by Michael Tonry (ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 400pp. Cloth. $60.00. ISBN: 9780226808635. Paper. $39.00. ISBN: 9780226808642.

Reviewed by Caryl Lynn Segal, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Texas at Arlington. Email: csegal [at]


This excellent eleven-article volume discusses penal policies in the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Canada, Scandinavia, France, and Japan, and it should appeal to political scientists. Michael Tonry’s opening article, followed by Jean-Paul Brodeur’s piece on comparative penology, establish high standards for the authors that follow. Nearly all the contributors rise to the occasion.

There are cultural and political reasons that account for a nation’s being more or less likely to adopt punitive policies. The actual effect of a media blitz differs dramatically because of the political structure and whether the nation has a coalition-type government. Multiple studies and authors have equated moral panics to media.

Jean-Paul Brodeur states that the media focus on a specific criminal act through the constant replay of pictures and sounds leads to legislation that is now the greatest pathology that threatens policy making. Research that does not support policy makers’ objectives is largely ignored, he says. “Punishment is the one policy that is never discredited by its failure to achieve its stated objectives. If it fails to meet its goals, the only reason is that there is not enough of it” (pp. 80-81). That severity may, in fact, be one reason a goal is not reached is not considered, according to Brodeur. The expectation that rising crime rates would translate into more punitive policies does not always occur and depends on country-specific characteristics and consensus political systems.

David Downes’ article on the “Visions of Penal Control in the Netherlands” does a first-rate job of succinctly explaining, not only penal policy, but the evolution and reasons for its changes and current status. The Dutch do not believe in long prison sentences except under special circumstances. They strongly believe in humane conditions during incarceration with the aim of rehabilitation.

By comparison, Sonja Snacken’s “Penal Policy and Practice in Belgium” evolves after an interesting beginning into an overabundance of statistical data that are not meaningfully woven into the reasons for or the historical background of the policy. A unique feature of the Belgium system is the requirement that police must report all incidents to the prosecutor, who has the discretion to move forward with an investigation. “Penal mediation” is a recent Belgium development which allows prosecution to be dropped if the victim and offender reach an agreement on compensation. In spite of some excellent information provided, this too long and repetitive [*96] chapter detracts from the value of the volume.

Victim’s rights are mentioned in nearly every article, and there appears to be a connection between the rise of victims’ becoming a factor in the judicial process and the swing from rehabilitative goals to revenge and deterrence in some nations.

A significantly stronger contribution by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä is filled with historical and contemporary reasons for the changes in penal systems and sentencing goals. Lappi-Seppälä points out that penal severity appears “closely associated with public sentiments (fears, levels of trust, and punitiveness), the extent of welfare provision, differences in income equality, political structure, and legal cultures” (p.219). Although the article is an explanation of Scandinavian policy, these factors can easily be applied to explain penal policy in other countries as well.

What makes Scandinavian countries unique is that inequalities in income and distribution of wealth and power are not tolerated; this is accomplished by the close relationship between employers, employees, and the political system. The Nordic countries also have a relatively corruption-free history. In Scandinavia the belief is that imprisonment should be avoided whenever possible, and punishment should be moderate, restrained, proportionate and respectful of human rights.

What stands out immediately is that low imprisonment rates do not equal spiraling crime rates or high recidivism rates. Long-term sentences are generally restricted to terrorist acts, drug running, and sexual abuse cases. Finland abandoned its “drug-free society” drug control goal in the 1990s as unrealistic. Drug control has tightened in the past two decades, and drug offenses account for the increased Scandinavian penal population. Sex offenses also have stiffer penalties than in the past.

Lappi-Seppälä states that “a system in which the legislature sets policy only in broad terms, leaving the concrete level of sanctions to the discretion of independent judges, is less vulnerable to short-sighted and ill-founded political interventions.”

While the high English and American imprisonment rates are mentioned by all the writers who indicate that Anglo-Saxon communities are currently disinclined toward rehabilitative penal goals, Green alone, in the final essay, attributes them to the politicization of crime. Studies reveal that higher imprisonment rates are associated with lower levels of welfare spending, lower levels of trust in fellow citizens, and lower public perceptions of the legitimacy of the legal system.

Canada had high imprisonment rates in the past, but in the late 1980s a Sentencing Commission reduced maximums and eliminated minimum sentences. The result is a very stable Canadian imprisonment rate. The Canadian historical and cultural underpinnings, which cause its penal policy to differ sharply from both the United States and England, are clearly and concisely explained by Webster and Doob in the 6th article.

David Johnson’s essay on “Crime and Punishment in Contemporary Japan” is [*97] one of the best this volume has to offer. Japan has been heralded as the safest country among developed democracies, but Johnson reveals that, while homicide rates are the lowest in the world, Japanese citizens have a high sense of insecurity. He carefully examines Japanese history and the role that crime and gangs have played.

The door to understanding the current fear of crime and its resultant emphasis on law and order lies in a rarely noticed demographic: the birth rate is at a record low, and life expectancy is the longest in the world. Needing population stability, many foreign workers were admitted; although still quite low, the “total number of legally registered foreigners living in Japan increased more than 50% in the past 15 years.” When you start with a small population, it takes very little change to reach a high percentage: in 1990 there were 46 death sentences, and in 2006, 79 were condemned, representing a 70% increase in 16 years, involving only 33 additional homicides. In response to the fears expressed by the public, albeit unsubstantiated, political leaders and elites have used and exploited public insecurity to create a more punitive system with longer imprisonment terms.

England has also seen a turn towards a more punitive justice system. Political scientists will find value in Tim Newburn’s article looking at the politics of England and Wales and the changes that have occurred. The murder of two-year-old James Bulger by 10-year-olds created moral panic, and in reaction both political parties urged tougher approaches to crime and passed legislation with elements that would be considered unconstitutional in the US: loss of the right to silence, and the inferences from invoking it. Fines lost sanction credibility, and today custody is the sanction of choice for most offenses in England and Wales.

Sebastian Roche’s article explains why French laws appear to have become harsher, but the prison population has risen only slightly. France makes use of diversionary programs, informal procedures, and grants widespread pardons and amnesty. Roche provides good information and explanations of the French system but tends to get bogged down with statistical charts. He provides a basis for understanding why juveniles in particular are often spared prison in France.

René Lévy discusses pardons and amnesties as instruments of policy in contemporary France, thus expanding on the information presented by Roche. Levy explains that pardons and amnesty are routinely used to reduce prison overcrowding, and Bastille Day is celebrated by pardons of entire categories of offenders. Amnesty, erasing imposed sentences, is granted by legislation, and pardons are granted by the executive branch, but are really suspended sentences because of the conditions attached. Political scientists should find this chapter exceptionally useful.

In the concluding article, David Green masterfully compares two cases of child-on-child homicides, one in England and the other in Norway. With its revelations about the media’s role in creating a political climate demanding punitive change, this article is probably one of the best for political scientists. The Norwegian press’ attention to the [*98] killing lasted about two weeks and included multiple discussions by child care experts and psychologists related to reintegrating the offenders. No politicians weighed in with government fault-finding or demands for tougher laws.

Britain’s print media, considered the most competitive in the world, created a moral panic and led to new legislation. Scandinavian newspapers are less sensationalist and less competitive. Norway has a high per capita newspaper readership which is mostly subscription based. Green also shows how the majoritarian and consensus governments differ and the effect they have on media. The political-cultural differences of the two countries provided by Green contribute to the article’s value for political scientists.

The Crime and Justice series has added another very worthy volume to the collection.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Caryl Lynn Segal.