Source: (2005) Theoretical Criminology. 9(2): 175–201.There is a widespread claim in the criminological literature that the current period is characterized by a surge in punitiveness and that this ‘punitive turn’ is fuelled by a new populism. However, the key notions of ‘punitiveness’ and ‘populism’ remain largely undefined, with the result that much of the associated analysis is vague, while developments are often asserted rather than explained. Consequently, there is a tendency towards empiricism, on the one hand, and speculative idealism, on the other. It is not that one cannot find examples of punitiveness but since the deployment of punitive sanctions has historically been an endemic feature of the criminal justice system we are faced with question of ‘what is new?’ In this article it is argued that there has been a one-sided, exaggerated focus on punitiveness in recent times, which has detracted from the development of a progressive realist account of contemporary crime control.