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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

Care Leavers, Criminal Justice and Higher Education

“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”

David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.

Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.

With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin

Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.

Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.

So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.

Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.

If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.

As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.

Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services

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.

“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’.

When the Police takes to Tweeter HashTags to Seek ‘Justice’


https://twitter.com/PoliceNG/status/1159548411244371969?s=20)

I am tempted to end this blog in one sentence with the famous Disney lyrics, “disaster is in the air” but this may do no justice to the entry as it lacks a contextual background. So last week, Nigerian Twitter was agog with numerous tweets, retweets, comments, and reactions following the news that soldiers of the Nigerian Army had allegedly killed one civilian and three police personnel in the line of duty. A brief summary of the case is that the killed police personnel had arrested an alleged notorious and ‘wanted’ kidnaper and were transporting him to a command headquarters when they ran into a military checkpoint. Soldiers at the checkpoint allegedly opened fire at close range, killed the police who were said to have attempted identifying themselves, and freed the handcuffed ‘kidnapper.’

In a swift reaction, a Joint Investigation Panel comprised of the Police and the Army was constituted to investigate the incident. Notwithstanding this, the Police took to their Twitter handle @PoliceNG calling out for justice and expressing dissatisfaction and concerns in what metamorphosed into series of threads and hashtags – #WhereIsEspiritDCorp and  #ProvideAnswersNigerianArmy. Ordinarily, this should have aroused and generated wide condemnation and national mourning, but, the comments, tweets and reactions on twitter suggests otherwise. While Nigerians expressed sympathy to the victims of the unfortunate incident, they also took to the social media platform to unravel their anger with many unleashing unsympathetic words and re-stating their distrust in the Police. In fact, it was the strong opinion of many that the incident was just a taste of their medicine as they often infringe on the rights of civilians daily, and are notoriously stubborn and predatory.

Certainly, this issue has some criminological relevance and one is that it brings to light the widely debated conversation on the appropriateness and the potency of deploying the military in society for law enforcement duties which they are generally not trained to do. Hence, this evokes numerous challenges including the tendency for it to make civilians loathe to interact with the military. I have previously argued that the internal use of the Nigerian military in law enforcement duties has exacerbated rather than ameliorated insecurity in several parts of the country. As with this instance, this is due to the penchant of the military to use force, the unprofessional conduct of personnel, and a weak system of civil control of the military to hold personnel accountable for their actions.

Similarly, this issue has also raised concerns on the coordination of the security forces and the need for an active operational command which shares security information with all the agencies involved in internal security. However, the reality is that interagency feud among the numerous Nigerian security agencies remains a worrying concern that not only undermine, but hinders the likelihood for an effective coordination of security activities.

Another angle to the conversation is that the social media provides a potent weapon for citizens to compel response and actions from state authorities – including demanding for justice. However, when the police is crippled and seemingly unable to ensure the prosecution of rights violations and extrajudicial killings, and they resort to twitter threads and hashtags to call out for justice, overhauling the security architecture is extremely necessary.

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

Thinking “outside the box”

@alisonhodson3

Having recently done a session on criminal records with @paulaabowles to a group of voluntary, 3rd sector and other practitioners I started thinking of the wider implications of taking knowledge out of the traditional classroom and introducing it to an audience, that is not necessarily academic.  When we prepare for class the usual concern is the levelness of the material used and the way we pitch the information.  In anything we do as part of consultancy or outside of the standard educational framework we have a different challenge.  That of presenting information that corresponds to expertise in a language and tone that is neither exclusive nor condescending to the participants. 

In the designing stages we considered the information we had to include, and the session started by introducing criminology.  Audience participation was encouraged, and group discussion became a tool to promote the flow of information.  Once that process started and people became more able to exchange information then we started moving from information to knowledge exchange.  This is a more profound interaction that allows the audience to engage with information that they may not be familiar with and it is designed to achieve one of the prime quests of any social science, to challenge established views. 

The process itself indicates the level of skill involved in academic reasoning and the complexity associated with presenting people with new knowledge in an understandable form.  It is that apparent simplicity that allows participants to scaffold their understanding, taking different elements from the same content.  It is easy to say to any audience for example that “every person has an opinion on crime” however to be able to accept this statement indicates a level of proficiency on receiving views of the other and then accommodating it to your own understanding.  This is the basis of the philosophy of knowledge, and it happens to all engaged in academia whatever level, albeit consciously or unconsciously.

As per usual the session overran, testament that people do have opinions on crime and how society should respond to them. The intriguing part of this session was the ability of participants to negotiate different roles and identities, whilst offering an explanation or interpretation of a situation.  When this was pointed out they were surprised by the level of knowledge they possessed and its complexity.  The role of the academic is not simply to advance knowledge, which is clearly expected, but also to take subjects and contextualise them.  In recent weeks, colleagues from our University, were able to discuss issues relating to health, psychology, work, human rights and consumer rights to national and local media, informing the public on the issues concerned. 

This is what got me thinking about our role in society more generally.  We are not merely providing education for adults who wish to acquire knowledge and become part of the professional classes, but we are also engaging in a continuous dialogue with our local community, sharing knowledge beyond the classroom and expanding education beyond the campus.  These are reasons which make a University, as an institution, an invaluable link to society that governments need to nurture and support.  The success of the University is not in the students within but also on the reach it has to the people around.

At the end of the session we talked about a number of campaigns to help ex-offenders to get forward with work and education by “banning the box”.  This was a fitting end to a session where we all thought “outside the box”. 

How to boil an egg…A criminological issue?

Another academic year is coming close to an end.  After the plans and the changes made there is always a little time for reflection to ask what is in a year?  The rhetorical question implies that there is an expected answer and that is true, well sometimes!  After years serving HE it is becoming clear that things change “τα πάντα ρει”, everything flows as Heraclitus once said.  Education is about knowledge and as it progresses, we progress with it. 

In previous posts the value of education and reading for a subject like criminology has been argued, but ultimately what does it really mean to complete one year of education in HE?  Well if you are on your first year it is the recognition that you can do this!  The first step in many more to follow on the road to academic understanding.  If you are on your second year you demonstrate perseverance, sticking with the subject you chose, and you continue to read more of it.  Finally, if you are on your third year it is the anticipation of completion of a course of study.  The successful conclusion of studies that will award you with a title. 

This end for some is the end of the formal part of their higher education, whilst for others it is simply the beginning of the end of a longer and more arduous journey in learning.  An exam board shall mark this end when all colleagues will read name after name, grade after grade, but this is only part of that story.  The other part is the memories on learning that it will launch.  I still hear stories of students remembering a lecture with a slide title “Lesbian Vampire Killers” on a session on media and crime which seems to tickle our alumni, or a phrase used in a class again and again for emphasis.  Using a metaphor or an example that takes you away from the prescribed values.  Some of the readers may remember my question “How long to hard boil an egg?”  A question that revealed some of us have limited culinary skills, but the intended purpose was to allow us to look at the question of positionality and context.  It only takes a couple of pre vs post- war Italian cookbooks to realise that the question can be answered considering the social situation and the energy requirements of its time.  A country famed for its culinary status, but also broken from a second world war that decimated infrastructures and harmed population.  Poverty, theft, antisocial behaviour, violence but also recriminations for the incurred destruction became the other effects hidden behind a seemingly random change in a number on a cookbook. *        

My personal favourite was going over a criminal profiling case with students of the wrong year who were looking at me rather confused on the content.  I shall never of course forget my sex offenders lecture to accounting students (I got the place and time wrong) which according to my bemused colleague who was watching me from the corner an interesting interlude from his session!  These little anecdotes do not sustain knowledge, but they remind us how we got to be in that place. 

Regardless of the subject of study or its level, all “participants” who engage in higher education gain one significant attribute, that of perspective.  The ability to look closely of a idea through the disciplinary lens but also to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, thus making perspective more relevant.  Perspective is distance and as we gain more knowledge, the better our judgement becomes in using this lens to zoom in and out. This is what we acquire as we progress through higher education.    

*I could also point out the existential symbolism of the egg as the representation of the soul and the time to boil it is a metaphor for torment in the proverbial purgatory…but I will not

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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