by Nicola Lacey. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 254pp. Hardback. $75.00/£35.00 ISBN: 9780521899475. Paper. $27.99/£12.99. ISBN: 9780521728294. eBook format. $22.00. ISBN: 9780511410604.

Reviewed by J. Michael Olivero, Department of Law and Justice, Central Washington University. Email: olivero [at]


This work concerns itself with the “Prisoners’ Delimma,” a term coined by Nicola Lacey to describe how some nations employ and fund severe penal sanctions to manage crime, and by doing so create greater problems. These severe penal sanctions end up costing more financially and socially, than was originally the case, including the generation of further crime and repressive incarceration. Lacey’s case in point is the United States, which she is concerned may come to serve as the model for other contemporary democracies. However, she believes that, even with the convergence associated with globalization, all nations are not inexorably marching towards a similar fate as that of the United States. Instead, through comparison with various other democracies, she attempts to show that key institutional differences provide insulation from harsh penal sanctions and an exclusive society, to a more tolerant criminal justice system and inclusive societal citizenship. She also offers some thought as to what needs to take place for nations, such as the United States, to rectify their present self-defeating course of action. In the long run, she wants the development of societies that promote inclusion of out groups and the reintegration of offenders, because she believes that nothing less than the true meaning of democracy is at stake.

Among other things, Lacey seeks to show how contemporary democratic nations can become truly democratic with respect to a tolerant and sensitive approach to crime management that focuses on the causes of crime, as opposed to a reaction to crime. For purposes of analysis, she barrows heavily from Marxist perspectives on the generation of crime, but also seeks to include the impacts of culture and institutions, thus avoiding the pitfall of economic determinism or vulgar Marxism.

Starting at the institutional level, she believes that we must look beyond the criminal justice system to include the cultural climate and the political economic system to understand crime and penalization. On the cultural level, some states have social environments in which repressive penal warehousing gain positive support by the advantaged majorities. These are states in which the politics of government exploit majority concerns about crimes by out groups. These states are marked by poor intra-party discipline and competition between parties. In addition, there appears to be poor confidence in the professional capabilities of criminal justice personnel. [*212] The combination of these and other factors allow a “culture of control” to develop, which constrains the development of criminal justice policy beyond reactionary fear of crime that fosters repression. Thus, progressive penal practices and reform fall prey to fear of victimization.

Lacey believes that that some governments have constructed systems in which the impact of criminalization and imprisonment is patterned by socioeconomically advantaged groups producing social exclusion of those who are more disadvantaged. In the United States, this group has been African-Americans, with specific impact upon Black males. According to her analysis, there has been a shift in many societies whereby changes and advancements in technology have produced an underclass of unskilled and unemployable workers to whom the majority feels no responsibility and begins to fear. The majority feels that this group needs to be severely punished, and lengthy incarceration becomes a chief means to manage the problem. This model seems to fit well with the African American experience in the United States and the empirical evidence provided by the author. In addition, she also shows that race is a significant out-group characteristic in other countries as well, where racial minorities have been poorly absorbed into the ranks of the employed and into the mainstream of society.

Lacey’s model also fits with globalization and particularly with those nations experiencing influxes in migrant workers. Those nations that needed migrants for labor seem to have greater ease in incorporating those outside of the majority controlled social systems. Nations that are absorbing migrants as the result of refugee and asylum movements without mechanisms for incorporation into the economy also seem to experience increases in the use of incarceration and rising prison populations. Finally, migrants in those nations where there are traditional mechanisms for incorporating the unskilled and uneducated into the economy have lower prison populations.

Lacey develops a typology of political [*213] economies and then empirically shows the relationship between the type of political economy and prison population. The two broad categories of political economy are liberal market and coordinated market economies, and within the coordinated market economies are countries Lacey describes as conservative corporate, social democracies and oriental corporatist. Using empirical observations, she demonstrates that coordinated market economy nations are significantly less inclined to use repressive incarceration methods. Instead, these countries are marked by systems that focus on salient democratic issues, including the training and education of workers, have generous welfare provisions, and show less economic disparity between the wealthy and others. She argues persuasively that these types of arrangements produce social tolerance and inclusive societies. In addition, Lacey concludes that, despite globalization and migration, not all countries in the future will follow the course of repressive penalization exemplified by the US and UK.

I believe Lacy has been largely successful in this endeavor. Overall, the work is powerful. The empirically-based comparison between political economies is effectively presented in a manner that strongly supports her basic propositions. My only criticism is that the work is very ambitious and at times might take on too much in an attempt to derive explanation, rather than focusing on the strongest features of her models and support for her propositions. The book is easy to understand and is highly logical. This work will be of use to those interested in cross-cultural comparisons of crime and those who wish to understand the relationship between the political economy and crime. I would put it in line with Marxian approaches to the analysis of crime, but it goes much deeper by combining institutions and culture with macro-level analysis.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, J. Michael Olivero.