Beyond Labels: Unveiling the Political Process of Criminalisation

Joe, volunteer contributor
May 20, 2024

In the evolving landscape of justice and governance, the power of language is a potent force. It shapes perceptions, influences policies, and ultimately defines how individuals are viewed within society. Almost a decade has passed since the Scottish government made the progressive move of replacing the term "offenders" with "people with convictions." While this shift is a step in the right direction, it merely scratches the surface of a deeper issue: the inherent political nature of criminalisation.

To delve into this topic, we must first recognise that criminalisation extends beyond the mere labelling of individuals. It is a multifaceted process influenced by political agendas, societal norms, and power dynamics. In order to understand the process of criminalisation, it is imperative that we understand that the ‘criminal justice system’ operates within a broader framework of control and domination.

At its core, criminalisation is not a neutral act but a politically charged phenomenon. The police and the courts play pivotal roles in this process, selectively criminalising certain behaviours while turning a blind eye to others. This selective enforcement perpetuates systemic inequalities, disproportionately impacting marginalised communities and perpetuating cycles of oppression.

Moreover, the process of criminalisation obscures the underlying dynamics at play, evidenced by the fact that we are not all criminalised equally. There are many examples where one group is criminalised and another group is granted the freedom to act with impunity. In the UK, you are 23 times more likely to be criminalised for benefit fraud, than you are for committing the much more costly crime of tax fraud. The report by TaxWatch, claims that there are three times more compliance officers in the DWP than there are in HMRC, despite tax fraud costing almost 10 times more than benefit fraud. In most societies, the same pattern emerges - velvet gloves for those at the top of the social structure and an iron fist for those at the bottom.

In light of these considerations, it is imperative that we adopt a more nuanced language to reflect the reality of criminalisation. Instead of referring to individuals as "people with convictions," we must recognise them as "people who have been criminalised." This subtle shift underscores the political nature of the process, highlighting the unequal distribution of power and resources that underpin it. The importance of this shift is amplified by the fact that the target-driven nature of policing means that some ‘offences’ are prioritised at the expense of others, creating a lopsided process that is far from universally applied.

By reframing the conversation in this manner, we can challenge the prevailing narrative surrounding criminalisation. We can interrogate the systems of power that perpetuate injustice and advocate for policies that address the root causes of crime. As advocates for social justice, it is our duty to dismantle the structures of oppression that perpetuate cycles of violence and incarceration.

Inconclusion, the renaming of "offenders" to "people with convictions" is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. To truly understand the dynamics of criminalisation, we must acknowledge its inherently political nature and strive to adopt a language that reflects this reality. By doing so, we can challenge the status quo, amplify marginalized voices, and pave the way for a more just and equitable society.

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