The Penal Abolitionism
«At its core, criminal law is still based on the same repressive assumptions as the Inquisition from which it originates. From the beginning it has been seen to create problems instead of solving them. A penal reaction after the fact is not preventive but desocializes an ever-increasing number of people. Therefore it would be better to abolish penal means of coercion, and to replace them by more reparative means. This briefly is the abolitionist message.»
Rene van Swaaningen, «What is Abolitionism?», 1986
Penal abolitionism is a methodical avant-garde criminological antitheory and includes theoretical pursuits, non-systematic elaboration and mainly practical solutions. Furthermore, this model function as a criminological agenda and the essential basis of discussion for the solution of serious social problems such as crime and criminality, the criminal justice system, the prison system and the prisoners, the need for decriminalisation and de-institutionalisation and many other. In essence, it is possible to say that penal abolitionism incarnates and reflects the critical criminology itself (Dimopoulos, 1989) by aiming at the deconstruction of the traditional criminological agenda. And, this aim should be seen as «a process of rethinking the meaning and categorisation of terms and topics so that none can be assumed to have substance» (Heidensohn and Silvestri, 1998) while offering an alternative and non-punitive approach to «crime». In Stan Cohen's words (1986: 3).
«Abolitionism has turned out to be more durable and uncompromising of these critiques (³new² or ³critical² criminology). It assumes labelling theory's relativism and its insistence on the problematic status of deviant labels - but moves beyond interactional questions of stigma and identity to a historically informed sense of ³crime² as unique form of social control. It assumes the critical school's attack on conventional criminology and its alternative theory of law and the state - but instead of searching for a socialist criminology and crime policy (³left realism²), it envisages the eventual abandonment of crime and criminology as viable constructs».
In the first place, penal abolitionism is an avant-garde criminological paradigm because it introduces a new point of departure for the criminological thought; the problematic situation. Simply crime does not exist. It is another myth well orchestrated by the «pyramidal» style of criminal justice system and the State authority.
«Acts are not, they become. So also with crime. Crime does not exist. Crime is created First there are acts. Then follows a long process of giving meaning to these acts. With this as our point of departure, we have to frame our questions in another way than the usual» (Christie, 1998: 121).
In order to understand the concept of «crime» or, to use the abolitionist terminology, the concept of the problematic situation, one should first of all understand not only the institution of criminal justice system that defines it; it is the social and political process that is needed to be taken into account and put into our magnifying glass.
Thus, penal abolitionism is simply the revolution in criminology, the end for the system of thought of the past, and a brand new philosophy for the study of crime that stands adamantly against the duality of conventional criminology. It is under the abolitionist perspective that criminology for the very first time has reached to an «open end»; the criminological pursuit has limitless development potential. In the second place, penal abolitionism is an anti-theory because, first and foremost, is a theory of Praxis or to set it in the right perspective, Praxis of theory. That is the most prodigious and noble characteristic of it. Like Marxism, the abolitionist metamorphosed the dialectics from a subjective dimension into an objective one and the philosophical and sociological critique into social action. Thus, paraphrasing Murray Bookchin (1969: 12) «if theory and praxis are completely separated, abolitionism is not destroying itself, it commits suicide». Therefore, although abolitionist ideas are powerful, there is no future for penal abolitionism to make any progress if it is supposed to remain just another theory. Penal abolitionism elegantly combines theory and praxis instead of being just, in Prof. Fritz Sack's terms (1996), a «paper-and-pencil» criminology. As Frances Heidensohn and Marisa Silvestri nicely put it (1998: 7);
«It is not, on the whole, the power of ideas which makes them fly. Ideas will have wings when political, historical and social situations are propitious. For them to launch effective missiles (to stretch a metaphor to snapping point) requires local, if not global, conflict and a major production industry in support».
In the field of the scientific research, the penal abolitionism invariably provokes us into doing new and renovating research in the «classic» criminological or not works of the past (e.g. the outstanding article of Thomas Mathiesen «The Viewer Society», about Foucault's «Discipline and Punish» in heoretical Criminology Journal) in order to let them be more critical, more investigative and, in brief, more readable.
Penal Abolitionism has its roots in the 1960's in the Scandinavian countries, but was also developed as a paradigm for the study of crime in England, Canada and the United States of America (Mathiesen, 1986). However, it was during the Ninth World Congress of Criminology in Vienna, Austria (1983) when for the very first time academics presented themselves as abolitionists (Swaaningen, 1986). Therefore, it is not risky to say that penal abolitionism is the youngest criminological paradigm for the study of crime. And by contrast with Left Realism, penal abolitionism is neither only a left-wing reply to mainstream criminology nor it represents the «Left's Law and Order Campaign» (Steinert, 1985). Penal abolitionism rejects conventional political categories and redefines the terms of the political debate (Haan, 1987).
The cornerstones of penal abolitionism are three basic principles, which function in an interactionist way and stimulate each other;
a. Criminal Justice system is a social problem and its problematic character originates from the fact that the present social order is an unjust one. Moreover, what state and criminal justice system likes to call crime control is a plain industrially structured social control.
b. As a result, the definition given to «crime» is questionable, manipulative and the concept of crime itself has a clear ideological concept. The concept of crime has no ontological dimension; it is just a social construction.
c. Consequently, state authority and its criminal justice system has no legitimacy to punish lawbreakers. Criminal justice system is an ideological apparatus and its power to punish people has no valid justification. And prison is not the «normal» response to «crime».
In this respect, what penal abolitionist is dreaming of is the replacement of the left realist «square of crime» with the «triangle of problematic situation»; «the two disputants, and the surrounding community, allowing the definition of the situation to arise out the interaction itself rather than being pre-formulated in a juridical language sustained by the state» (Lea, 1999).
As a criminological paradigm, penal abolitionism has a spiritual affinity with another criminological paradigm, the Left Realism, with a sociological theory, the critical Frankfurt school of Social Theory, and with a philosophical a political cosmic theory, Anarchism.
Penal abolitionism and left realism both problematized with the very concept of crime and have many common approaches. It is true that along with penal abolitionism, only left realism felt the necessity to deal with and problematize with the concept of crime. Left Realists also treats «crime» as problematic but what differentiates both left realism and penal abolitionism from other criminological theories is the answer, the «remedy» given to this problem; it is a non punitive (realistic) and reflexive approach to them, without falling in the trap of neo-classicist answers or «just deserts» approaches. It is exactly this common approach that raised serious and interesting debates in the middle of 1980s; it was left realism and penal abolitionism that revitalise critical criminology and fight for the overstepping of the immobility of critical criminology. And both the criminological paradigms believe that what is needed for a true radical criminology is the integration of theory with practice (Matthews and Young, 1992: 8) and call for attention to the reciprocal nature of crime and punishment, where each begets the other in an almost cyclical fashion. Moreover, left realism asserts the action-reaction model for the study of crime and the work of the left realists implicates the «get-tough-on-crime» policies of thatcherism. And, both abolitionism and left realism point to the social injustice that provokes crime. Finally, the criminological paradigms in discussion believe - and it is logical - that the process of criminalization is in fact a process that invariably transforms itself and embodies the terms of actions for individuals. However, what seems to be the difference, is the left realist belief that community and its members have an active role in this process.
On the other hand, penal abolitionism and the Critical Frankfurt School of Social Theory, (represented by Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas), stood adamantly against structures of inequality, authority and power (Horkheimer, 1984 and Habermas, 1987, Marcuse, 1988). The theorists of the Critical Frankfurt School «advanced the importance of debunking, demystifying and deconstructing domination and the knowledge claims predicated upon power structures» (The Critical Criminology Homepage). Moreover, the Critical School made a great attempt to show that what is hidden in science is not some neutral formulations but rather a lot of repressive interests. In this respect, it seems that the materialist and liberal tradition in the field of criminology was developed by penal abolitionism.
Finally, Anarchism adopts a radical stance towards crime and believes that it is not possible to confront crime by any means of state authority. Criminal is another human being and what is needed is to build up new patterns of communication based on the principle of «no pain infliction». In an anarchist point of view, self-discipline and self-liberation are the sides of the same coin. And in great extent, the anarchist hope for an immediate abolition of the State is depended upon the faith for the viability of the social instincts of man. For example, Bakunin was sure that it is the tradition that would force people with antisocial habits to obey the communitarian values and needs. Therefore, there would be no need to force the community to use oppressive measures against them. Moreover, Kropotkin demonstrates that the instinct of people for mutual aid is instinct. And this instinct would function as the essential guarantee in an anarchist community (Bookchin, 1969). Finally, as Rene van Swaaningen had already mentioned, Peter Kropotkin «is amongst all anarchist the most explicit in his ideas that criminal law is one of the most repressive instruments of the state, which should disappear with the abolition of the state itself» (1995: 1 19).
In terms of penal abolitionism's terminology, hypothesis and method of research, the criminological paradigm in question proves that it is an avant-garde criminological antitheory.
In terms of terminology, the abolitionist vocabulary is revolutionary. Abolitionists refuse to use the traditional criminological vocabulary and call for alternative interpretations of the original act (e.g. «crime» is just a problematic situation and «criminal» is the culprit for this situation). The different and neutral terminology of abolitionism is not just a caprice or an alibi for modernism. Nils Christie elegantly explains and shows the point of departure for our criminological activity (Christie, 1997: 20-22);
«By taking state categories as our point of departure, we are captured by the meanings given by the official system of registration. We are therefore in danger of losing the myriad of alternative possible meaning ... It is time to counteract this development and stick to our point of departure; acts - not crimes - are the basic material for our activities».
In this respect, penal abolitionism refuses to follow the imposed observance of the excuses, i.e. the language of criminological rationalism. Penal abolitionism comes in straight juxtaposition with mainstream criminology and gives rise to much controversy. Tout court, it questions all the self-evident of conventional criminology.
In terms of hypothesis and method of research, penal abolitionism takes for granted that the only hope for exceeding the current immobility in critical thinking is the spread of new ways of practices (Vitale, 1996), rather than the offer of just another one criminological perspective with a «new» social aetiology for crime. Therefore, penal abolitionism do not let itself to be seduced into legal reasoning but offer socio-political argumentation (Mathiesen, 1983).
Abolitionist thought is taking place through depictions. One and only study of the abolitionist writing is enough to show that abolitionists feel great aversion towards the conceptual and the abstract. It is the words in these works themselves that have an aesthetic and poetic texture; words that by only hearing them, we can imagine them to be surrendered in the images and depictions of life itself. Therefore, the language of abolitionism is tough and simultaneously haughty for it express most of times daring hints.
On the other hand, abolitionists use the dialectical method as its scientific method for the study of problematic situation; for the abolitionist thought is concrete though, that is dialectical thought. And the cornerstone of this method is the assumption that society is an animate thing under a continuous evolution. In this respect, for penal abolitionism the «obvious» is rare and everything needs to be constantly substantiated.
Furthermore, penal abolitionism as a criminological paradigm uses the sociological research method of the participant observation (Hulsman, 1997 and Snare, 1996) in order to approach and study the problematic situations and to urge for finding passages never used before. Let's for example remember the case of professor Guy Houchon (University of Louvain - Belgium) who voluntarily stayed in prison as inmate for two years (1967-1968) within the bounds of participant observation; «During this period I had the great opportunity to live for 12 months imprisoned and this voluntary imprisonment offered me the chance to engage in a participant observation of prison life» he asserted ten years ago (Houchon, 1989: 75).
Thus, what is important for abolitionists is exactly the personal and lived experience, rather than an abstract and distant criminological theory; «Don't go to the library» advised the abolitionist Nils Christie (1997: 18) to new students and scientists, in his recent article for Theoretical Criminology journal. Furthermore, in an abolitionist point of view, an «abstract and removed from everyday life, is not something to which they aspire» (Quinney, 1994: 1). In this respect, the abolitionist analysis invades at the very framework of criminal justice system without losing its contact with the fact and the reality.
Abolitionists invariably turn their back to frameworks that are in harmony with criminal statistics and «hard» data. It seems that they share the opinion that it is these statistics and data themselves that need to be explained than what they are trying to explain (Wiles, 1971). Like Left Realists (Matthews, 1998-1999), penal abolitionists share the opinion that prison statistics need to be used critically and the use of prison system has to be evaluated as all cultural phenomena. In an abolitionist point of view there is no strong relation between crime rates and imprisonment level and a different approach to prison statistics in needed. Thus, prison statistics does not reflect crime rates but they are just «reflections of broad structural and cultural phenomena within the various countries» (Christie, 1990/91: 54). As the abolitionist Nils Christie recently concluded (1990/1991: 53);
«In that perspective the number of prisoners in a country is not seen as a necessity, created by crime. Instead it is seen as a result of a magnitude of forces and counterforces, all open for choice. With this perspective prison figures are also open for evaluations. Prison figures are not seen as determined by crime. We determinate. In this perspective the use of prison is seen as other cultural phenomena.
On the other hand, the fact that crime surveys are not of great importance for a criminological research is taken for granted even by criminal justice system agencies. For example the latter was noticed by the Central Research Unit of the Scottish Office in the their latest Research Findings Paper. We read that (The Scottish Office-News Release October 10, 1997):
«Crime surveys do not provide a complete picture of crime. They do not cover crimes committed against businesses (e.g. fraud, shoplifting etc.); crimes which people may not be aware of (e.g. environmental crimes); nor victimless crime (e.g. drug offences). The accuracy of crime surveys is limited by the reliability of answers given by respondents and sampling and non-sampling errors».
Moreover, it is the personal experience that is in fact the most important potential source of data. In Nils Christie's words, «there is little in the field of criminology we have not yet experienced. The problem is access to us. Access, and respect for what we find» (Christie, 1997: 14). In this respect, the abolitionist research is autonomous. The research is based on problems as they are defined and observed in real life in the social tissue, rather as defined by the state apparatus.
Regarding the so-called scientific objectivity, penal abolitionism adopts a rather Marxist, i.e. materialist and dialectical, stance. There is nothing that can exist in a state of total isolation, independent from the conditions of its existence and with no relation with its environment. Things appear, exist and disappear, not irrespectively of the other things, but in close relation with them; and the nature of things itself is been transformed because of this relation (Cornforth, 1975). Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as early as in 1848 wrote about in their «Communist Manifesto» (1998: 58, in fine);
«Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?».
The myth of the «scientific objectivity» is in fact an invention of positivism (and neo-positivism). It is this paradigm for the study of crime that invent also the well known «consensus model» of social organisation (Michalowski, 1977). The positivist paradigm emphasised on the determinate nature of individuals and on the unity of scientific method and value-neutrality of science. Therefore, (neo-) positivism accepted the unacceptable view that a social scientist and his personal values derived from the study of the world «could be separated» (Michalowski, 1997: 29). On the other hand, penal abolitionism and critical criminology in general always shared the opinion that there is not such a thing as «scientific objectivity». In Richard Quinney's words, «we have no reason to believe in the objective existence of anything» (1994: 2).
And it is true that a social scientist - as any individual - is living in the society, has his own political, economic and cultural values, in short his own «background». In Quinney's words
«Our thinking about law and crime only confirms an official ideology that supports the existing social and economic order. As long as we fail to understand the nature of law in contemporary society, we will be bound by an oppressive reality. What is urgently needed is a critical philosophy of legal order (Quinney, 1975: 181).
In this respect, the penal abolitionists could never be characterised as «objective» scientists. The scientific clarity and neutrality is an invention, it is something of a fiction and an alibi (Karydis, 1996). And penal abolitionists could easily be characterised as total subjectivists.
Penal abolitionism is a criminological paradigm that should perpetually provoke (Ruggiero, 1999) and call for an endless confrontation with conventional and technocratic criminology by refusing to receive with no evaluation the abstract, metaphysical and invalid knowledge they prefix. Therefore, instead to pretend the objective scientists, penal abolitionists choose to adopt the method of the external interpretation of crime, criminal justice system and the capitalist (and state-capitalist) structure of society as a whole. While the internal interpretation gives a boost to the absorptive and assimilative role of capitalist system, the external interpretation of penal abolitionists shows off the versatile crisis of this system and demands its overstepping by abolition. And while internal interpretation does not challenge the framework of criminal justice system but rather improve and consolidate it on new and stronger basis, the external interpretation of abolitionism questions, provokes and suggests (Mathiesen, 1974 and Dimopoulos, 1989).
Finally, the abolitionist perspective and proposal would never reach to an end. Penal Abolitionism, as an avant-garde criminological antitheory, would never offer the definite «recipe» for confronting «crime». As Thomas Mathiesen asserted many years ago, the perspective of abolitionism would be invariably and inevitably «unfinished». It is exactly the continuous transformation that will liberate us in the highest degree. Therefore, a transformation should not be something limited and fixed but rather something that invariably starts from the beginning.
This is - and should continue to be - the abolitionist proposal; a real alternative perspective which does not reduce the essential elements of diversity of forms and open-minded change. This is - and should be - the abolitionist perspective; a real radical body of opinion which transforms the negation into thesis.
«This alternative is one where justice does not consist of ready-made principles to be excavated through methods applied within law or within social sciences, but as principles formulated in the process of finding them. It is a concept where the truth does not exist except in the moment of creation. It is a conception of each human being as a moral agent, each and everyone as a prophet!» (Christie, 1990/91: 56).
And it is exactly this very aspect of penal abolitionism, the powerful element of the «unfinished», that is confronted with scepticism even by critical criminologists (Scheerer, 1986: 12). But, what these critical criminologists fail to see is that abolitionism, even the very word itself, means «work in progress». It is a criminological paradigm that invariably is «engraving» itself. On the other hand, penal abolitionists do not «leave the formulation of alternatives to those in power» as was concluded by Sebastian Scheerer. The abolitionist alternative is well known; it is the «alternative» reform that was left to be formulated by others. More to the point, penal abolitionism is not a reformist perspective. That is to say that the abolitionist analysis is a dialectical analysis; an «unfinished» analysis that would never reach to an end; it will end up and start again. And the main issue for penal abolitionism is not to reform but to mount a struggle to abolish function and foundation of prison (Aptheker, 1971) and criminal justice system.