Dangerous offenders: Punishment and social disorder

Mark Brown and John Pratt



ISBN 0 415 200482

This book is less concerned with “dangerous offenders” per se
and more with the social construction of risk and danger in modern
western societies. It also deals with the legal and penal
arrangements that have been developed in response to growing
concerns about the threat posed by “serious and persistent”

With one or two exceptions, say Brown and Pratt, criminology’s
response to these issues has been slow, fragmented and uncritical;
this book they claim, offers a corrective to this deficit within
the discipline.

The 10 essays are organised under four headings: history, law,
penology and governance. The opening two chapters situate risk and
dangerousness in historical perspective.

Pat O’Malley challenges the notion that the management of risk
is a recent phenomenon – development of capitalism required
entrepreneurs to take risks, for example, while the welfare state
can be seen as a response to the risks capitalism engenders. In
similar vein, John Pratt describes how social constructions of
dangerousness have shifted with the times – in the early
19th century there were the dangerous classes, by the
1970s, “those who would commit sexual/violent attacks on women” and
on children had become chief among bogeymen.

Other chapters focus on more specific issues: the (admirable)
obstinacy of judges in the face of punitive populism; the dubious
nature of “civil commitment” laws designed to lock up offenders for
longer than criminal laws allow; developments in the risk
assessment tools available to practitioners of criminal justice;
the enduring perception that “stranger danger” rather than domestic
violence poses the greatest threat to women; and the refusal of
governments to let citizens manage the risks associated with drug
use which, it is argued, flies in the face of exhortations to
citizens to take personal responsibility.

Finally, with characteristic irony, Nils Christie suggests a
framework for measuring the dangerousness of states, noting that
for black and Hispanic Americans and people living in parts of the
former USSR, the risk of imprisonment is acute.

David Porteous is lecturer and research fellow,
University of Luton.

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