What is the relationship between the criminal justice system and the welfare state? There are concerns that the UK, along with a number of other advanced capitalist countries, has over recent years embarked on a shift from a welfare state to a criminal justice state; from social justice to criminal justice. Social problems that previously would have fallen under the remit of welfare-based interventions increasingly are being managed through the criminal justice system, so the argument goes.
The French sociologist Loïc Wacquant has argued that there has been a roll back of the welfare state and a corresponding roll forward of the criminal justice state. Previously regulated and controlled by welfare, the poor in the United States and Europe have increasingly found themselves subject to regulation by the criminal justice system.
Similarly, David Downes and Kirsten Hansen have sought to demonstrate that criminal justice spending and social security spending sit in inverse relationship, the one to the other. Countries that spend generously on their welfare systems tend to have smaller prison populations. Those that spend comparatively less on welfare tend to have larger prison populations.
At a more popular level the argument that criminal justice responses to social problems has increasingly displaced the welfare state has been a regular argument among liberal columnists, campaigners and activists.
The financial data belie somewhat this argument. In the UK spending on social protection – which includes unemployment benefits, tax credits and pensions – grew from 23 per cent of general government expenditure in 1978 – 1979 to 29 per cent in 2010–2011. Spending on health and education also grew and, with social protection, accounted for 60 per cent of general government expenditure in 2010–2011. By comparison, proportionate spending on law and order changed very little in the intervening years while that on the military – another manifestation of the state’s power to coerce – fell.
From a financial perspective, then, social justice – as represented by the welfare state – appears to be displacing criminal justice, rather than the other way round. But in important respects this financial view does not square with other things we know about the criminal justice system and the welfare state. Criminal justice does occupy a larger footprint in society than was the case a generation ago. The welfare state, by contrast, appears more conditional and uncertain than was previously the case.
Perhaps the problem lies in the sharp juxtaposition of welfare state and criminal justice structures. Could welfare and criminal justice be complementary, rather than contradictory, social institutions?
The welfare state and criminal justice are different modes of regulating the existing social order, not opposing realms of social justice and coercion. Order can be maintained in ways that are more inclusive or more exclusionary of course. Addressing a drug addict’s housing, welfare, health and employment needs offers an inclusive approach in the way that imprisoning him does not. But both the welfare state and criminal justice perform complementary functions in maintaining, not transforming, the status quo.
This is a shorter version of a piece recently published in a collection of essays on criminal and social justice under the coalition.