51v4YAO6uRLA couple of years ago I read Guy Standing’s intriguing book The Precariat: the new dangerous class (2011). It made a lot of sense to me: a terrifying number of people live and work precariously, on the edge, with very short-term jobs, and no stable social protection. Standing gives many examples of the exploitation of this ‘underclass’ and points out (obviously enough) that ‘the precariat’ risk producing new instabilities in society. They are increasingly frustrated and ‘dangerous’ because they have no voice (and are thus, for example, vulnerable to the calls of political and religious extremists). Standing tries to identify a new kind of ‘good society’, with the state providing for example, an unconditional basic income for everyone. To me, it was a depressing but convincing read. I suppose I then forgot about using this new label (though not the issue, of course). I should probably have read his more recent book: A Precariat Charter: from denizens to citizens (2014). This year’s equivalent bestseller may be Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century (which the Economist tells me, somewhat surprisingly, has been read more in English than in the original French).

I was then invited to take part this week in a conference hosted by colleagues in the University of Poitiers, France on “Franco-British perspectives on precariousness: principle(s) – law(s) – practice(s)”. Lizzie Richardson, Bye Fellow in Fitz led me to a bit more reading: I was particularly impressed by Louise Waite’s explanation of the subject for geographers in Geography Compass. Precariousness is not only a condition but also, as she says, a “point of mobilization” in response to that condition. Clearly in France, and elsewhere in Europe, the concept of ‘la précarité’ has been co-opted to argue for more social and economic justice, what Louise Waite calls a “possible rallying point for resistance”. Precarity is both a description, and a political tool.

The conference applied the concept of precariousness to a number of very different contexts: perhaps most obviously to precarious housing, to the precariousness of being foreign, and to the problems of the elderly. Perhaps my favourite (the one which made me think hardest!) was on precariousness and the protection of cultural heritage. Dacia Viejo Rose was fascinating on how cultural heritage (think about the pyramids!) is used, and abused, during armed conflicts but also more generally, to divide, to exclude, and to intimidate. Might the concept of ‘precarity’ help as a tool for post-conflict reconstruction, for example?

So in my paper, I tried to explore whether this concept of precarity or ‘precariousness’ can help us with understanding the meaning and function of prisons and probation. It seems to me to go without saying that prisons are full of these vulnerable people who make up the precariat. They are not just vulnerable, they live their lives precariously. And of course our current penal system rather successfully makes their lives more, not less, precarious. People enter prison often with rather weak social and economic bonds – and leave with them further weakened. I am not sure that there is anything new here: we know that many of the prison population are both poor and vulnerable in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the concept of precarity can help us to understand better that people need stability, and connections, and a greater stake in society. If we want to help people desist from criminal lives, we have to think through how we can reduce their vulnerability to precarious living.

I chose a number of recent examples from the case law to illustrate my paper: persistent burglars, and benefit fraudsters, and even a woman, described by the Court of Appeal as a ‘good mother’ who was sentenced to imprisonment for child cruelty having left her child in the care of her boyfriend who then shockingly killed the child. There is a lot of confusion in theory, law and practice. Are people sent to prison for punishment? Or for the protection of the public? In order to deter them or others from future offending? Or is it to encourage the reform and rehabilitation of offenders? Much of the current rhetoric focuses on punishment and public protection. My paper explores some of the statistical data, largely from an English perspective (but looking for the equivalents in France) on the characteristics of offenders. It argues that a greater focus on the vulnerabilities of the prison population and on the literature on what works to reduce re-offending (on how difficult it is to leave crime behind, on desistance) might help us shift the balance a little towards rehabilitation and reintegration.

My thanks to my hosts in Poitiers for a fascinating two days. The University of Cambridge Law Faculty has had an Erasmus link with Poitiers for many years, an exchange scheme which allows our students to spend a year there, converting what would otherwise be a three year degree into a four year one, with a year in France. A wonderful opportunity. Similar programmes exist with German, Dutch and Spanish universities. Students may be considered part of the precariat, but here they also have some wonderful opportunities!

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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