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Centre for Penal Theory and Ethics

Institute of Criminology
A photograph of conference participants

Current & Recent Work


Re-Reading Beccaria

Cesare Beccaria is one of the few authors who could unashamedly claim for his slim 1764 volume On Crimes and Punishments to have influenced policy developments worldwide. For those who turn to Beccaria’s work today, the encounter is in part shaped by that knowledge. Two workshops were held to explore Beccaria’s arguments and ideas from the vantage point of contemporary criminal justice scholarship - the first at Ono Academic College in Tel Aviv in the spring of 2018, the second in Cambridge in July 2019. Sensitive to the book’s dual nature as historical document and repository of ideas, participants in this collaborative project (co-led by Dr du Bois-Pedain and Professor Shachar Eldar of Ono Academic College) address unresolved tensions in Beccaria’s arguments for the criminal justice aims he promotes, and approach his contemporary relevance through a contextualized reading of his book and reflection on the history of its reception. A publication arising from this workshop is currently in preparation.


Moral Understandings, Criminal Careers and Social Responses to Criminal Careers

On 24-26 September 2018, the Centre held an Institute-wide conference on Moral Understandings, Criminal Careers and Societal Responses to Criminal Careers. The conference proceeded from James Laidlaw’s insight that ‘the fact that everyday conduct is constitutively pervaded by reflective evaluation … is irreducible, and … social theory needs to be reformulated to make our analyses of diverse phenomena and states of affairs cognizant with this’ (The Subject of Virtue, 2014, pp 44-5), and asked how criminology can better address the ethical dimensions of some of the topics it studies – particularly, criminal careers and responses to criminal careers. The conference was co-organised by the Centre’s director, Professor Tony Bottoms, and Professor Jonathan Jacobs (CUNY), a moral philosopher who is a regular visitor to the Institute, and featured – alongside leading professors from the Institute – internationally renowned speakers from the fields of developmental psychology, social anthropology and moral and political philosophy. A volume based on the presentations will be co-edited by the two conference organisers and will appear in due course in the Centre’s book series with Hart/Bloomsbury.

In connection with this project, the Centre subsequently hosted a visit by Professor Didier Fassin (James D. Wolfensohn Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA), who also presented a seminar entitled 'The Police are the Punishment' in the Institute's prestigious Thursday evening seminar series.


Penal Censure

In 1976, Andreas von Hirsch published in the United States a seminal volume entitled Doing Justice: The Choice of Punishments (Report of the Committee for the Study of Incarceration), which critiqued the then dominant rehabilitation-oriented approach to sentencing, and introduced (or re-introduced) ‘just deserts theory’, linked to the concept of proportionality. Later, von Hirsch reshaped his theory, making the concept of penal censure central to his work (as in his 1993 volume, Censure and Sanctions). In September 2016, as a fortieth-anniversary tribute to the influence of Doing Justice, the Penal Theory Centre convened a workshop to re-examine the concept of penal censure from many perspectives, including – for example – its theoretical foundations, whether it promotes parsimony in sentencing, how (if at all) it relates to rehabilitation, and whether it has any purchase in state responses to terrorist offences. Contributors to the workshop came from the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy and the United States. The essays in the resulting collection on Penal Censure: Engagements Within and Beyond Desert Theory (co-edited by Antje du Bois-Pedain and Anthony E. Bottoms; Hart/Bloomsbury, 2019) map the conceptual territory of censure from philosophical, sociological-anthropological and individual-psychological perspectives, address issues for desert theory that arise from fuller understandings of censure, and consider afresh the roles of censure and desert within the jurisprudence of punishment.


Criminal Law and the Authority of the State

This project, led by Dr Antje du Bois-Pedain in collaboration with two Swedish scholars (Professor Magnus Ulväng and Professor Peter Asp, now a judge at the Swedish Supreme Court), addresses how the state, as a public authority, relates to those under its jurisdiction through the criminal law. Workshops were held at Cambridge University and Uppsala University with participants from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel and Canada. A volume arising from this project was published in the Centre’s book series in 2017 under the title Criminal Law and the Authority of the State (co-edited by Antje du Bois-Pedain, Magnus Ulväng and Petter Asp; Oxford: Hart). The book brings together criminal lawyers, criminologists, legal theorists and public lawyers who, from a shared acceptance of broadly liberal political foundations for state authority, address specific aspects of the relationship between the state and those subject to its criminal laws, such as questions of criminal law-making and jurisdiction; the use of criminal law to suppress challenges to state authority; the purposes and mechanisms of state punishment; the interface between tort and crime and the political-ethical underpinnings of legitimate criminal-law enforcement. The spotlight in this collection is very much on the agent of punishment: ‘the state’ when identified in the abstract-impersonal mode, and police officers, prosecutors, judges and prison staff, when we turn to the institutions and individuals through which the state acts.