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Summer is here and as we try to destress from another annus horribilis …let us play a game. This is one of the mental games we play in a way to understand a discipline shrouded in mystery and speculation. You will need no pen, nor paper, just your imagination and a few minutes.
Clear you mind, isolate your thoughts and give yourself 5 minutes of time to complete. It is all about your imagination.
Think of a criminal. Try to think of their face first. What do they look like? Imagine their face, their eyes, the nose and the cheekbones. Hair colour and style. How’s the neck, the body type, the hands, the legs. Can you tell their gender, age and their race? Any other features? What are they wearing?
Now try to keep that image in your mind. You have conjured your criminal and you ought to give them a crime. What crime has this person committed? Was it their first crime or have they done the same crime before? What made them do the crime(s) they did?
How do you feel about them? What do you wish to be done about them? What is your solution to your imaginary villain? Do you think there are others like them, or was this the one that once removed from your imagination will become unable to generate more images?
Our mind is truly wonderous. It can conjure all sorts of images and for those of you, who, managed to engage and to get through the questions and to develop your criminal, well done.
This approach was used when investigators tried to help people to recall events following a crime, usually involving violence. The questions are reasonable, and it allowed you, at least those who tried, to form an image and a backstory. This approach was later discredited, purely because it allowed our stereotypes and prejudices to come to the surface. You see this game is not about crime; it is about your perception of crime. It is not about those who do crime, it is simply about you.
Bring back to mind your criminal. Your details and characteristics are the projections that you make on what you think about the other, the criminal. For example, did you think of yourself when asked to imagine a criminal? What you don’t think you are a criminal? Ah, you are one of those who think they have never committed a crime. Ever! Are you sure? Not even drinking in the park in your teen years, or a little bit of speeding away from speed cameras?
Still you do not consider yourself as a criminal, but as a person. Which is why criminality takes such a hold of people’s imagination. Criminals are always other people. Crime is something unthinkable. Our representation of crime is to evoke our fears and insecurities, as when we were kids entering a dark room. The mind is truly wonderous, but it can also make us imagine the most horrible things. Not that horrible things do not happen, but the mind reinforces what it hears, what is sees and what it experiences. If any of you have experienced crime before, the face of the person who victimised you may become traumatically etched in your consciousness. Part of that trauma will become fear; it is interesting to note that similar fear is experienced from those who have never been victims of crime.
Previously, I mentioned investigative processes. Our fear of crime and our desire to control crime has generated a number of approaches in crime investigation that have tried to unmask the criminal. Unfortunately, many of those were based on imagination rather than fact. Why? Because of how we feel about crime. Crime causes harm and pain and invokes a lot of our emotions. Those emotions when tapped by investigators blind us and release our darker stereotypes about the others!
For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development. Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective. It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.
What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me. I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar. My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review. The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts. For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment. Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine. I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor. And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.
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
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
It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.
On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?
The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.
All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.
But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.
The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.
So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.
One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.
Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.
When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive. Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS. Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me. Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim. Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.
Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance. Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing. What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.
Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times. Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand. That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.
Written by @bethanyrdavies with contributions from @haleysread
Big Families are unique, the current average family size is 2.4 (Office for National Statistics, 2017) which has declined but remained as such for the past decade. Being 1 of 8 Children is unique, it’s an interesting fact both myself and Haley (also a former graduate and also 1 of 8) both fall back on when you have those awful ice breakers and you have to think of something ‘special’ about yourself.
There is criminological research which identifies ‘large families’ as a characteristic for deviance in individuals (Farrington & Juby, 2001; Wilson, 1975). It’s argued alongside other family factors, such as single-parent households, which maybe more people are familiar with in those discussions. In fact, when looking for criminological research around big families, I didn’t find a great deal. Most of what I found was not looking at deviance but how it affects the children, with suggestions of how children in big families suffer because they get less attention from their parents (Hewitt et al. 2011). Which may be the reality for some families, but I also think it’s somewhat subjective to determine an amount of time for ‘attention’ rather than the ‘quality’ of time parents need to spend with children in order to both help fulfil emotional and cognitive needs. This certainly was not the case from both Haley’s and experience.
When I first thought about writing this piece and talking to Haley about her experiences. I did question myself on how relevant this was to criminology. The answer to that I suppose depends on how you perceive the vastness of criminology as an academic field. The family unit is something we discuss within criminology all the time, but family size is not always the focus of that discussion. Deviance itself by definition and to deviate from the norms of society, well I suppose myself and Haley do both come from ‘deviant’ families.
However, from speaking with Haley and reflecting on my own experience, it feels that the most unique thing about being part of a large family, is how others treat you. I would never think to ask anyone or make comments such as; “How much do your parents earn to look after you all?” or “Did they want a family that big or was it lots of accidents?” or even just make comments, about how we must be on benefits, be ‘Scroungers’ or even comments about my parents sexual relationship. Questions and comments that both I and Haley have and occasionally still experience. Regardless of intent behind them, you can’t help but feel like you have to explain or defend yourself. Even as a child when others would ask me about my family, I had always made a point of the fact that we are all ‘full siblings’ as if that could protect me from additional shame , shame that I had already witnessed in conversations and on TV, with statements such as “She’s got 5 kids all different dads”. Haley mentioned how her view of large families was presented to her as “Those on daytime television would criticise large families” and “A couple of people on our street would say that my parents should stop having kids as there are enough of us as it is.”
Haley and I grew up in different parts of the UK. Haley grew up in the Midlands and describes the particular area as disadvantaged. Due to this Haley says that it wasn’t really a problem of image that the family struggled financially, as in her area everyone did, so therefore it was normal. I grew up in a quite affluent area, but similar to Haley, we were not well-off financially. My childhood home was a council house, but it didn’t look like one, my mum has always been house proud and has worked to make it not look like a council house, which in itself has its own connotations of the ‘shame’ felt on being poor, which Haley also referenced to me. It was hard to even think of labeling us as ‘poor’, as similar to Haley, we had loads of presents at Christmas, we still had nice clothes and did not feel like we were necessarily different. Though it appears me and Haley were also similar in that both our dads worked all the hours possible, I remember my dad worked 3 jobs at one point. I asked my dad about what it was like, he said it was very hard, and he remembers that they were working so hard because if they went bankrupt, it would be in the newspaper and the neighbors would see. Which I didn’t even know was something that happened and has its own name and shame the poor issues for another post. Haley spoke of similar issues and the stress of ‘childcare and the temporary loss of hot water, electric and gas.’
The main points that came from both mine and Haley’s discussions were actually about how fun it is to have a large family, especially as we were growing up. It may not seem like it from my earlier points around finance, but while it was a factor in our lives, it also didn’t feel as important as actually just being a part of that loving family unit. Haley put it perfectly as “I loved being part of a large family as a child. My brothers and sisters were my best friends”. We spoke of the hilarity of simple things such as the complexities of dinner times and having to sit across multiple tables to have dinners in the evening. I had brothers and sisters to help me with my homework, my eldest sister even helped me with my reading every night while I was in primary school. Haley and I both seemed to share a love for den making, which when your parents are big into DIY (almost a necessity when in a big family) you could take tools and wood to the forest and make a den for hours on end. There is so much good about having a large family that I almost feel sorry for those who only believe the negatives. This post was simply to share a snippet of my findings, as well as mine and Haley’s experience. At the very least I hope it will allow others to think of large families in an alternative way and to realise the problems both me and Haley experienced, weren’t necessarily solely linked to our family size, but rather attitudes around social norms and financial status.
Juby, H. and Farrington, D., 2001. Disentangling the Link between Disrupted Families and Delinquency: Sociodemography, Ethnicity and Risk Behaviours. The British Journal of Criminology, 41(1), pp.22-40.
Office for National Statistics. (2017). Families and households in the UK, Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2017 (Accessed: 5th June 2020).
Regoli, R., Hewitt, J. and DeLisi, M., 2011. Delinquency In Society. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Wilson, H., 1975. Juvenile Delinquency, Parental Criminality and Social Handicap. The British Journal of Criminology, 15(3), pp.241-250.