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David Kirk Beedon: Resist the politics of ‘penal populism’

11 August 2023

Repeat shoplifters should not be locked up in prison, argues David Kirk Beedon


IN THE dying days of government, “dog-whistle politics” can be a ploy to rally what might be feared to be a shrinking electoral base. In the past few months, the Government has increased the rhetoric of “Stop the boats”, and indulged in highly racialised speech on “grooming gangs”. With, at most, 18 months to go until the next General Election, we can expect other reactionary clarion calls. The latest has been the proposal from the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, to imprison prolific shoplifters.

I was a shoplifter. As a youngster, I deliberately took goods from shops without paying. It was not a habitual practice; I suspect that a psychologist might suggest my behaviour had something to do with my, then, unhappy home life. As a practical theologian, I have an interest in criminology and forensic psychology, and these disciplines suggest that the causes of crime are complex. It is an interplay of sociological and psychological factors which often draws people into criminal behaviour. Consequently, addressing offending behaviour requires a careful, compassionate, and reasoned approach, if it is to be transformative.

Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. All consumers end up paying more for goods to offset the cost of security measures, and shopkeepers, especially in small independent shops, can ill afford to lose revenue owing to theft. Last year, The Grocer reported that some store managers were experiencing “new, first-time shoplifters”, in addition to the “the usual suspects”, one being “a pensioner who was trying to steal things like washing powder and shampoo”.

According to the latest ONS figures, shoplifting has increased by 22 per cent, although the previous period reported and compared with included pandemic measures, and so were atypically low. If shoplifting offences have increased recently, the cost-of-living crisis is certainly a factor. Adding a custodial sentence to the woes of those suffering economically seems Dickensian. It is also fiscally irrational, when the custody of each incarcerated person costs taxpayers at least £45,000 p.a.

As I witness daily in the Midlands town in which I live, many of those regularly involved in shoplifting display all the signs of being “life-wounded souls”. The Guardian reported last week Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons’ Justice Select Committee, as stating that the proposed policy of incarcerating repeat shoplifters would “do nothing to change the ‘chaotic lives’ of offenders”, and a “majority of these low-level crimes are driven by addiction or mental-health issues”.

In the past quarter-century, some criminologists have highlighted the growing influence of “penal populism” in liberal democracies. This is seen in the political manoeuvrings of parties, as they seek to be perceived to be tougher on crime than their opponents, appeal to what they believe to be an intrinsic punitiveness in the public, and thereby win votes.

As we approach the endgame of our current electoral cycle it is unsurprising that the Justice Secretary should float such a knee-jerk idea as locking up shoplifters. Those of us who draw our sense of justice from a nobler source than populism can but shake our heads in dismay, and pray that “the better angels of our nature” may see mercy triumph over base punitiveness.

The Revd Dr David Kirk Beedon, a former prison chaplain, is an author and researcher in penal pastoral practice. His books include 
Pastoral Care for the Incarcerated: Hope deferred, humanity diminished? (Palgrave-Macmillan 2022).

Paul Vallely is away.

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