Rapid increases in imprisonment rates and the adoption of severe penal policies in some countries have, in recent years, prompted a burgeoning scholarly literature on the determinants of penal policy. However, much of this literature may be asking the wrong question. The authors typically focussed on the causes of harsher penal policies and offered explanations. Hwever, it seems more reasonable to ask what recent changes in penal policy tell us about the country itself. The paper shows that crossnational differences in penal policy tell us important things about differences in penal culture, and that decisive changes in penal culture may both indicate and portend major, and sometimes regrettable, changes in larger political cultures. The paper has been divided into three sections, each addressing a separate question. The first considers the reasons for penal policies in Britain, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere becoming harsher over the final three decades of the twentieth century. The short answer is that the question is based on a false premise. Only in some places did penal policies become harsher and in importantly different ways. The assumption that penal policies everywhere tightened over that period is wrong. The second addresses the questions of why penal policies in particular countries did and did not become more severe. A wide range of explanations are available. They range from national differences in constitutional arrangements, the organisation of criminal justice systems, the nature of the mass media, and the nature of national politics to fortuities of personality and event. The key points, however, are that, at day's end, policies are chosen and choices have consequences. The third question is why policy choices matter. One answer, of course, is that they matter because they affect what happens to individual human beings. Another important reason why they matter is that policies adopted and implemented sometimes change the world and sometimes change the ways people think. Repressive policies, rationalised and justified, and in due course followed, desensitise us to the reasons why at the outset they appeared to be repressive and make it easier, when new controversial issues about crime control policies arise, to adopt even more repressive policies. America, over the past 30 years, England for the past 15 years, and other countries for different periods, have through their changes in penal policies changed their penal cultures in ways that portend ill for the future.
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