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[Report of the ACS2020] Plenary Session with Q&A Session_Prof. John Pratt

The Pandemic as an Antidote to Populism: Punishment, Immobilization and Covid-19

The Asian Criminological Society 12th Annual Conference (ACS2020), hosted by Ryukoku University, was held online for four days from June 18 to 21, 2021. The purpose of the conference, the second of its kind to be held in Japan after the 2014 Osaka conference, was to promote the growth of criminology in Asia and Oceania, and to promote academic exchange with advanced regions of criminology such as the United States and Europe.
>> ACS2020 Program
The overall theme of the conference is "Crime and Punishment under Asian Cultures: Tradition and Innovation in Criminology". The aim was to promote understanding of the social systems and culture and measures against crime and delinquency in Japan, which is said to be "the country with the least crime in the world".

The following is a summary of the Plenary Session with Q&A Session, which was held live streaming at the conference.

[PL03] Pandemic as an Antidote to Populism: Punishment Immobilization and Covid-19
- Plenary Speaker: John Pratt (Professor of Criminology, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
- Chair: Koichi HAMAI (Professor of Criminology,  Ryukoku University, Japan)
- Date: 14:45-16:15, 19 June, 2021
- Keywords: penal populism, populist politicians, experts (criminologists), movement restrictions, scientific findings, pandemics, post-pandemics, novel coronavirus (COVID-19), criminal policy, social solidarity

John Pratt (Professor of Criminology、 Institute of Criminology、 Victoria University of Wellington、 New Zealand)

John Pratt (Professor of Criminology、 Institute of Criminology、 Victoria University of Wellington、 New Zealand)

The contemporary rise of populism across much of Western society – especially the Anglo-American countries that are the main focus of this paper– has threatened many of the protections and freedoms provided by the post-1945 commitment to a democratic political order: guarantees of human rights, adherence to the rule of law, and a media free to criticize governments and hold them to account. Its penal programme that not only fostered more severe punishments but has also extended the scope of criminal law so that it can be used to immobilize those thought at risk of committing particular crimes – through control and restriction of their movement in public space to indefinitely imprisoning them at the end of a finite prison term – before any new crime is committed.
Given the way in which these measures point to important shifts away from democratic norms, it might be thought that governmental reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic pose a further threat to democracy and its criminal justice processes. Additional forms of immobilization have been introduced to combat the spread of the virus: control on freedom of movement in public space or stay at home orders equivalent to house arrest – controls now on entire nations rather than just those at risk of committing particular crimes, with police (and sometimes the military) given powers of enforcement.
However, it will be argued that the pandemic also provides very different possibilities of governance to this kind of populist authoritarianism. Indeed, the virus acts as an antidote to populism. The latter is premised around nationalistic visions of a glorious future, that only ‘strong man’ leadership, with demagoguery blustering its way past science, reason and expertise, can provide. For this to happen, however, ‘enemies of the people’ must be brought under control through extra-judicial action beyond the boundaries of the rule of law as necessary. Covid-19 is one such enemy, but it laughs in the face of these demagogues. It shows them to be nothing more than incompetent, if usually malevolent, charlatans. Instead, it can only be eliminated by science and expert knowledge, acting in conjunction with a strong but accountable central government, amidst forms of immobilization to which the general public have largely acquiesced, strengthening rather than weakening social cohesion in the process - and eating into the conditions necessary for populism to thrive. This then provides opportunities for a different and more restricted penal framework in the post-pandemic era.

Summary of the Q&A Session

Question 1: Some people in Japan and elsewhere are addicted to conspiracy theories such as QAnon. What do you think about conspiracy theories? What are some ways to counter them?
Answer 1: I think that conspiracy theories and their growing influence on social networking services are issues that we should be concerned about, but I believe that only a limited number of people fall for such things. I don't think we need to worry too much about it. I think the only way to fight it is to communicate the facts properly.

Question 2: Is there a possibility that populism will rise again after the pandemic?
Answer 2: Although this remains a concern, but both Trump and Bolsonaro have failed to take action against COVID-19 and are gradually losing support. As in Japan, until the pandemic, no one knew the names of the public health experts. But now, everyone knows who they are. I think people are starting to value the opinions of experts more than the government, because they are telling the truth and trying to fight the crisis correctly. In New Zealand, there is also a growing trust that the government will listen to the experts and act accordingly. As a result, support for far-right parties has declined significantly.

Question 3: In Japan, the feud between the government (Prime Minister) and the experts has become a major problem. They do not seem to trust each other. Particularly in the case of the Olympic Games (TOKYO 2020), the government seems to be ignoring the opinions of experts, and is pushing ahead with the event, which makes many people feel uneasy. I think this is where the populists can make inroads.
Answer 3: It may seem a little too pessimistic, but this could be a possibility. However, looking at public opinion polls in developed countries in Europe and the U.S., we see that while the public is cautious about lifting lockdowns, the government is more insistent about lifting them, which is the exact opposite of what we would expect during a populist era. This suggests that the public is more sober-minded, and is placing more weight on the opinions of experts than the government. In that light, we can be a little more optimistic.

Question 4: I am sure you have heard Professor Garland's lecture, the content of which has much in common with Professor Pratt's lecture. Professor Garland said that pandemics help experts gain social status and public trust, so that the public is properly educated and a good form of populism is created. What did you think about his lecture?
Answer 4: His talks are always thought-provoking. It was interesting to hear him speak today about the potential for expert science-based opinion to guide public opinion in the right direction. With the pandemic crisis, public health experts suddenly came to the public's attention and won the public's trust by presenting unshakable common knowledge based on science. However, public health has a long history of contributing to society through its scientific findings. In contrast, criminology has a short history. It may not be so easy to win the trust of the public in the same way as the public health experts. If we compare the level of trust in doctors and police officers, the difference seems obvious. However, the situation is not impossible. Professor Garland also said that it is important to know what kind of story you are telling the public. We will need the help of journalists to educate the public. However, several criminologists have tried to do so, but without much success. As Professor Maruna mentioned in his lecture yesterday, we need a social movement approach. In New Zealand, the government has heeded campaigns by young people, albeit on a limited basis. When I published "Penal Populism," I was invited to speak to various journalists and politicians, and since they too were influenced by populism, I did not feel that my talk had that much of an effect on them. However, we may have been able to influence the thinking of young people to a certain extent. If anything, my other book, "Contrasts in Punishment (2013)" may have been more influential. I think it was meaningful that the country where government officials go to learn (by inspection) has changed from the US to Scandinavia.

Question 5: The pandemic has a clear target: the virus. It is possible to distinguish between the virus and the people who carry it and spread it. In criminology, the target is the person who commits the crime, and I think the problem is that it is difficult to separate the person from the cause of the crime. What are your thoughts on this?
Answer 5: Exactly. Viruses are a real risk and all people are exposed to them, but crime is not. I think people are also easier for populists to demonize than viruses.

Question 6: Penal Populism tends to support the death penalty, but do you think that this pandemic will have any impact on the movement to abolish the death penalty?
Answer 6: I think that the issue of the death penalty is more of a moral issue. In that sense, I think it should be seen as a different issue from Penal Populism. So I haven't really thought about the impact of the pandemic on the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Question 7: What do you think led to the abolition of the death penalty in New Zealand?
Answer 7: The death penalty was abolished in New Zealand in the 1960s, the same time as in the UK, but the number of executions had been decreasing even before that, and the last execution was in 1957. Rather than a major campaign, the abolition of the death penalty seems to have occurred as part of an overall trend. In Scandinavian countries, the death penalty was abolished after World War I. In societies with a high degree of homogeneity and a small social distance between people, the death penalty is probably not necessary in the first place. In New Zealand, far-right parties sometimes argue for the reinstatement of the death penalty, but they are not very influential.
Comment 7: The conditions in Scandinavia and other countries that have just been pointed out, such as a high degree of homogeneity and a decreasing crime rate, may apply to Japan, but in reality, the Japanese government is trying to keep the death penalty alive. On a different note, experts in the field of public health are in agreement. In contrast, the opinions of criminal justice experts on criminal policy are varied, and this may be another reason why the opinions of criminologists are not reflected in policy. In Japan, there are some lawyers who are in favor of the death penalty.

Question 8: Regarding the point about pandemics being an antidote to populism, while this may be true for Australia and New Zealand, it is not true for Asian countries, in my opinion. In Japan, of course, but also in the Philippines, there has been an increase in the number of killings by government officials outside the criminal justice process during the pandemic. Where do you think this difference comes from?
Answer 8: That's a difficult question. Of course, I think the detoxification effect varies from country to country. I think New Zealand is the most successful example. The Prime Minister took charge as a leader of 5 million people and appealed for social solidarity. This has been successful in reducing the spread of the disease. In order to function as an antidote, it is necessary to deepen social solidarity. As a matter of fact, it is a bit of a surprise to me that the infection has recently spread in Japan, a country that tends to maintain social distance from the rest of the world. As for the Philippines, since the tyrannical president has been in office since before the pandemic, I think the killings outside the judicial process are increasing as an extension of his attempt to play the strong man. So the impact of a pandemic will of course depend on the societal situation. In any case, I think that social solidarity is the key, and the issue is whether the government can lead people to it.

Recorded by Koichi Hamai