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Nothing is black and white: the intransigence of fools

“Burglar!” by Maydela is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

When I grow up what will I be?

Don’t worry I’ve not regressed, well not yet anyway.  I was watching Match of the Day last night, not quite the usual programme, as there are no football matches at the moment. In its place was a podcast by three football legends, the usual presenter Gary Lineker (he does more than Walkers’ crisp adverts), Ian Wright and Alan Shearer.  It was more like three old codgers around a kitchen table reminiscing about football than a Match of the Day programme, but it was funny and enlightening.  One of the topics that arose was what made a top striker, was it being gifted or was it hard work and tenacity? I have to confess by this time I was half falling asleep aided by three gin and tonics and a large helping of pizza, but I do recall through the haze, that the three of them seemed to agree that it was a bit of both, maybe 50/50.  What did make me sit up was when Shearer declared , or was it Lineker, who cares, there were a number of more talented players around when they were younger but they didn’t stick at it and, I presume fell by the wayside.  So, three very talented footballers agree that hard work and tenacity has a major part to play in success. 

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. By the age of 14, I had this firmly set in my mind.  I was good at the sciences, maths and English were no problem and I was predicted to get good grades when leaving school, university was on the cards. Then the teenage years really took hold, I grew lazy, rebelled, preferred football, rugby and girls.  Hard work at school sucked and I stopped working, anyway someone told me that I had to do 7 years at medical school if I wanted to be a doctor.  F*** that, I thought, I want out of school now, not to prolong it by another 7 years. We were overseas at the time, so when I returned to England, I ended up going to college to complete my ‘O’ levels. I remember thinking the work was a breeze, it seemed that I had been working at a higher level at my overseas school.  I found myself a part time job, occasionally skipped college classes but in general my attendance was good.  I achieved 5 good ‘O’ level grades.  I do remember working very hard at science as a subject (I achieved an A for that) but the rest, well you know, it just happened.  English language was my worst subject (a grade C), mind numbingly boring.

So, after school, well a job in a petrol station as a cashier, it was a job, better than nothing.  I do remember one of my college lecturers coming into the station and was almost apoplectic about me working there.  I was better than that, I think was the gist of it.   Then my family went back overseas again.  I found myself a few jobs overseas and simply drifted; I could have had an apprenticeship, but we were returning to England, so not much point. On our return though I decided I needed a job, not so easy.  This was the early 1980s, UB40 released a song One in Ten, I was one of those one in ten unemployed souls. Disheartening wouldn’t describe it adequately.  My working mates were going out to pubs and clubs and eating kebabs after to soak up the alcohol, I couldn’t afford a kebab, let alone the alcohol and you don’t meet girls on the dole queue.

I always had a hankering to join the Royal Navy, probably fuelled by the fact my grandad had been in the navy.  I liked the idea of being an engineer, so I went along to the recruitment office and eventually turned up for an entrance exam.  I failed, maths of all things. I remember sitting there and panicking whilst trying to do equations and fractions.  Basic stuff that I’d breezed through at ‘O’ level.  Nobody told me about preparation, and I didn’t even think about it.  Why would I, up to that point I really hadn’t had to work hard at anything other than my science subject at ‘O’ level. Reality hit home.  I signed up for an A level maths course at college – free to the unemployed. I wrote to Whitehall to explain how well I’d done in my entrance exam apart from the sticky little subject, maths, but pointed out that I was doing something about that.  I didn’t want to wait the usual statutory year to retake the exam and I wasn’t disappointed; they wrote back stating I could take it in 6 months’ time.  Someone obviously thought this boy’s got a bit of gumption.  But six months of unemployment is a long and depressing time.  An advert in the local Sunday newspaper caught my attention, the police were recruiting.  I applied and found myself in a career that was to last thirty years. Not something I planned or even wanted.

Maybe that’s when the hard work and tenacity started, I don’t know.  Maybe it started when I was driven by the desperation of being unemployed. One thing I learnt though is that sitting on your backside and drifting along doesn’t get you anywhere. Having a gift or intelligence will not in itself get you success. Only hard work and of course, that all important thing called opportunity, helps to garner something.

The recruitment process for the police wasn’t the same as it is now.  Maybe I should leave that for another blog.

A $40 tip at the all-day-breakfast joint (A Prose about this American moment). #BlackenAsiaWithLove

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1st Sunday 2020 Sunrise over Lake Jordan, Alabama

It’s 6:20am.

I’ve stopped by an infamous breakfast food chain and ordered a bottomless coffee, and a breakfast combo that comes with two fried eggs, two different rations of fried pork and bottomless pancakes.

Waiting for my order, I notice that not less than four varieties of syrup rest on the table, accompanied by salt, pepper, and a ceramic cup full of packages of sugar and two varieties of artificial sweeteners.

A whole tub of single-serve full fat creamers comes with my bottomless coffee, which I promptly sent back.

 

The young lady serving is massively obese, as are most of the other people who both serve and patronize this business.

And this is business as usual throughout the south, and now most of America, particularly at these sorts of times, especially in these sorts of businesses.

 

The joint had only been open since the top of the hour, and so I could overhear the duty manager dealing out the day’s duty rations.

 

As two of the team followed her around, I heard her explain that she was reserving the spillover seating section for whoever showed up “super-late.”

Knowing management speak, I heard ‘super-late’ as a shaming label used to monitor and control behavior.

 

I heard her punctuate these instructions by explaining that someone’s shift had started at 5:30 yet they still hadn’t shown up.

 

 

“You ok, sweetie,” the young lady breezes over and asks me casually.

“I’m fine,” I quickly replied, adding: “It’s good, too,” as if she or the cook had actually hand-made any of this meal.

They’ve each opened a prescribed set of processed-food packages, followed heavily prescribed recipes, and followed heavily prescribed orders passed down from management.

And yet I do appreciate their labour.

 

In my capacity, I get to sit and muse about them, while THIS is their career.

Yesterday, while sitting in another infamously southern* roadside-mass-food-chain, my uncle mentioned that he was pleased to see that young people were working at these types of places again.

“Uh huh,” I hummed agreeingly as I panned the restaurant noting the youthfulness of the staff.

 

Since the 90’s and certainly since the recession, these jobs had become life-long career moves, where previously these were held down by early-career part-timers.

Whether paying their way through school or training, or beefing their resumes for eventual factory employment, these part-timer jobs weren’t suitable for adults as they come with few, if any, benefits…most notably, healthcare.

This satellite town, for example, sits just outside the seat of Civil Rights and grew during Jim Crow around a large paper mill that one can still smell miles away.

 

 

Back in my bottomless breakfast, my server keeps inquiring if I’m ok as she goes about setting up the condiments and flatware for each table.

 

I’m the only one here, which I remark upon.

This is the south, so that remark garnered a whole commentary on her part.

 

She detailed when they opened and closed, and that she’d recently shifted from the nightshift to mornings, as “making $10 here and $10 there don’t cut it.”

 

 

She then added that she’d served a party of 15 who’d left her a $40 tip.

She further explained that last year she’d served at a 1-year old’s birthday party, “because they didn’t have no cake.”

By now, I’ve gotten a good look at the server and sense that she’s in her mid-twenties.

 

As I listen, I, of course, contemplate what sort of tip I should leave: Would it be obscene to leave a $10 tip which I could easily afford. Afterall, I had shown up in what must seem like a large, expensive, exotic European vehicle (how could she know it’s my mom’s not mine; how would she know that I’m just passing through town).

 

 

This year, she continued, they had her “second birthday party right back there,” pointing to a far corner.

 

Remember, all I did to kick off this conversation was remark how quiet it was at this time in the morning.

From then on, the server kept offering me little tidbits of info each time she passed by.

I hadn’t lived in the south for many years, but it was still this sort of human interaction that drummed-up home for me.

 

“I’m gonna go ahead and do my syrups,” she quipped as she passed each table over lightly with a dry cloth.

 

Then, after passing to reassure me that my next helping of pancakes was on its way, she explained that the location was under new management.

Pointing to the woman I’d overheard earlier dealing out duties and instructions, the server said, “This one’s only been here since Sunday.”

It’s Tuesday morning.

 

Now, I notice that the server has leaned against a nearby chair, pausing with her other hand on her hip.

It’s as if settling in to tell me a good story. She is now giving me unsolicited insider information.

I start to realize and remember just how such interactions are so disarming. She had something to say each time she was within earshot, as if mindfully managing our shared personal space.

I smile at this realization, recalling the familiarity with which people speak in Vietnam. The distance of more formal ways of being and communicating seem silly here…and there.

 

I am simultaneously reminded of life in Mali, where people genuinely do greet anyone nearby, referring to those in their personal space with some term of familial familiarity depending on the relationship and perceived ages like auntie/uncle,  or else girl/boy-friend (teri- muso/ce), big/little- sister/brother (koro-/dogo- muso/ce).

 

It’s as if all of these experiences collide into the present moment, and I experience them all at once, like Dr. Manhattan.

 

The server then explained in detail how the previous manager had fallen ill and could therefore only show up intermittently.

Apparently, the point of all this was that they were hiring a manager, and sought someone outside the current team, because, as my server said, “We all know one another.”

“Don’t that make sense,” she said raising her brow, nodding grinningly.

“So, if you know anybody with management experience,” she said, then tailored off.

 

I suddenly wonder what Flannery O’Conner must have witnessed in her life and times in the dirty south.

I was on my way to grab a coffee at THAT internationally known coffee house, but passed this all-day-breakfast joint on the way.

 

I recalled the bottomless offers here and knew I could get more value here than a $5 Latte. Sure, I’ve got country music in the background, but at least it’s not tuned to conservative propaganda Faux News like in most other public spaces here in Alabama.

 

Indeed, for just a few dollars more, I’ve got access to bottomless filtered coffee and well more than any human should eat in any one sitting.

 

Besides, no one is in here posing, and, as I said, I got a side of free companionship.

 

 

 

 

 

*Infamously southern food consists of mostly fried foods negotiated in ingredients and meaning along the color line.

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

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