As to Helen Clark, she repeatedly referred to “Miss Clark’s government” in tones of sorrow, as if they’d been driven to unpalatable policies.

The lack of insight was especially sharp for me. Phil Goff drove their 2002 law changes. Sensible Sentencing was in its infancy.
Whoever had briefed her had little idea of how political convictions can be more important than political calculation. I suspect that many of Phil Goff’s preferences in the criminal justice area are not far from mine. My first public debate on criminal justice was at a Law Society debate in Auckland. It was instructive for me. When asked about our positions on the death penalty, Goff and I had identical responses, with the National Party representative on the other side. We both said we had no moral objection to the death penalty, indeed it was probably the only truly just penalty for some offenders and offenses. But neither of us would vote for it, for the pragmatic reason that it would be too divisive, there were too many important elements of the criminal justice system that would be warped by the contention (hung juries, judges with moral objections who would refuse to convict etc) and there were more useful reforms that could restore deterrence.

  • Stephen
  • December 11th, 2010
  • 10:27 am

Apparently. She thinks so, judged by imprisonment rates and changes in the rate. She did not explore such measures as the rate per crime.

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