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Phil Scraton

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Streets of Terror: Marginalization, Criminalization, and Authoritarian Renewal

Thatcherism and the New Right in the U.K. understood that if the free-market agenda was to succeed, the battle for “hearts and minds” had to be engaged and won. Today, over two decades later, the pillars on which the authoritarian mantle was laid are well established and rarely contested: the “power of the unions,” the “overindulgence” in welfare, the acceptance of “permissiveness,” the “lawlessness of the streets,” the “leniency” of the courts, and the “softening” of punishment. Thatcher’s first administration set its sights: welfare claimants and benefit fraud, local government and public housing, young offenders and the “short, sharp shock” of military-style detention centers, and so on. The populist appeal for tough legislation, hard-line policing, heavy sentences, and uncompromising punishment regimes was fulfilled. The inevitable consequence of authoritarianism was, and remains, the net-widening process of criminalization. Mike Davis on the roots of inter-gang violence. The remarkable degree of consensus about urban violence and its remedies by crime commissions in the 1960s, calling for a balanced approach to crime — we could never imprison our way out of America’s violent crime problem, requiring instead an attack on social exclusion — reducing poverty, creating opportunities for sustaining work, supporting besieged families and the marginalized young. So the U.S. chose the authoritarian road. The result: bursting prisons, devastated cities, and a violent crime rate…unmatched in the developed world.” Reagan invested heavily in the “war on crime.” He initiated a repressive, marginalizing domestic budget alongside increased, pervasive powers of law enforcement, border controls, and prosecution. As with Thatcherism, economic libertarianism could not be delivered without social authoritarianism. Broken windows and zero tolerance policing: matched public fears with a militarized response. As with the global war on terror, in the local war on “terror” agencies and their workers are expected to sign up and participate or endure the public criticism of being apologists for crime and antisocial behavior. The reality of early 21st-century Britain is one in which authoritarian ideology has been mobilized locally and nationally to criminalize through the back door of civil injunctions.

youth justice system, England, history

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 31, Nos. 1-2 (2004): 130-158