Thoughts from the criminology team

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A crime, but who cares?

homeless

“IMG_8755 – Copy” by stivoberlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Amongst all the furore over Brexit, the European elections and the disintegration of the main political parties in the United Kingdom, a small but not insignificant news story crept into the news melee.

‘The number of physically disabled people affected by homelessness in England increased by three quarters during an almost 10- year period’ (BBC, 2019a, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019).  It is not merely coincidental that the ‘almost 10-year period’ aligns with the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in 2010. Measures, continuously pursued by the Conservative Government until October 2018 when Theresa May, the soon to be former prime minister, declared at a Tory party conference that austerity was over adding, ‘the end is in sight’ and there are ‘better days ahead’ (Independent, 2018a). Give her her dues, with the demise of the Tory party, the latter part was an insightful prediction.  Let’s not let the Liberal Democrats off the hook though, reluctant bedfellows they may have been in the coalition government, but bedfellows they were, and they had the power to vote down many of the Tory party dictats.  They may have curried favour with the electorate during the European elections, but we should not forget their part in the austerity measures.

Alongside the issues of homelessness, we see the use of foodbanks has increased phenomenally (Independent, 2018b), fuel poverty affects over 10% of English households (Independent, 2018c) and social care is collapsing (BBC, 2019b; Guardian, 2018).  To put it as simply as possible, the common denominator is the austerity measures introduced by government that directly impact on the most vulnerable in our so-called civilised society.  This and previous governments can point to the budget deficit, the ineptitude of the previous government and the economic downturn caused by the banking crisis (The Economist, 2013), but how do they justify the impact of their policies on the disadvantaged and those who can least afford any cuts?  Bizarrely, the least vulnerable have seen little or no impact on their standard of living other than perhaps for the middle classes there is the monotonous moan about access to doctors or dentists in a timely manner (the rich don’t even have to worry about this).

In my visits around schools I discuss what we mean by the term crime. Reiner (2007:21) states that ‘[t]he term ‘crime’ is usually tossed about as if it has a clear and unambiguous meaning’, but nothing of course is further from the truth.  One of the key ideas I posit is that of harm caused. This of course has its own problems in terms of definition and scope, but it does allow one to focus on what is important. If harm done is a measure of crime, or crime is defined by the harm done then we begin to see the world, actions by government, institutions and individuals in a different light.  With this notion in mind, we can start to ask when and how do we bring the greedy and those that abuse their power either intentionally or recklessly to book?  Maybe, just as Boris Johnson might well be prosecuted for misconduct in a public office over the alleged lies, he made relating to Brexit (BBC, 2019c), we might see ministers held to account for decisions they make that have catastrophic consequences for thousands of the most vulnerable in society.

BBC (2019a) Homeless and disabled: ‘I’m at my wits’ end’, [online] Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/disability-48433225/homeless-and-disabled-i-m-at-my-wits-end [accessed 29 May 2019].

BBC (2019b) English ‘short-changed on care funding’ [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-48438132 [accessed 30 May 2019].

BBC (2019c) Brexit: Boris Johnson ordered to appear in court over £350m claim, [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48445430 [accessed 29 May 2019].

Independent (2018a) Theresa May declares ‘austerity is over’ after eight years of cuts and tax increases, (3 Oct. 2018), [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-austerity-end-over-speech-conservative-conference-tory-labour-a8566526.html [accessed 30 May 2019].

Independent (2018b) Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs (24 April 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-bank-uk-benefits-trussell-trust-cost-of-living-highest-rate-a8317001.html  [accessed 30 May 2019].

Independent (2018) More than one in 10 households living in fuel poverty, figures show (26 June 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-uk-figures-poor-bills-cost-households-a8417426.html, [accessed 30 May 2019].

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2019) Live tables on homelessness [online] Available at http://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-homelessness , [accessed 30 May 2019].

Reiner, R. (2007) Law and Order: An Honest Citizen’s Guide to Crime and Crime Control, Cambridge: Polity.

The Economist (2013) The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course [online] Available at www.economist.com/schools-brief/2013/09/07/crash-course [accessed 30 May 2019].

The Guardian (2018) The social care system is collapsing. So why the government inaction? (3 Oct. 2019) [online] Available at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/03/social-care-collapsing-government-inaction [accessed 30 May 2019].

Who cares what I think?

The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.   

However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.  

Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?

Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.

In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive.  Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.

But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.

There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!

Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

Reflections on teaching ‘justice’

Judge gavel, scales of justice and law books in court

In the midst of the marking mountain (currently at Everest base camp), it is nice to reflect on another aspect of my role as a lecturer in criminology – teaching. In between marking I was thinking about putting together a seminar to focus on the meaning of justice and how this relates to broader structural inequalities, human rights and the need for reform. This is to contribute to my new module on ‘community justice’, as it is a place where I want to examine these terms as separate concepts, and also as a term which encompasses punishment delivered outside the prison walls, in spaces where people live, work and interact with others.

 

I always think it is important for students to critically examine accepted definitions and in this case, the many social constructions of justice. The article I came across, ‘Discussing Alternatives to Justice’ (edited by Allison and McMahon, 2015) very nicely presents a series of debates, discussions and poses important questions which require us to re-examine the criminal justice system and our society. It is presented as a series academics presenting radical changes they would make to shift us away from a punitive, ineffective and socially harmful system.

 

Professor Steve Tombs starts off the debates asking for an ‘alternative to the corporation’ – describing is as an ‘amoral, essentially destructive entity which causes far more physical, social and economic harm than the incivilities upon which criminal justice systems overwhelmingly concentrate’ (Tombs, 2015: 3). There is a clear need to reconsider our notion of what is criminal when we examine those events which lead to extensive social harms, but also the social structures and policies which enable these harms to occur and accept a muted response from our justice system. One theme of Tomb’s article is the need to shift the ownership and governance of services from the private sector to the public sector, to improve compliance and adherence to regulations and safety concerns. He also demands a need to challenge claims of efficiency and effectiveness – anyone seeing recent developments in probation and the consequences of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda should also be asking some pertinent questions about such claims. This requires a radical shift from our acceptance of remaining a consumerist society, and placing trust in corporations to understand there are many other ways to structure economics and the distribution of capital, such as social and employee owned enterprises and co-operatives. Bell (2015) continues this theme with a rallying call to shift from neoliberal politics which have ‘fuelled the current penal crisis, characterised by mass incarceration and the criminalisation of social problems’ (p.4). For me, these two articles already present different ideas, debates and reinforce the need for students to consider crime and justice in the context of social, political and economic systems. This would then also enable a more critical examination of justice – especially a criminal justice system which is harmful, punitive and ineffective. Bell (ibid) aptly critiques neoliberalist claim of freedom of choice as misrepresentations which actually enable corporations to use the Earth’s resources without consideration for the harms caused to consumers, who accept this risk in favour of cheap goods and services and the promise of more to come. She advocates a participatory democracy in all forms of life, including penology, to allow offenders to be part of the discussion on ways they can redress harms and shift the notion of justice from being predominantly punitive, to restorative and reparative.

 

Pike, (2015) then provides a more focused policy idea change – to build more schools and fewer prisons. This echoes the theme of this edited collection, to pose radical changes, and reinforces the need to understand crime as a reflection of an unequal society. There is a clear focus on prevention, not punishment, a need to rethink justice as a reactive force, to a more stabilising force (Rawls, 1971). Education is presented as vital to creating a more fair society and to stop the discrimination against the disadvantaged who are disproportionately present in our victimisation figures and our justice system.

 

In a discussion close to my own interests, Drake and Samota (2014) discuss the need for collective capacity in policy making, to understand the impact of the apathy which has allowed a rhetoric of being tough on crime to dominate, and indeed to be overtaken by the language of war and conflict as the only adequate response. This collective needs to comprise academic criminologists, practitioners, volunteers – those understanding crime and justice from a range of perspectives to come together and share expertise, engage the public in these debates and stimulate discussion on viable alternatives. This would be a firmer foundation for policy making, compared to the knee jerk reactions of ministers attempt to appease public outrage, fuelled by media misrepresentations. Drake and Samota (ibid) also refer to the misunderstanding of justice among the public and the need for collective hubs to counteract the misleading news and spin which feeds populist punitiveness and the assumptions that justice must be retributive and deterrent, and little else.

 

It may seem at first glance these are complex ideas for undergraduates to grapple with, but with guided discussion, debate and using examples to illustrate what is meant by social harms, injustices, ineffectiveness, I think they could form an important foundation for learning about the criminal justice system, and what we understand as criminal. It is with these ideas in mind, that students can then perhaps understand the need to critically examine what they then learn in their studies, and they also chime with younger generations broader concerns about inequalities, social justice and social harms. It may well be the case with the rising engagement in politics, concerns about the environment and the impact of consumerist lifestyles, that these ideas are not so complex or radical as they might at first seem.

 

 

Allison, C and McMahon, W. (2015) Discussing Alternatives to Criminal Justice, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, London.

 

Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Harvard University.

 

 

 

 

 

A little case of murder

In recent weeks a man serving in the military was arrested by the police accused of the murder of 5 women and 2 children.  At this stage this is an open investigation and the police has left the possibility that there may be more victims added to the list.

So, what do we know so far? A man using dating apps approached women using the alias “Orestes[1]” allegedly for a relationship or something serious.  The alleged date was when they were murdered never to be seen or heard of.  In two of the cases the women had children which he also murdered, in order as he testified to the police, to cover his tracks. It took the local community by storm and caused the usual true crimes sensation which in no doubt will continue as more of the story’s dimensions unfold. 

The investigation will be followed by the media in order to explain the kind of mind that led a seemingly “normal functioning” individual to do such a thing.  Murder is a crime committed with “malice aforethought”.  For the purposes of an open investigation that is the correct procedure; we explore a murderer’s motives, whereabouts, social and personal habits until we find enough evidence that allow the investigative team to connect the dots and make a compelling case that will be sent to court.   

Professionally however when we are asked to comment on cases such as this one, our perspective is quite different.  In my case, I begin asking the question of harm caused and how this happened.  Seven people went missing.  How? All women involved so far worked as domestic help and all were migrants.  At this point I shall refrain from offering more information or analysis on the women as that unfortunate psychologist who went on the media talking about the submissive nature of the Philippine women that made me sick!  One of the victims so far is from Romania so what’s what happens when experts say whatever comes to mind!

In years to come other experts will interview the murderer and ask him all sorts and test him on everything possible to ascertain what made him do it.  I shall stand on what we know.  He was a soldier, ranked officer, trained in interrogation techniques.  He was also an accomplished photographer who approached several women with the intent to photograph them for their portfolio, those who wanted a modelling career.  A person of contradictions that will fill the true crime libraries with more gruesome tales.  Of course, for one more time we shall wonder if it is necessary to train people to kill without considering the implication of such training may have in their welfare and interpersonal relations. 

What about the wider picture?  To put the whole case in some perspective.  The volume of victims (still ongoing) some of the victims have been missing for over a year, indicates an impunity that only comes from a society that fails to register those people missing.  In this case migrant women, working in low paid jobs, that the justice system failed because their disappearance did not raise any alarms.  A collective failing to ask the most basic question; where this person gone?  In previous similar cases, we have been confronted with the same issue.  The biggest accomplisher to murder is social apathy.  The murder is a crude reminder that there are groups of people in any society we care very little of.  Whether those are hire help, homeless or streetworkers.  The murderer usually produces a story that tries to justify why he chose his victims, but the painful reality is that his focus is on people or groups of people that have become invisible.  In an interesting research Dr Lasana Harris, identified that we perceptually censor our perception of homeless to stop us empathising.  In social sciences we have been aware of the social construction of dehumanising effects but now we can see that these processes can affect our own physiology.  The murderer may be caught, and the details of his deeds may scandalize some as we have since Jack the Ripper, but his accomplishes are still out there and it is all of us who become incredibly tribal in an ever-expanding global society. 

After all that talk of murder, I feel like having a cup of my favourite tea and a marron glace to take the bitterness away. 

Harris LT, Fiske ST (2018), Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups, in Fiske S, Social Cognition; selected works of Susan Fiske, London, Routledge. 


[1] A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name! 

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