Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Crime

Category Archives: Crime

20 years of Criminology

It was at the start of a new millennium that people worried about what the so-called millennium will do to our lives.  The fear was that the bug will usher a new dark age where technology will be lost.  Whilst the impending Armageddon never happened, the University College Northampton, as the University of Northampton was called then, was preparing to welcome the first cohort of Criminology students. 

The first cohort of students joined us in September 2000 and since then 20 years of cohorts have joined since.  During these years we have seen the rise of University fees, the expansion of the internet and google search and of course the emergence of social media.  The original award was focused on sociolegal aspects, predominantly the sociology of deviance, whilst in the years since the changes demonstrate the departmental and the disciplinary changes that have happened. 

Early on, as criminology was beginning to find its voice institutionally, the team developed two rules that have since defined the focus of the discipline.  The first is that the subject will be taught in a multi-disciplinary approach, widely inclusive of all the main disciplines involved in the study of crime; so alongside sociology, you will find psychology, law, history, philosophy to name but a few.  The impetus was to present these disciplines on an equal footing and providing opportunity to those joining the course, to discover their own voice in criminology. The second rule was to give the students the opportunity to explore contentious topics and draw their own perspective.  Since the first year of running it, these rules have become the bedrock of UoN Criminology. 

The course since the early years has grown and gone through all those developmental stages, childhood, adolescence and now eventually we have reached adulthood.  During these stages, we managed to forge a distinctiveness of what criminology looks like; introducing for example a research placement to allow the students to explore the theory in practice.  In later years we created courses that reflect Criminology in the 21st Century always relating to the big questions and forever arming learners with the skills to ask the impossible questions.   

Through all these years students join with an interest in studying crime and by the time they leave us, to move onto the next chapter of their lives, they have become hard core criminologists.  This is always something that we consider one of the course’s greatest contribution to the local community. 

In an ordinary day, like any other day in the local court one may see an usher, next to a probation officer, next to a police officer, next to a drugs rehabilitation officer, all of them our graduates making up the local criminal justice system.  A demonstration of the reach and the importance of the university as an institution and the services it provides to the local community.  More recently we developed a module that we teach in prison comprised by university and prison students.  This is a clear sign of the maturity and the journey we have done so far…

As the 21st century entered, twin towers fell, bus and tube trains exploded, consequent wars were made, riots in the capital, the banking crisis, the austerity, bridge attacks, Brexit, extinction rebellion, buildings burning, planes coming down, forest fires and #metoo, and we just barely cover 20 years.  These and many more events keep criminological discourse relevant, increase the profile of the subject and most importantly further the conversation we are having in our society as to where we are heading. 

As I raise my glass to salute the first 20 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton, I am confident that the next 20 years will be even more exciting.  For those who have been with us so far a massive thank you, for those to come we are looking forward to discussing some of the many issues with you.  We are passionate about criminology and we want you to infect you with our passion. 

As they say in prison, the first 20 years are difficult the rest you just glide through…

“Back to the future”: 2019 A Year of Violence?

When I was young, 2020 seemed like the stuff of science fiction. Programmes like Tomorrow’s World held the promise of a future full of leisure, with technology taking the strain in all aspects of human life. Now we’re in 2020 it appears we have plenty of technology, but whether it adds or subtracts from the lived human experience, is still very much up for discussion. Certainly, it is increasingly difficult to separate work from leisure with the liquidity technology brings.

As is traditional for this time of year, the mind turns to reflection on the year gone by. This year is no different, after all it, like many others, has been packed with both good and bad experiences. Personally, 2019 was challenging in a number of different arenas, my patience, temerity and resilience have been tested in many novel ways. Events have caused me to reflect upon my own values and philosophies and my moral and ethical compass has been and continues to be tested. I don’t intend to go into lots of detail here, but it feels to me as if violence is increasingly impinging on all aspects of life. The first few days of 2020 suggests this perception is likely to continue with Trump’s decision to assassinate ‘Iran’s top general and second most powerful official, Qassem Suleimani’.

In December, 2019 we saw yet another general election. Whatever your particular persuasion, it is difficult to view British politics as anything other than increasingly personalised and aggressive. Individuals such as David Lammy MP, Diane Abbott MP, Caroline Dinenage MP, as well as campaigners such as Gina Miller and Greta Thunberg are regularly attacked on twitter and through over media. However,  it is not all one sided, as Drillminster showed us in 2018 with his artistic triumph Political Drillin. It is clear that these verbal attacks are beginning to become part and parcel of political life. Such behaviour is dangerous, on many levels, political discourse is a necessity in a mature democracy and shutting up discordant voices cannot lead to unity in the UK.

In November, we were shocked and horrified by the terrorist attack at Fishmonger’s Hall. This attack on colleagues involved in prison education, raised questions around individual and collective decisions to engage with criminology with convicted criminals. Nevertheless, despite such horrific violence, the principles and practice of prison higher education remain undaunted and potentially, strengthened.

October, saw the publication of Grenfell Phase 1. This document identifies some of the issues central to the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017. Whether this and later publications can ever really make sense of such complexity, offer the victims and survivors comfort and go some way to ensuring justice for all those involved, remains to be seen. Those who have studied CRI3003 Violence with me are likely to be cynical but it is early days.

For much of September, the focus was on the prorogation of parliament and the subsequent court case. As with December, there were many complaints about the violence of language used both inside and outside parliament. Particularly, notable was the attack on MP Jess Phillips’ constituency office and arguments around the inflammatory language used by PM Boris Johnson.

In August, the media published video footage of Prince Andrew with his friend, the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This story rumbles to the end of the year, with more allegations made toward the prince, culminating in an infamous interview which threatens to continue unabated.

July saw the end of a trial into modern slavery, leading to prison sentences for 8 of those involved. The judge concluded that slavery was still thriving in the UK, often ‘hiding in plain sight’. What support is available to those subjected to this violence, is not clear, but prison sentences are unlikely to make any material benefit to their lives.

In June, shocking footage emerged of MP Mark Field forcibly removing a female protester. Strikingly his colleague, MP Johnny Mercer tweeted  ‘if you think this is “serious violence” you may need to recalibrate your sensitivities’. After some years teaching around violence, I have no idea what Mr Mercer feels qualifies as violence, but putting your hands on another’s throat would seem to a reasonable starting point.

May saw attention drawn to the media, with the racism of Danny Baker and inherent cruelty of the Jeremy Kyle Show. Arguments which followed suggest that, for many, neither were not seen as problematic and could be dismissed as so-called “entertainment”.

April saw the collapse of the first trial of David Duckenfield, police commander at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Although put on trial again, later in the year, he was found not guilty on the 28 November, 2019. The chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Margaret Aspinall perhaps spoke for everyone involved when she asked ‘When 96 people – they say 95, we say 96 – are unlawfully killed and yet not one person is accountable. The question I’d like to ask all of you and people within the system is: who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?’ After 30 years, it seems justice is still a long way away for the victims, survivors and their families.

After years of growth in life expectancy, in March the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries published data suggested that this was no longer the case in the UK. Although they offered no conclusions as to why this was the case, evidence indicating that the ideology of austerity costs lives, cannot be discounted.

In February, the Office for National Statistics announced homicidal knife crime was at the highest level for over 70 years.  Despite harsher sentences for those carrying knifes, evidence from the College of Policing indicates that such penalties exacerbate rather than improve the situation.

The new year began with squabbling about Brexit and the expected impact on Northern Ireland. On the 20 January 2019 a bomb detonates in Londonderry, fortunately with no injuries. For those of us old enough to remember “The Troubles”, footage of the incident brings back many horrific memories. Nevertheless, discussions around Northern Ireland and Brexit continue throughout 2019 and into 2020, with little regard for the violence which has ensued in the past.

Many events have happened in 2019, as with every other year and what stays in the mind is an individual matter. I feel that my world has become more violent, or maybe I have just become more attuned to the violence around me. I make no apology for my adherence to pacifist ideology, but this perspective has been and no doubt, will continue to be challenged. I must consider whether there comes a time when ideology, values, philosophy, temerity and resilience, are little more than good old-fashioned stubbornness. Until that point of no return comes, I will stand my ground and for every violent action that occurs, I will try my best to work toward a better world, once in which equality, peace and social justice reign supreme.

A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

You can’t tell me what to do….

It seems that much criminological discussion centres on motivation. This ranges from focusing on the motivation to commit crime, the motivation to report victimisation, the motivation to work within the criminal justice system, all the way though to the motivation for punishment. In each of these circumstances, much is taken for granted, assumed and reacted to as if there were a consensus. 

However, how much do we really know about motivation? To be sure, there are plenty of criminological theories focusing on individual explanations for criminality and deviance, particularly around psychopathy, personality and biology. Others, such as Classical theory assume that we are all the same, rational creatures motivated by the same factors. But take a moment and consider what motivates you? Are those factors positive or negative?

Let’s take the prison for example. According to some politicians, the media and other commentators, incarceration can punish and rehabilitate, frighten people out of crime whilst also empowering them to move away from crime. It offers an opportunity to desist from drug taking, whilst simultaneously enabling prisoners to develop a drug habit. Prison can offer a haven from social problems on the outside, whilst also creating a dangerous environment on the inside and these are just a few of the many pronouncements on the prison. Although oppositional, these differing narratives all indicate the prison as a place of change; transformation, the only difference is whether this is positive or negative, in essence does prison make people better or worse?

Considering much of the blog’s readership is focused on education, it might be useful to apply the prison experience to our own personal motivations. Would it be helpful to have someone constantly telling you what to do? Escorting you to and from the toilet, the classroom, the workplace? Controlling your every move? Deciding when and what you eat? Determining if you can access a shower, the library, the gym and so on? Passing judgement on who can visit you and when they can come? Would these “motivational” factors inspire you to study more? What if you were locked in a very small room (think student accommodation) for hour upon end, would your essays be any better?

For me personally, all of the above, would not motivate; they might frighten or even terrify me. They would allow me to feel resentful, bitter, alienated, perhaps even aggressive. Maybe I would become depressed, self-harm, or turn to drugs for consolation. Maybe, I could retreat into studying as release from an oppressive regime, but is that motivation? or escapism? or even institutionalisation?

I wonder, surely there must be far better, less harmful ways of tapping into motivation? By looking at our own experiences and considering what has motivated us in a positive way previously, we can begin to consider how we might motivate ourselves and others. Some of the motivational factors I can identify from my own life include, people who are prepared to listen to my ideas (good and bad) without interrupting, to guide (but not tell, never tell!) me to finding solutions to problems and to treat me with dignity and respect. Other examples, include introducing me to important literature, but not batting an eyelid when I excitedly tell them all about the content. Being there for me as a fellow human regardless of status (perceived or otherwise), when everything is a challenge, and I just want to vent and celebrating all successes (however tiny). These are just a few, personal reflections, but what they have in common, is the focus on another human who matters to you, who is cheering you on from the side-lines and is able to empathise and encourage. The other commonality, of course, is that these factors are not entrenched within the prison or the wider criminal justice system.[1]

Have a think for yourself and see if you can find anything currently within the prison or CJS that would motivate you! If it doesn’t, you need to question what it is the prison is actually trying to achieve.


[1] This does not preclude individual positive interpersonal relationships within the prison or CJS, but it is not a primary function of either.

A Love Letter: in praise of art

Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.

Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.

I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.

Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.

Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!

“What do you want to do?”

I was twenty-five when I first applied for university, studying BA Criminology. When I first told my family and friends, they were unsure. They did not understand why I wanted to change my career and study a subject without having a ‘plan’. I had accomplished many things since leaving school, such as buying a house with my partner, buying a dog and at the time I was a supervisor in a nursery. However, I was not satisfied, I wanted to be challenged and wanted to try something new. In all honesty when family and friends asked me what I wanted to do, I did not know.

Growing up, I was told I was not smart enough for university, as a young person you begin to believe it. It wasn’t until I began looking after children when I realised that children should be encouraged and if I was going to reinforce my belief – that you can do whatever you set your mind to – I should believe it in myself.

Choosing criminology was easy for me, crime was something I was sheltered from as a child, I did not experience crime. I only began my fascination, after watching documentaries on Netflix and even then, I was curious about the concept and naively wondered, ‘what makes a criminal?’ After studying for one year, it is now easy to see that it is not an easy question to answer – but don’t take my word for it, study criminology and see for yourself!

Reflecting on my first year, it was a lot of trial and error. Like many students, I was learning how to write essays again and abide by deadlines, work a part time job, balance study, volunteering and home life and try not to consume too much alcohol in the meantime.

As summer comes to an end, I am excited to begin again, the stresses of university become worth it, when you build friendships and have the realisation that you are one step closer to graduating. I will continue to be determined and optimistic in my future, because I believe I can finally be satisfied. The next time someone asks me what I want to do, I can be confident and say, ‘I haven’t decided yet, but you can do anything you set your mind to, and no-one can tell me I am not smart enough for university’.

As a Member Pioneer supporting the Police

Stephanie graduated in 2015 having read BA (Hons) Criminology (with Education Studies

Since January 2018, I have worked part time as a Co-op Member Pioneer, for the area of Yardley Wood in Birmingham. In my role, I do charity work, support the local causes, aid the community and local people, run a litter pickers’ forum,  build and establish local networks, do work with the council and the police. Throughout my time doing this role, I have loved every challenge thrown at me, and have increasingly done more work supporting the police.

When I first met with some of the PCSOs [Police Community Support Officers] last year, I began doing more work supporting them, and helping the community with crime-related issues. I had been informed by one of the PCSOs that the Billseley Police (whom cover Yardley Wood) are the smallest police team in the country, made up of 7 staff (the Sergeant, 4 PCSOs and 2 police officers, soon to become 3 as one of the PCSOs is training to be a full officer). 


In June 2018 and 2019, during the Co-op Fortnight, I hosted a ‘Meet your Member Pioneer’ event in store, where the local community could anonymously write down something to make the local community better. I received a huge number of crime related issues, such as people knowing where drug dealers and addicts were, issues of people speeding and parking dangerously outside schools, issues of knife crime, anti-social behaviour, and people wanting there to be more police on the streets for safety and protection.

On both occasions, after getting all the crime-related notes out, I emailed the police department everything that had been written down, helping the police get more information from the public on different issues that were all dealt with. Being a community pioneer in non-police uniform, it made it easier for the public to privately disclose and offload their crime-related concerns, knowing that it would be taken seriously, and forwarded on. In an effort to further support the police with extending the reach to the local community, I advertise their events on my social media sites, saving them time and resources, and encourage people to attend, or message me any concerns they would like me to take forward.

After being introduced to staff,  from Livingstone House (an organisation that helps recovering addicts), SIFA Fireside (that deals with homelessness and social exclusion),  the Moseley Exchange (a business enterprise group that runs various community projects), I’m helping build community networks that the police can rely on to help people from different demographics, as well as aid them in their understanding of how to help addicts, beggars, the homeless, and many others. This has enabled the police to have access to a range of resources and information and contacts whom they can rely on and get advice from. 

More recently, after getting in touch with David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner, I am helping the police set up a knife bank near the station. I’ve also gotten in touch with and organisation called Activating Creative Talent that does knife crime awareness training in schools, and am working with one of the PCSOs on delivering knife awareness education in schools and in the community. It’ll be a big, ongoing community project that is soon to take off!


In the role, I love all that I do supporting the police. I never imagined that as a community pioneer, I would aid and support the police in the capacity that I have. 



Terrorised into compliance

Edvard Munch, (1893) The Scream

Learning and teaching is a complex business, difficult to describe even by those in the process of either/or both. Pedagogy, as defined by Lexico is ‘[t]he method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept’. It underpins all teaching activity and despite the seemingly straightforward definition, is a complex business.  At university, there are a variety of pedagogies both across and within disciplines. How to teach, is as much of a hot topic, as what to teach and the methods and practices are varied.

So how would you feel if I said I wanted Criminology students to quake in their boots at the prospect of missing classes? Or “literally feel terror” at the thought of failing to do their reading or not submitting an assessment? Would you see this as a positive attempt to motivate an eager learner? A reaction to getting the best out of lazy or recalcitrant students? A way of instilling discipline, keeping them on the straight and narrow on the road to achieving success? After all, if the grades are good then everything must be okay? Furthermore, given many Criminology graduate go on to careers within Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ maybe it would be useful to give them a taste of what’s to come for the people they deal with (1977: 209).

Hopefully, you are aghast that I would even consider such an approach (I promise, I’m definitely not) and you’ve already thought of strong, considered arguments as to why this would be a very bad idea Yet, last week the new Home Secretary, Pritti Patel stated that she wanted people to “literally feel terror” at the prospect of becoming involved in crime. Although presented as a novel policy, many will recognise this approach as firmly rooted in ideas from the Classical School of Criminology. Based on the concepts of certainty, celerity and severity, these ideas sought to move away from barbaric notions and practices to a more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment.

Deterrence (at the heart of Classical School thought) can be general or specific; focused on society or individuals. Patel appears to be directing her focus on the latter, suggesting that feelings of “terror” will deter individuals from committing crime. Certainly, one of the classical school’s primary texts, On Crime and Punishment addresses this issue:

‘What is the political intention of punishments? To terrify, and to be an example to others. Is this intention answered, by thus privately torturing the guilty and the innocent?’

(Beccaria, 1778: 64)

So, let’s think through this idea of terrorising people away from crime, could it work? As I’ve argued before if your crime is a matter of conscience it is highly unlikely to work (think Conscientious Objectors, Suffragettes, some terrorists). If it is a crime of necessity, stealing to feed yourself or your family, it is also unlikely to succeed, certainly the choice between starvation and crime is terrifying already. What about children testing boundaries with peers, can they really think through all the consequences of actions, research suggests that may not be case (Rutherford, 1986/2002). Other scenarios could include those under the influence of alcohol/drugs and mental health illnesses, both of which may have an impact on individual ability to think through problems and solutions. All in all, it seems not everyone can be deterred and furthermore, not all crimes are deterrable (Jacobs, 2010). So much for the Home Secretary’s grand solution to crime.

As Drillminister demonstrates to powerful effect, violent language is contextual (see @sineqd‘s discussion here). Whilst threats to kill are perceived as violence when uttered by young, black men in hoods, in the mouths of politicians they apparently lose their viciousness. What should we then make of Pritti Patel’s threats to make citizens “literally feel terror”?

Selected bibliography

Beccaria, Cesare, (1778), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Edinburgh: Alexander Donaldson), [online]. Available from: https://archive.org/details/essayoncrimespu00Becc/page/n3

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Jacobs, Bruce A., (2010), ‘Deterrence and Deterrability’, Criminology, 48, 2: 417-441

Rutherford, Andrew, (1986/2002), Growing Out of Crime: The New Era, (Winchester: Waterside Press)

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

%d bloggers like this: