Re-thinking Comparative Youth Justice and Penality: From Global/Supranational Trends to Sub-national/Local Practices


In general, comparative criminology and, more particularly, comparative youth justice and penality, might be explored through a tri-focal lens or, to put it another way, we can conceptualise the comparative project by reference to three inter-related levels of analysis: first, the global, supranational and transnational; second, the inter-national and national and third, the intra-national, sub-national, regional and local. We noted in Chapters 1 and 2 that some comparativists centre the notion of supranational or transnational policy transfer whereby seemingly convergent penal processes are conceived as discernible effects of globalisation. A more circumspect, perhaps more sophisticated, interpretive current focuses on the inter-national level of analysis and draws attention to the diverse - even divergent - policy trajectories and penal forms that can be found between different national jurisdictions (and at different points in time. See Chapter 2). Finally, a third analytical ‘model’ contends that the sub-national (and even the ‘local’) comprises a vital unit of comparative analysis. Perhaps this is most conspicuously evident in federal political systems (including Australia) where, as we have seen, national trends are inflected and mediated by sub-national State and Territory processes (given that individual States and Territories retain considerable power, authority and responsibility over criminal/youth justice policy within their discrete geographical borders). That said, even in nationally centralised political systems and ostensibly monolithic jurisdictions (including England and Wales), significant sub-national variations also obtain. Remaining cognisant of the tri-focal lens, we turn our attention in this chapter to re-thinking comparative youth justice and penality by shifting from the ‘high level of abstraction’ and ‘general sweep’ (Newburn et al. 2018: 565 and 569) characteristic of the global/ transnational gaze, to a sharper and more empirically focused examination of sub-national/local penal cultures and the differentiated forms of ‘justice’ -localised practices - to which they give rise.

Comparative research through a tri-focal lens: global, inter-national and intra-national analyses

The global, supranational and transnational levels of analysis

Fundamentally, narratives that derive from the global, supranational and transnational levels of analysis essentially assume binary forms. On the one hand, it is argued that various conditions of late modernity including, but not limited to, wrenching social and economic transformations, unprecedented patterns of population mobility and migrations, heightened insecurities and neo-liberal politics are producing increasingly harsh forms of penality. On the other hand - and in stark contrast - it is argued that the near-global ratification of international human rights standards is indicative of a maturing sense of penal tolerance and the transnational proliferation of‘child-friendly justice’. Despite the fact that such narratives point in diametrically opposite directions their explanatory power is - at face value at least - curiously seductive, necessitating closer scrutiny.

The former narrative conveys what has been described as a ‘bleak’, ‘dystopian’ ‘counsel of despair’ (Zedner 2002: 361); a ‘criminology of catastrophe’ even (O’Malley 2000). Consolidating punitivity is basically conceived as an intrinsic manifestation of global transformations in political economies, where neo-liberal imperatives and the restructuring (read hollowing-out) of liberal-democratic welfare states are such that incapacitation and imprisonment become core strategies for governing the displaced, dispossessed and structurally marginalised (Beckett and Western 2001). Wacquant (2009b: 167), for example, detects a transmogrification from the ‘social state’ to the ‘penal state’, whereby the spaces created by processes of economic deregulation and welfare retrenchment are filled by an architecture of neo-liberal penality and the aggressive advances of punitivity as a ‘generalized technique for managing rampant social insecurity’.

Conversely, an alternative and decidedly more optimistic narrative envisions global youth justice and penality progressing incrementally towards conditions in which the ‘best interests’ of children and young people prevail and where recourse to state (corrective) intervention - particularly custodial detention - is only ever mobilised as a ‘last resort’. This perspective derives from developments in international law and the almost universal adoption of a range of human rights standards including the ‘United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration ofjuvenilejustice’ (the ‘Beijing Rules’), the United Nations Guidelines on the Prevention of Delinquency (the ‘Riyadh Guidelines’), the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (the

‘Havana Rules’) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (see Chapter 4).

Paradoxically and notwithstanding their conceptual incongruity, evidence can seemingly be found - at least in part - to substantiate each of the contrasting narratives and they both appear to go some way towards comprehending global trends in youth justice and penality. Ultimately, however, neither narrative provides a tenable comprehensive explanation of the complexity, contradictory nature and inherent inconsistencies of supranational or transnational youth justice and penality. With regard to the account that emphasises the global diffusion of punitivity, there is ample evidence to suggest that the ‘new punitive common sense’, as imagined by Wacquant (2009b: 1), is distributed asymmetrically in both its breadth (geographical reach) and its depth (the severity of penetration). As Wacquant (ibid: 173) himself concedes, whilst discernible processes of global policy transfer - and the neo-liberal logics that drive them - might appear to obtain, neo-liberalism remains ‘a multi-sited, polycentric and geographically uneven formation’. Similarly, Peck and Theodore (2012: 178) refer to the ‘nonlinear, multidirectional course of real-world neoliberalisation’ and Wacquant (ibid: 172-173) further notes that there are numerous sites where ‘neo-liberalism has been thwarted... and the push towards penalisation has been blunted or diverted’ (See also: Goldson and Muncie 2006: Muncie and Goldson 2006; Pratt 2008a, 2008b; Lappi-Seppala 2012; Pratt and Eriksson 2012; Ruggiero and Ryan 2013). Equally, turning to the global human rights standards referenced above, the ‘potentialities’ for such instruments to initiate and sustain progressive youth justice and penality at a global - or even at a national - level, are compromised repeatedly by a series of operational and implementational ‘limitations’ (Goldson and Kilkelly 2013; See also Chapter 4). In short, whatever the value and/or the seduction of global, supranational and transnational narratives - whether they appeal to the proliferation of neoliberalism and consolidating forms of punitivity or they refer to evolving international law, human rights standards and the dissemination of penal tolerance - youth justice settlements assume multitudinous and widely varying forms and it is simply not possible to identify a globally unifying thrust or supranational/transnational norm. Such ‘high narratives’ (Goldson 2019) are flawed, therefore, and more nuanced and sharply focused forms of analysis are necessary to comprehend the intrinsic complexities of comparative youth justice and penality.

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