When the full force of political, public and media opinion was being convulsed by the fallout from the high profile James Bulger murder, I was tasked in my role as a probation officer to prepare a pre-sentence report on a defendant being held on remand in a local prison for a distressing case of child cruelty.
Any tour d'horizon on the role of penal populism and political culture would demand the insightful offerings of the professional criminologist. But I vividly recall the intensity of emotions that preceded my prison-based interview at some of the more primal instincts that assailed my sense of assumed professional detachment when reading the Crown Prosecution Service depositions which detailed the violence meted out to the child victim.
I steadied myself for what I anticipated would be a severe mental tussle to unravel the various uncontained strands in my mindset of seeking some form of justice for the victim, expressing some barely disguised retributive anger and looking ahead (a custodial sentence in this case was inevitable) towards seeking, if possible, some genuine chance for rehabilitation and reintegration on release. What surprised me most was that the interview (at the time unhelpfully undertaken in the general visits area) far from highlighting a worrying disjunction between expressive anger and a harshly punitive approach, was conducted in a way and manner that enabled appropriate challenges to be made. Unsurprisingly the defendant was defensive and sought to minimise his guilt, in seeking some explanation for such abusive behaviour and eliciting the needed information to inform the sentencing process.
In offering a qualified safe space for the perpetrator to talk, think and reflect about his actions, the assessment that is at the core of the pre-sentence report had to broaden its lens to cover the familial and social context in which not only had the episodes of child abuse occurred but also domestic abuse directed against his partner was uncovered. Indeed it appeared from listening to aspects of the troubled biography before me that the abuse was in part an 'acting out' of some of the fear, shame and vulnerability arising from earlier childhood abuse experienced by this man and had played a significant part in his psycho-social development. The eminent child development guru John Bowlby referred many times in his enduring works to the poetic phrase, 'the internal pot of gold', namely that most of us have the strength and resilience to bounce back from setbacks when young and move to adulthood in healthier ways. But this empathetic absence, which appears in the life stories of many probation officers (and others) interview in/out of prison, means that the early challenges of childhood trauma, when unaddressed, surface in adulthood in harmful ways resulting in a fractured inability to show affection and intimacy to others.
I still bristle with unspoken Freudian anxieties, when recalling the circumstances of this interview (sadly one of many that I subsequently undertook of a similar nature in the years ahead) but it left me thinking, if I can widen the criminological canvas, that maybe the populist urge for the state to behave in an ever more punitive fashion, particularly at times of high moral outrage, is in some vestigial way 'acting out' of its own sense of denial at its impotence when seeking to control crime.