Penal Populism: The End of Reason

31 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2017 Last revised: 19 Oct 2022

See all articles by John Pratt

John Pratt

Victoria University of Wellington - Institute of Criminology

Michelle Miao

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law

Date Written: January 23, 2017


Penal populism has become a much discussed characteristic of punishment in modern society. Most such commentaries, however, take the rather myopic view that this phenomenon represents some localized event within the social body, to be diagnosed, theorized and exorcized there. This article, however, argues that the emergence of penal populism is neither the endpoint of nor the limits to populism and its consequences in modern society. Rather, it marks only the beginnings of its more general resurgence in the early twenty first century. In these respects, penal populism should be understood as only a convenient incubating phase in which populist forces found vigour and strength before flowing much deeper into mainstream society from that gestation. If it might be thought that penal populism represents an attack on the long established link between reason and modern punishment, this has been only the prelude to the way in which a much more free flowing political populism now threatens to bring an end to Reason itself, the foundation stone of modernity. This shift from penal to political populism has been precipitated by two interconnected factors: the impact of the 2008 global fiscal crisis and the mass movement of peoples across the globe. The article concludes with a discussion of how political populism continues to transform punishment in modern society, as well as the broader social consequences and implications of its emergence.

Keywords: penal populism, reason, punishment, risk, politics, insecurity

Suggested Citation

Pratt, John and Miao, Michelle, Penal Populism: The End of Reason (January 23, 2017). The Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2017-02, 9 (13) Nova Criminis 71-105 (2017), Available at SSRN:

John Pratt (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Institute of Criminology ( email )

P.O. Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

Michelle Miao

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law ( email )

Shatin, N.T.
Hong Kong
Hong Kong


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