Nonsense Upon the Stilts? Human Rights, the Ethics of Punishment and the Values of Probation

Published 18/03/2009
Type Article
Author(s) Rob Canton
Corresponding Authors Rob Canton, Division of Community and Criminal Justice, De Montfort University, Leicester

This paper explores the potential for deploying the discourse of human rights to invigorate debate about the ethics of penal practices and in particular the values of probation. Human rights are argued to be the most promising basis for an ethically principled opposition to both excesses of punishment and an unduly instrumental understanding of penal practice. Recent themes in penal policy are identified and an account of human rights is set out. It is argued that human rights are distinctively important in discussions of punishment and that an attempt should be made to disentangle those rights that are appropriately forfeit as legitimate punishment and which rights should be retained. Two misgivings about human rights are identified and addressed. The place of the Council of Europe in working out the real-world implications of the European Convention on Human Rights is considered. The Council of Europe can also help to develop a legal framework to support its ethical initiatives. It is concluded that penal practice grounded in human rights affirms the responsibilities of offenders and therefore constitutes an appropriate penal communication. Ethically informed penal practice promotes legitimacy and perhaps enhances effectiveness in reducing reoffending.