British Academy Conference

Tracing the Relationship between Inequality, Crime and Punishment: Space, Time and Politics

British Academy Conference, 7-8 December 2017

Nicola Lacey, David Soskice, Leonidas Cheliotis and Sappho Xenakis

The question of inequality has moved decisively to the top of the contemporary intellectual agenda. Going beyond Thomas Piketty’s (Piketty 2013) focus on wealth, the impact  of increasing inequalities of various kinds on social, political and economic life, now present themselves among the most urgent issues facing contemporary scholars in both the humanities and the social sciences. And key among these is the relationship between inequality, crime and punishment. Correlations between levels of inequality and rates of both crime and punishment have long been recognised by criminal justice scholars. But the causal mechanisms underlying these correlations are far less well understood, and are unlikely to be revealed absent a sustained programme of research bringing different disciplines to bear on the problem. The ambition of a conference funded by and held at the Academy in December was to explore just such an interdisciplinary approach: one which builds on but goes beyond recent comparative and historical research on the institutional, cultural and political-economic factors shaping crime and punishment so as better to understand whether, and if so how and why, social and economic inequality influences levels and types of crime and punishment, and conversely the impact of different levels and types of crime and punishment on various forms of inequality.

Our starting point was the growth in recent years of public awareness about the importance of inequality to a range of social harms.  From mental health and rates of obesity to educational performance and levels of violence in society, the negative epidemiological dimensions of inequality have become far more widely appreciated thanks, amongst other factors, to the popular success achieved by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).   At the same time, there have been mounting concerns – reflected in relation to England and Wales in the British Academy’s 2014 Report, A Presumption Against Imprisonment– about increasing levels of imprisonment in many jurisdictions internationally. These concerns have been prompted partly by accruing evidence that imprisonment is a typically counter-productive form of punishment for many crimes, as well as causing a range of broader social harms (Western 2006); partly by related critique of the unwarranted nature of the financial burden stemming from high rates of imprisonment, particularly in a period of fiscal retrenchment; and partly by the moral challenge arising from the fact that levels of punishment have remained high in many countries notwithstanding a decisive drop in crime witnessed cross-nationally since the 1990s.

To date, however, there has been relatively little interest in or recognition of the multiple ways in which inequality and state punishment mutually constitute one another, whether on the part of the general public or amongst the scholarly community. Although the past ten years or so have seen a steady expansion in political and economic studies of state punishment in a range of jurisdictions internationally, the intersections between economic inequality specifically and both crime and rates of imprisonment (and other forms of state punishment) have received surprisingly little attention within this body of work. And while there is a growing recognition of the need to transcend disciplinary boundaries, there remains a pressing need for the analysis of the relationship between crime, punishment and inequality to be brought together in an interdisciplinary framework.

A particularly salient object of concern in the scholarship in this field to date has been the United States, which saw extraordinary increases in both serious violent crime and in punishment, as measured by both imprisonment rates and levels of community-based surveillance (e.g., probation) in the 1970s and 1980s. A significant literature by scholars like David Garland (2001) Bruce Western (2006) – two of our participants - Katherine Beckett (Beckett and Western 2001) and Loïc Wacquant (Wacquant 2010) has explored the ways in which intensified criminalisation may enhance both economic inequality itself and other inequalities in a range of forms of political and civic participation, educational attainment and quality of life chances more generally.

In a parallel development, there has also been a resurgence of interest in comparative work on punishment and, to a lesser extent, crime. This literature, too, has concerned itself with the relationship between crime, punishment and inequality. It demonstrates that, among advanced democracies, those with lower rates of social and economic inequality –notably the social democratic coordinated market economies of the Nordic region and, to a lesser extent, the corporatist coordinated market economies of Northern Europe– enjoy lower levels of crime, especially of serious violent crime, and more stable levels of punishment than the individualistic liberal market economies of countries like Britain, Australia, New Zealand and, particularly, the USA (Lacey 2008). 

Much, however, remains to be done if we are to grasp more fully how these correlations are produced and whether they also pertain in a wider range of jurisdictions. First, we understand considerably less about the impact of inequality on punishment and crime than we understand about the impact of crime and punishment on inequality. Second, the literature on the relationship between punishment and inequality is more advanced than that on the relationship between crime and inequality, while the relationship between crime and punishment itself remains deeply contested, with scholars often at loggerheads about the extent to which rising crime contributed to the marked rise in punishment in countries with liberal market economies from the 1970s to the 1990s. Third, and perhaps most important, while we have a relatively clear view of the empirical correlations between crime, punishment and inequality in advanced economies, we have a far less developed understanding of how these linkages are brought about within prevailing cultural, institutional and structural arrangements, particularly as concerns the role of political systems in shaping the relationship between crime, punishment and inequality.  Comparisons against countries with lower levels of economic development and different political systems or trajectories, themselves also understudied by penologists to date, would be highly helpful in this regard. And fourth – perhaps most challenging for existing approaches– we need to understand much more about what accounts for the massive decline, particularly in violent crime, since the early 1990s despite rising inequality. Here again, a good understanding of the interacting mechanisms of political economy seems likely to be a crucial condition for further intellectual progress.

The ambition of this conference was accordingly to advance our understanding of these four questions, and in particular to improve our analytic understanding of the relationship between crime, punishment and inequality and of how differently constituted political systems shape this relationship. To this end, we brought together a group of leading scholars from a range of jurisdictions who have used a wide variety of methods to approach these questions from different points of view.  Papers were organised around four key themes, each of them bringing comparative and historical perspectives to bear on a systematic political-economic and institutional approach to the question of how crime and punishment are shaped by, and shape, inequality. To sharpen the focus of the conference, we concentrated in particular on four contrasting types of case studies: England and Wales, a standard liberal market economy with a competitive political system and a liberal welfare state; the United States, another competitive liberal market economy but one with a far more decentralised and fragmented political system, a yet less generous welfare state, and an especially difficult history of racial oppression; countries of the Nordic region such as Sweden and Finland, with consensus-oriented coordinated market economies and social democratic welfare states, currently facing a number of challenges in part attendant on the political and social impact of migration; and countries of the ‘global South’ such as Argentina, Chile and Colombia from Latin America, with mixed market economies and relatively recent histories of authoritarian rule, some of them also sharply affected by recent economic shocks. A further group of papers followed through the spatial analysis implied by a comparative approach with a sustained focus on the importance of geographies of crime, punishment and inequality within particular jurisdictions, several of them providing further illumination by means of extended interviews.

The methods which participants brought to bear on these questions ranged widely. A comparative sensibility informed the majority of papers, and implied a particular focus on outlier cases such as the high-crime, high-punishment, high-inequality equilibrium of the United States, discussed in Garland’s paper as well as his British Academy Lecture of 2016; and the relatively low-crime, quantitatively low-punishment and low-inequality equilibrium of the Nordic countries, addressed by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä’s overview of trends in that region.  Political systems were a key focus for Vanessa Barker’s comparison of the US and Swedish cases, Marie Gottschalk’s, Lisa Miller’s and Nicola Lacey and David Soskice’s  analysis of the United States, and Manuel Iturralde’s analysis of Latin America. The role of non-state interest groups and of popular sentiment further informed Sappho Xenakis and Leonidas Cheliotis' analysis of recent trends in the US, whilst the broader significance of inequality for classic politico-economic theories of imprisonment was evaluated in Dario Melossi’s paper, which addressed both the US and Italy. Methods ranged from comparative political economy via quantitative studies oriented to classifying a huge array of jurisdictions across time and space (a method pioneered by Susanne Karstedt) to the local ethnographies which Bruce Western and Alessandro De Giorgi employed to illuminate the affective upshot of inequality and the practical challenges for criminal justice systems and political systems more generally in any effort to tackle them.  Many of the papers emphasised the importance of history for understanding contemporary dynamics and institutional configurations. Several papers provided important new substance to existing hypotheses about the positive causal relationship – in all directions – between crime, punishment and inequality. Other papers questioned the strength of some of the associations often made between these three variables, from either national or international comparative perspectives. The ensuing discussions brought to the fore valuable questions about the determination of appropriate jurisdictional selection in international comparative analysis, which illuminated significant gaps in our understanding of pertinent histories and trends in countries and regions of the global south,  in which comparative research is as yet insufficiently extensive to provide the basis for identifying plausible hypotheses to frame further investigation. 

Our hope is that by expanding the range of jurisdictions subject to comparative analysis, as well as through incorporating historical and other disciplinary perspectives, the dialogue initiated by the conference will give a new impetus to the comparative political economy of crime and punishment, raising as well as inspiring ideas about how to tackle questions of public morality, the quality of democracy, legitimacy in criminal justice systems, and links between criminal justice policy and broader social policy. A further publication presenting the detailed findings of our contributors is being planned.



Katherine Beckett and Bruce Western, ‘Governing social marginality’, in D. Garland (ed.) Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences (London: Sage 2001) pp.35-50.

R.A. Duff et al, A Presumption Against Imprisonment. Read here.

David Garland, The Culture of Control (Oxford University Press 2001)

Nicola Lacey, The Prisoners’ Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies (Cambridge University Press 2008).

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press 2014: transl. Arthur Goldhammer)

Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Governance of Social Insecurity (Duke University Press 2009)

Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Sage 2006)

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Allen Lane 2009)_