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What price justice?

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Having read a colleague’s blog Is justice fair?, I turned my mind to recent media coverage regarding the prosecution rates for rape in England and Wales.  Just as a reminder, the coverage concerned the fact that the number of prosecutions is at an all-time low with a fall of 932 or 30.75% with the number of convictions having fallen by 25%.  This is coupled with a falling number of cases charged when compared with the year 2015/16.  The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird somewhat ironically, was incensed by these figures and urged the Crown Prosecution Service to change its policy immediately. 

I’m always sceptical about the use of statistics, they are just simple facts, manipulated in some way or another to tell a story.  Useful to the media and politicians alike they rarely give us an explanation of underlying causes and issues. Dame Vera places the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its policy of only pursuing cases that are likely to succeed in court. Now this is the ironic part, as a former Labour member of parliament, a minister and Solicitor General for England and Wales, she would have been party to and indeed helped formalise and set CPS policy and guidelines.  The former Labour Government’s propensity to introduce targets and performance indicators for the public services knew no bounds. If its predecessors, the Conservatives were instrumental in introducing and promulgating these management ideals, the Labour government took them to greater heights.  Why would we be surprised then that the CPS continue in such a vein?  Of course, add in another dimension, that of drastic budget cuts to public services since 2010, the judicial system included, and the pursuit of rationalisation of cases looks even more understandable and if we are less emotional and more clinical about it, absolutely sensible.

My first crown court case involved the theft of a two-bar electric fire. A landlady reported that a previous tenant had, when he moved out, taken the fire with him.  As a young probationary constable in 1983, I tracked down the culprit, arrested him and duly charged him with the offence of theft.  Some months later I found myself giving evidence at crown court.  As was his right at the time, the defendant had elected trial by jury.  The judicial system has moved a long way since then.  Trial by jury is no longer allowed for such minor offences and of course the police no longer have much say in who is prosecuted and who isn’t certainly when comes to crown court cases.  Many of the provisions that were in place at the time protected the rights of defendants and many of these have been diminished, for the most part, in pursuit of the ‘evil three Es’; economy, effectiveness and efficiency.  Whilst the rights of defendants have been diminished, so too somewhat unnoticed, have the rights of victims.  The lack of prosecution of rape cases is not a phenomenon that stands alone. Other serious cases are also not pursued or dropped in the name of economy or efficiency or effectiveness. If all the cases were pursued, then the courts would grind to a halt such have been the financial cuts over the years.  Justice is expensive whichever way you look at it.

My colleague is right in questioning the fairness of a system that seems to favour the powerful, but I would add to it.  The pursuit of economy is indicative that the executive is not bothered about justice.  To borrow my colleague’s analogy, they want to show that there is an ice cream but the fact that it is cheap, and nasty is irrelevant.   

How I became an evil man

My love of poetry came in my sleep like a dream, a fever I could not escape and in little hours of the day I would read some poetry from different people who voice the volume of their emotions with words.  In one of those poems by Elleni Vakalo How he became a bad man, she introduced me to a new understanding of criminological thinking.  The idea of consequences, that lead a seemingly good person to become bad, without the usual motivational factors, other than fear.  This was the main catalyst that became the source of this man’s turn to the bad. 

This almost surrealistic description of criminal motivation has since fascinated me.  It is incredibly focused, devoid of social motivations and personal blame.  In fact, it demonstrates a social cognition that once activated is powerful enough to lead a seemingly decent person to behave in uncharacteristic moves of violence.  This interesting perspective was forged during the war and the post war turmoil experienced.  Like Camus, the act of evil is presented as a matter of fact and the product of thoughts that are originally innocent and even non-threatening. 

The realisation in this way of thinking, is not the normalisation of violence, but the simplicity that violence in innate to everyone. The person who commits it, is not born for it, does not carry an elaborate personal story or trauma and has no personal compulsion to do it. In some ways, this violence is more terrifying, as criminality can be the product of any person without any significant predispositions, an everyday occurrence that can happen any time.

The couple that will meet, fall in love, cohabit, and get married, starting a family, follow all the normal everyday stages that millions of people follow or feel socially obliged to follow.  In no part of this process do they discuss how he will control her, demean her, call her names, slap her, hit her or kick her. There is no plan or discussion of how terrified she will become, socially isolated and humiliated.  At no point in the planning, will she be thinking of ways to exit their home, access helplines or spend a day in court.  It happens, as a product of small thoughts and expressed emotions, that convert into micro aggressions, that become overt hostility, that leads to violence.  No significant changes, just a series of events that lead to a prolonged suffering. 

In some way, this matter of fact violence explains the confusion the victims feel, trapped in a relationship that they cannot recognise as abusive, because all other parts fall under the normality of everyday life. Of course, in these situations, emotion plays a key role and in a way that rearranges logic and reason. We are driven by emotion and if we are to leave criminological theory for a minute a series of decisions, we will make daily take a journey from logic to emotions and back.

This emotional change, the manifestation of thoughts is not always criminal nor destructive. The parents who are willing to fight an entire medical profession so that their newborn has a fighting chance are armed with emotion.  Many stories come to mind of those who owe their lives to their determination of their parents who fought logic and against the odds, fought to keep them alive.  Friends and partners of people who have been written off by the criminal justice system that assessed them as high risk for society and stuck with them, holding on to emotion as logic departs. 

In Criminology, we talk about facts and figures, we consider theories and situations, but above all as a social science we recognise that we deal with people; people without emotions do not exist.  So how do you/how do I become a bad man?  Simple…the same way you are/I am a good man. 

This is the poem by Eleni Vakalo, with my painful translation:

How He Became A Bad Man

I will tell you how it happened
In that order
A good little man met on his way
a battered man
the man was so close from him laying
he felt sad for him
He was so sad
That he became frightened
Before approaching him to bend down to
help him, he thought better
“What do you want, what are you looking for”
Someone else will be found by so many around here,
to assist this poor soul
And actually
I have never seen him
And because he was scared
So he thought
Would he not be guilty, after all no one is hit without being guilty?
And they did him good since he wanted to play with the nobles
So he started as well
To hit him
Beginning of the fairy tale
Good morning

A utilitarian argument for human rights

https://www.flickr.com/photos/46452859@N03

I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night.  Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord.  The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland.  Both have an impact in respect of human rights.

Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement.  The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District.  The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.

The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness.  The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances.  There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19.  The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer.  The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life.  The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise.  The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.

Turning to the second news article.  The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right.  The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge.  The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.

The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act.  Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist.  Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature.  Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few?  Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in?  Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment.  We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.

Criminology Society!

President: Natalie Humphrey

Secretary: Maisie Storr

Treasurer: Megan Petford

As many of you are aware, back at the beginning of the year, the Criminology was set up. However, I will admit we have been very lacking with content. I am writing this blog to try and get the word out and become proactive. This society could be something that bring all students studying criminology, joint and single honours, together. We have a few ideas in the works, with our first meet up being a movie night. This will be happening in the next few weeks, where we will be watching the new Ted Bundy film, with Zac Efron. Our other ideas include, visiting a court, an escape room and we are hoping for an abroad trip at some stage. However, we need many more suggestions from those who are part of the society. Please feel free to add our social media which I will leave at the end of this blog. We will be posting mainly on our Instagram where we have polls for you to partake in, asking you what you want from the society. If you haven’t already, and are interested, please visit Northampton’ Student Union website where you can officially join the society. Any suggestions would be really appreciated, so just contact us through social media to get your voice heard!

Twitter: @uon_criminology

Instagram: criminologysociety_uon

“TW3” in Criminology

In the 1960s, or so I am told, there was a very popular weekly television programme called That Was The Week That Was, informally known as TW3. This satirical programme reflected on events of the week that had just gone, through commentary, comedy and music. Although the programme ended before I was born, it’s always struck me as a nice way to end the week and I plan to (very loosely) follow that idea here.

This week was particularly hectic in Criminology, here are just some of the highlights. On Monday, I was interviewed by a college student for their journalism project, a rather surreal experience, after all, ‘Who cares what I think?

On Tuesday, @manosdaskalou and I, together with a group of enthusiastic third years, visited the Supreme Court in London. This trip enabled a discussion which sought to unpack the issue of diversity (or rather the lack of) within justice. Students and staff discussed a variety of ideas to work out why so many white men are at the heart of justice decisions. A difficult challenge at the best of times but given a new and urgent impetus when sat in a courtroom. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective and impartial when confronted with the evidence of 12 Supreme Judges, only two of which are women, and all are white. Arguments around the supposed representativeness of justice, falter when the evidence is so very stark. Furthermore, with the educational information provided by our tour guide, it becomes obvious that there are many barriers for those who are neither white nor male to make their way through the legal ranks.

Wednesday saw the culmination of Beyond Justice, a module focused on social justice and taught entirely in prison. As in previous years, we have a small ceremony with certificate presentation for all students. This involves quite a cast, including various dignitaries, as well as all the students and their friends and family. This is always a bittersweet event, part celebration, part goodbye. Over the months, the prison classroom leaves its oppressive carceral environment behind, instead providing an intense and profound tight-knit learning community. No doubt @manosdaskalou and I will return to the prison, but that tight-knit community has now dissipated in time and space.

On Thursday, a similarly bitter-sweet experience was my last focused session this year on CRI3003 Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. Since October, the class has discussed many different topics relating to institutional violence focused on different cases including the deaths of Victoria Climbié, Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, as well as the horror of Grenfell. We have welcomed guest speakers from social work, policing and the fire service. Discussions have been mature, informed and extremely sensitive and again a real sense of a learning community has ensued. It’s also been my first experience of teaching an all-female cohort which has informed the discussion in a variety of meaningful ways. Although I haven’t abandoned the class, colleagues @manosdaskalou and @jesjames50 will take the reins for a while and focus on exploring interpersonal violence. I’ll be back before the end of the academic year so we can reflect together on our understanding of the complexity of violence.

Finally, Friday saw the second ever #BigCriminologyQuiz and the first of the new decade. At the end of the first one, the participants requested that the next one be based on criminology and music. Challenge completed with help from @manosdaskalou, @treventoursu, @svr2727, @5teveh and @jesjames50. This week’s teams have requested a film/tv theme for the next quiz so we’ll definitely have our work cut out! But it’s amazing to see how much criminological knowledge can be shared, even when you’re eating snacks and laughing. [i]


So, what can I take from my criminological week:

  1. Some of the best criminological discussions happen when people are relaxed
  2. Getting out of the classroom enables and empowers different voices to be heard
  3. Getting out of the classroom allows people to focus on each and share their knowledge, recognising that
  4. A classroom is not four walls within a university, but can be anywhere (a coach, a courtroom a prison, or even the pub!)
  5. A new environment and a new experience opens the way for discord and dissent, always a necessity for profound discussion within Criminology
  6. When you open your eyes and your mind you start to see the world very differently
  7. It is possible (if you try very hard) to ignore the reality of Friday 31 January 23:00
  8. It is possible to be an academic, tour guide, mistress of ceremonies and quiz mistress, all in the same week!

Here’s looking forward to next week….not least Thursday’s Changemaker Awards where I seem to have scored a nomination with my #PartnerinCriminology @manosdaskalou.

[i] The first quiz was won by a team made up of 1st and 2nd years. This week’s quiz was won by a group of third years. The next promises to be a battle royale 😊 These quizzes have exposed, just how competitive criminologists can be….


Friday the 13th

Odd thing superstition, it makes reasonable and seemingly rational people think and behave in the most irrational and inexplicable manner. Always we notice these behaviours and thoughts in other people, but so many of us carry in the back of our minds equally irrational ideas and beliefs. We hear of football club managers who always wear the same clothes at a game, athletes that engage in the same pre-game routine and of course, politicians who act in certain ways during their election campaign. For the rest of us there are ladders in the street, black cats, that we may avoid or there are dates in the calendar that we take notice. Friday the 13th is one of those Anglo-Saxon dates that people take notice of.

I am sure that some of my historian friends will be able to give a good account of the origin of the unfortunate date, but I can only go with the “official tradition” of Jesus, the 13th student, (Judas) and his subsequent arrest on the Friday before the Crucifixion. The day, somehow, became one of those that we notice, even when we are not superstitious. There is even a psychologically recognised fear of the date Triskaidekaphobia; which in Greek means the fear of 13! Of course social fears are blended with wider social anxieties, whether that is the fear of the unknown or the realisation that in life, there are things that we have little control of.

In the days leading up to this Friday the 13th we engaged with political discussions about what direction the country shall take. The health service, the justice system, the state’s responsibility, all the way to welfare and the state of the union, were all eclipsed by one topic that has dominated discourses, that of the execution of leave from the European Union commonly known as Brexit. Ironically the “exit” preface was used before for Greece (Grexit), and Italy (Italexit) but seems that Brexit has won the battle of the modern lexicon. The previous “exits” where used as a cautionary tale for the countries being forced out of the union, whilst Brexit is about leaving the Union.

Having considered all the issues, this one issue became the impetus for people to give politicians a mandate. Complete this issue before and above all the rest. It is an issue likened to a divorce, given a texture, (soft/hard) and has even been seen as the reason for generational conflicts. Therefore the expectation is clear now . Leave the European Union, and then let’s see what we can do next. The message is fairly clear and the expectation is palpable. Beliefs and hopes of the people narrowed down to one political move that shall terminate membership to the European Union. Of course there are subsequent questions and issues that this act of national defiance may come with. As for the state of the Union, that may have to be the next thing we discuss. This follow up conversation may not be as welcome, but it is definitely interesting. If joining the EU back in 1975, warranted a discussion, then the 1536 Act of Union may become the next topic for conversation. As for healthcare, justice, education and welfare, we may have to wait a little bit more longer. Whether this will mark Friday 13th December 2019 as a date of fortune or misfortune, that is yet to be decided, but that is the same for every day of the week.

Just for your records and for the Triskaidekaphobians out there, the next Friday the 13 is in March 2020 followed by the one in November 2020. Just saying…

The roots of criminology; the past in the service of the future;

SessionsHouse

In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students.  Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House.  This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town.  Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours.  Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities.  On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.

The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675.  The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft.  Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged.  Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice.  In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges.  The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness.  How can criminology not be part of this legacy?

There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear.  It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do.  This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology.  The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible.  Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement.  Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.

These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be.  A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate.  In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots  allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline.  Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative.  In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet.  We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom  once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent.  History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.

Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration

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