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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

Is Easter a criminological issue?

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Spring is the time that many Christians relate with the celebration of Easter. For many the sacrament of Easter seals their faith; as in the end of torment and suffering, there is the resurrection of the head of the faith. All these are issues to consider in a religious studies blog and perhaps consider the existential implications in a philosophical discourse. How about criminology?

In criminology it provides great penological and criminological lessons. The nature of Jesus’s apprehension, by what is described as a mob, relates to ideas of vigilantism and the old non-professional watchmen who existed in many different countries around the world. The torture, suffered is not too dissimilar from the investigative interrogation unfortunately practiced even today around the world (overtly or covertly). His move from court to court, relates to the way we apply for judicial jurisdiction depending on the severity of the case and the nature of the crime. The subsequent trial; short and very purposefully focused to find Jesus guilty, is so reminiscent of what we now call a “kangaroo court” with a dose of penal appeasement and penal populism for good measure. The final part of this judicial drama, is played with the execution. The man on the cross. Thousands of men (it is not clear how many) were executed in this method.

For a historian the exploration of past is key, for a legal professional the study of black letter law principles and for a criminal justice practitioner the way methods of criminal processes altered in time. What about a reader in criminology? For a criminologist there are wider meanings to ascertain and to relate them to our fundamental understanding of justice in the depth of time. The events which unfolded two millennia back, relate to very current issues we read in the news and study in our curriculum. Consider arrest procedures including the very contested stop and search practice. The racial inequalities in court and the ongoing debates on jury nullification as a strategy to combat them. Our constant opposition as a discipline to the use of torture at any point of the justice system including the use of death penalty. In criminology we do not simply study criminal justice, but equally important, that of social justice. In a recent talk in response to a student’s question I said that that at heart of each criminologist is an abolitionist. So, despite our relationship and work with the prison service, we remain hopeful for a world where the prison does not become an inevitable sentence but an ultimate one, and one that we shall rarely use. Perhaps if we were to focus more on social justice and the inequalities we may have far less need for criminal justice

Evidently Easter has plenty to offer for a criminologist. As a social discipline, it allows us to take stock and notice the world around us, break down relationships and even evaluate complex relationships defying world belief systems. Apparently after the crucifixion there was also a resurrection; for more information about that, search a theological blog. Interestingly in his Urbi et Orbi this year the Pope spoke for the need for world leaders to focus on social justice.

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