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What does April mean to you? April showers as the title would suggest, April Fools which I detest, or the beginning of winter’s rest? Today I am going to argue that April is the most criminogenic month of the year. No doubt, my colleagues and readers will disagree, but here goes….
What follows is discussion on three events which apart from their occurrence in the month of April are ostensibly unrelated. Nevertheless, scratch beneath the surface and you will see why they are so important to the development of my criminological understanding, forging the importance I place on social justice.
On 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, with more than 1,500 lost lives. We know the story reasonably well, even if just through film. Fewer people are aware that this tragedy led to inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, as well, as Limitation of Liability Hearings. These acknowledged profound failings on the part of White Star and made recommendations primarily relating to lifeboats, staffing and structures of ships. Each of these were to be enshrined in law. Like many institutional inquiries these reports, thankfully digitised so anyone can read them, are very dry, neutral, inhumane documents. There is very little evidence of the human tragedy, instead there are questions and answers which focus on procedural and engineering matters. However, if you look carefully, there are glimpses of life at that time and criminological questions to be raised.
The table below is taken from the British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry Report and details both passengers and staff onboard RMS Titanic. This table allows us to do the maths, to see how many survived this ordeal. Here we can see the violence of social class, where the minority take precedence over the majority. For those on that ship and many others of that time, your experiences could only be mediated through a class based system. Yet when that ship went down, tragedy becomes the great equaliser.
On 15th April, 1989 fans did as they do (pandemics aside) every Saturday during the football season, they went to the game. On that sunny spring day, Liverpool Football Club were playing Nottingham Forest, both away from home and over 50,000 fans had travelled some distance to watch their team with family and friends. Tragically 96 of those fans died that day or shortly after. @anfieldbhoy has written a far more extensive piece on the Hillsborough Disaster and I don’t plan to revisit the details here. Nevertheless, as with RMS Titanic, questions were asked in relation to the loss of life and institutional or corporate failings which led to this tragedy. Currently it is not possible to access the Taylor Report due to ongoing investigation, but it makes for equally dry, neutral and inhuman, reading. It is hard to catch sight of 96 lives in pages dense with text, focused on answering questions that never quite focus on what survivors and families need. The Hillsborough Independent Panel [HIP] is far more focused on people as are the Inquests (also currently unavailable) which followed. Criminologically, HIP’s very independence takes it outside of powerful institutions. So whilst it can “speak truth to power” it has no ability to coerce answers from power or enforce change. For the survivors and family it brings some respite, some acknowledgement that what happened that day should have never have happened. However, for those individuals and wider society, there appears to be no semblance of justice, despite the passing of 32 years.
On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He was the victim of a horrific, racially motivated, violent assault by a group of young white man. This much was known, immediately to his friend Duwayne Brooks, but was apparently not clear to the attending police officers. Instead, as became clear during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry the police investigation was riddled with institutional racism from the outset. The Macpherson report (1999) tries extremely hard to keep focus on Stephen Lawrence as a human being, try to read the evidence given by Duwayne Brooks and Stephen’s parents without shedding a tear. However, much of the text is taken is taken up with procedural detail, arguments and denial. In 2012 two of the men who murdered Stephen Lawrence were found guilty and sentenced to be detained under Her Majesty’s pleasure (both were juveniles in 1993). Since 1999, when the report was published we’ve learnt even more about the police’s institutional racism and their continual attacks on Stephen’s family and friends designed to undermine and harm. So whilst institutions can be compelled to reflect upon their behaviour and coerced into recognising the need for change, for evolution, in reality this appears to be a surface activity. Criminologically, we recognise that Stephen was the victim of a brutal crime, some, but not all, of those that carried out the attack have been held accountable. Justice for Stephen Lawrence, albeit a long time coming, has been served to some degree. But what about his family? Traumatised by the loss of one of their own, a child who had been nurtured to adulthood, loved and respected, this is a family deserving of care and support. What about the institutions, the police, the government? It seems very much business as usual, despite the publication of Lammy (2017) and Williams (2018) which provide detailed accounts of the continual institutional racism within our society. Instead, we have the highly criticised Sewell Report (2021) which completely dismisses the very idea of institutional racism. I have not linked to this document, it is beneath contempt, but if you desperately want to read it, a simple google search will locate it.
In each of the cases above and many others, we know instinctively that something is fundamentally wrong. That what has happened has caused such great harm to individuals, families, communities, that it must surely be a crime. But a crime as we commonly understand it involves victim(s) and perpetrator(s). If the Classical School of Criminology is to be believed, it involves somebody making a deliberate choice to do harm to others to benefit ourselves. If there is a crime, somebody has to pay the price, whatever that may be in terms of punishment. We look to the institutions within our society; policing, the courts, the government for answers, but instead receive official inquiries that appear to explore everything but the important questions. As a society we do not seem keen to grapple with complexity, maybe it’s because we are frightened that our institutions will also turn against us?
The current government assures us that there will be an inquiry into their handling of the pandemic, that there will be some answers for the families of the 126,000 plus who have died due to Covid-19. They say this inquiry will come when the time is right, but right for who?
Maybe you can think of other reasons why April is a criminologically important month, or maybe you think there are other contenders? Either way, why not get in touch?
It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. [Theme song: When You Gonna Learn, by Jamiroquai]
Jay Kay sang: “Yeah, yeah, have you heard the news today?”
Me: Yeah, yeah, my hometown is on fire.
My hometown is on fire. In March, SWAT-armed officers served a warrant, and an EMS worker ended up dead. The deceased was Black and poor, and lived in the poor Black part of town. The officers adhered to the codes of the ruling caste. The media covered the death matter-of-factly. The tag line is: “Breonna Taylor was an innocent person in her own home.” So, by extension, all the other victims were not innocent, and therefore deserved to die. Only Jesus’ death warrants defense…and outrage – according to the actions of the folks who James Baldwin called those who believe themselves to be white. So, Breonna, George Floyd, all of them…these were justifiable killings? Yeah, yeah, casualties of the race war where white supremacy has always had the whip.
My hometown is on fire. The mayor put the city on lockdown days ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, not Corona. Trucks block traffic now; windows were boarded up days ago. All to announce that (only) one of the shooters would be indicted, and on the lower end of charges. The officer was initially denounced and fired, and (only) now charged with “wanton, reckless endangerment.” None of the charges relate to Breonna’s death, so that’s exactly what the courts won’t be able to address.
My hometown is on fire. Locals who believe themselves to be white char the memory of the victim, each victim, individually. For Breonna was not perfect, nor was Trayvon, nor George Floyd, nor Sandra Bland, nor countless others … all just human. Not even Amadou Diallo was a perfect-enough-victim for ‘those who believe themselves to be white’. Each family of each victim has had to fight the system individually, as if in a vacuum. Little attention to this incident was paid until the bodies mounted around the country. Everything changed when people of all races marched together, looters rioted and property was lost. Only then did “voters” take notice.
My hometown is on fire. The police have never been held accountable for such deaths. Apparently, the deceased liked bad boys, and was a victim of circumstance. White citizens – the so-called “voters” – resist seeing the systemic causes to these deaths. Just a few weeks ago, after MONTHS of national outrage and protest, the police reached a 12-million-dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. Every Kentucky tax payer will pay for our collective neglect. My hometown held it down, made the world say her name.
My hometown is on fire. Say her name. “Say her name,” is now a moniker for another fallen Black body. Where whites see no systemic problem, there can be no systemic solutions. Please, “stop it going on.”
Having read a colleague’s blog Is justice fair?, I turned my mind to recent media coverage regarding the prosecution rates for rape in England and Wales. Just as a reminder, the coverage concerned the fact that the number of prosecutions is at an all-time low with a fall of 932 or 30.75% with the number of convictions having fallen by 25%. This is coupled with a falling number of cases charged when compared with the year 2015/16. The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird somewhat ironically, was incensed by these figures and urged the Crown Prosecution Service to change its policy immediately.
I’m always sceptical about the use of statistics, they are just simple facts, manipulated in some way or another to tell a story. Useful to the media and politicians alike they rarely give us an explanation of underlying causes and issues. Dame Vera places the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its policy of only pursuing cases that are likely to succeed in court. Now this is the ironic part, as a former Labour member of parliament, a minister and Solicitor General for England and Wales, she would have been party to and indeed helped formalise and set CPS policy and guidelines. The former Labour Government’s propensity to introduce targets and performance indicators for the public services knew no bounds. If its predecessors, the Conservatives were instrumental in introducing and promulgating these management ideals, the Labour government took them to greater heights. Why would we be surprised then that the CPS continue in such a vein? Of course, add in another dimension, that of drastic budget cuts to public services since 2010, the judicial system included, and the pursuit of rationalisation of cases looks even more understandable and if we are less emotional and more clinical about it, absolutely sensible.
My first crown court case involved the theft of a two-bar electric fire. A landlady reported that a previous tenant had, when he moved out, taken the fire with him. As a young probationary constable in 1983, I tracked down the culprit, arrested him and duly charged him with the offence of theft. Some months later I found myself giving evidence at crown court. As was his right at the time, the defendant had elected trial by jury. The judicial system has moved a long way since then. Trial by jury is no longer allowed for such minor offences and of course the police no longer have much say in who is prosecuted and who isn’t certainly when comes to crown court cases. Many of the provisions that were in place at the time protected the rights of defendants and many of these have been diminished, for the most part, in pursuit of the ‘evil three Es’; economy, effectiveness and efficiency. Whilst the rights of defendants have been diminished, so too somewhat unnoticed, have the rights of victims. The lack of prosecution of rape cases is not a phenomenon that stands alone. Other serious cases are also not pursued or dropped in the name of economy or efficiency or effectiveness. If all the cases were pursued, then the courts would grind to a halt such have been the financial cuts over the years. Justice is expensive whichever way you look at it.
My colleague is right in questioning the fairness of a system that seems to favour the powerful, but I would add to it. The pursuit of economy is indicative that the executive is not bothered about justice. To borrow my colleague’s analogy, they want to show that there is an ice cream but the fact that it is cheap, and nasty is irrelevant.
There is a representation of justice. A woman (lady justice) blindfolded holding the scales of justice in one hard and a sword in the other. This representation demonstrates a visualisation of the core principles of justice: blindfold for impartiality, the scales for weighting the evidence and the sword, the authority. The need for this representation is making the point that justice is fair. To all people justice is an equaliser that brings the balance back to everyday life. Those who break the natural order are faced with the consequences of the arbitration made by the system that assumes equality for all against the law.
The representation of justice must be convincing in order to be accepted by the public. The impartiality has to be demonstrable and the system forms a bond across all social strata. Well, at least in principle. There is a difference between representation and reality. This is something we learn from early on. As a kid, I remember a special ice-cream in a cup that had a little toy in the bottom of the cup. It looked so appealing, but the reality never met my expectations. Still, I continued to buy it, in anticipation that maybe the representation and the reality will meet. Like the ice cream, the justice system, has a beautiful packaging that makes it incredibly appealing.
Forged in the flames of the renaissance and the enlightenment, justice transformed from a convenient divinity to a philosophical ideal and a social need. It became a concept that reflected social changes and economic growth. Many of the principles of justice, like equality and fairness, carried forward from the classical era. Only at this time these concepts were enriched with philosophical arguments influenced by humanism. The age of exploration and knowledge added to the scientific rigour of forensic investigation and the procedures became standardised. Great minds conceptualised some of theoretical aspects and transferred them in everyday practice. Cesare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments demonstrated how humanist principles can affect procedure and sentencing.
This justice system was/is our social “ice cream”. Desirable and available to all citizens. A system beyond people and social status, able to call individuals to account. Unfortunately like my childhood “ice cream” equally disappointing, primarily because the reality is not even close to the representation. The principles of justice are all noble and inspiring. There is however something behind the systems that needs to be explored in order to understand why reality and representation are so far apart. The guiding principle of any justice system from inception to this day is not to restore the balance (as so beautifully demonstrated with the scales) but to maintain the established order or the social status quo.
On the occasions where societies broke down because of war or revolution, significant changes happened. Those allowed some reforms in different parts of the system allowing changes, sometimes even radical. Even at those situations the reforms were never too radical or too extensive. Regardless of the political system, tyrannical, dictatorial or democratic, the establishment is keen to maintain its authority over the people. For this to happen, the system must be biased in its inception about what we mean about justice. If the expectations of law and order are given a direction, then the entire system follows that direction and all changes are more cosmetic than fundamental. Quite possibly this explains what we recognise as miscarriages of justice as simply the inability of the system to be more tactful about its choices and arbitrations.
Therefore, tax avoidance and drug use take a different level of priority in the system. It is the same reason that people from different socioeconomic groups are seem differently, regardless of the system’s reassurance on equality and fairness. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the representation of justice is a woman, in one of the most male dominated systems. From the senior judiciary to the heads of police and the prison systems, women are still highly underrepresented. Whilst the representation of ethnic minorities is even lower. Of course, even if it was to change in composition, that would be arguably a cosmetic change. Perhaps it is time as society to use consumer law and demand that our justice system is like it’s been advertised…fair.
On Good Friday, Christians will remember one of the most important covenants in their faith. The arrest, trial and execution of the head of their church. Jesus, an inspiring figure across centuries, will be in the garden of Gethsemane asking his father “to take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42), but finally accepting his fate. The significance of this self-sacrifice is the glue that connects the faith to its followers, because it is a selfless act, despite knowing in advance all that is to follow. The betrayal, the rejection, the torture, the humiliation and the eventual death. Even the resurrection, appears distant and therefore he will momentarily wish to abstain. Then, comes the thought; if not me, who? This act is conditional to all that will follow and so his free will ultimately condemn him.
These are steps that inspired many of his followers to take his word further across the world and subject themselves to whatever fate they were to suffer. The message rests in pure religious motives and motivations and over the years has eroded the implicit humanity that it contains. People have been able to demonstrate their destructive nature in wars, crime and continued injustices. Against them some people have taken exception and in acts of altruism willingly, sacrifice themselves for the greater good. People of, or without, faith, but with a firm conviction on the sacrament of humanity.
People stood up against oppression and faced the judgement of the apartheid regime that murdered them, like Steve Biko. People who spoke out against social injustice like Oscar Romero, who was shot during mass. Those who resisted fascism like Ilektra Apostolou, a woman tortured and executed by the Nazis, and countless others throughout time. These people maybe knew the “risks” of speaking out, of making a stand, but did it anyway. A free will that led them to their damnation, but for millions of others, they became an inspiration. At the worst of times, they shine and take their place in history, not for conquering and victories, but for reminding us all of the nobility in being principled.
Selflessness offers a signal to all, of how important it is, for all of us to be part of our society. It is when we dig deep on those qualities, that some may not even know that they have. I remember reading the interview of a person tortured during a dictatorship, being described as a hero; their response was incredibly disarming. “I am not a hero; I was just there”. I am quite aware that I write this blog at a time of self-isolation, lockdowns and the daily body count of the dead. Over a period of weeks, our lives have radically changed, and we live in self-imposed confinement. We are spectators in a medical drama with serious social implications. Those we do not quite know, but it looks very likely that these reverberations will last for at least a while.
It is interesting to see a renewed appreciation for professionals, namely health care and for those professions that we did not hold in high regard previously. Hero as a term seems to be rebranding itself and this may be one of those long-term effects afterwards. Just to remind us all that on this Good Friday, numerous professionals in the health care system, carers, teachers, public transport, logistics, council and retail workers will be going to work with their free will, knowing some of the risks for them and their families. This is their testament, this is their covenant and that forms part of our collective civilisation. Whilst people remind us to wash our hands, I kiss their hands for their altruism
This year marks 20 years that we have been offering criminology at the University of Northampton and understandably it has made us reflect and consider the direction of the discipline. In general, criminology has always been a broad theoretical discipline that allows people to engage in various ways to talk about crime. Since the early days when Garofalo coined the term criminology (still open to debate!) there have been 106 years of different interpretations of the term.
Originally criminology focused on philosophical ideas around personal responsibility and free will. Western societies at the time were rapidly evolving into something new that unsettled its citizens. Urbanisation meant that people felt out of place in a society where industrialisation had made the pace of life fast and the demands even greater. These societies engaged in a relentless global competition that in the 20th century led into two wars. The biggest regret for criminology at the time, was/is that most criminologists did not identify the inherent criminality in war and the destruction they imbued, including genocide.
In the ashes of war in the 20th century, criminology became more aware that criminality goes beyond individual responsibility. Social movements identified that not all citizens are equal with half the population seeking suffrage and social rights. It was at the time the influence of sociology that challenged the legitimacy of justice and the importance of human rights. In pure criminological terms, a woman who throws a brick at a window for the sake of rights is a crime, but one that is arguably provoked by a society that legitimises inequality and exclusion. Under that gaze what can be regarded as the highest crime?
Criminologists do not always agree on the parameters of their discipline and there is not always consensus about the nature of the discipline itself. There are those who see criminology as a social science, looking at the bigger picture of crime and those who see it as a humanity, a looser collective of areas that explore crime in different guises. Neither of these perspectives are more important than the other, but they demonstrate the interesting position criminology rests in. The lack of rigidity allows for new areas of exploration to become part of it, like victimology did in the 1960s onwards, to the more scientific forensic and cyber types of criminology that emerged in the new millennium.
In the last 20 years at Northampton we have managed to take onboard these big, small, individual and collective responses to crime into the curriculum. Our reflections on the nature of criminology as balancing different perspectives providing a multi-disciplinary approach to answering (or attempting to, at least) what crime is and what criminology is all about. One thing for certain, criminology can reflect and expand on issues in a multiplicity of ways. For example, at the beginning of 21st terrorism emerged as a global crime following 9/11. This event prompted some of the current criminological debates.
So, what is the future of criminology? Current discourses are moving the discipline in new ways. The environment and the need for its protection has emerge as a new criminological direction. The movement of people and the criminalisation of refugees and other migrants is another. Trans rights is another civil rights issue to consider. There are also more and more calls for moving the debates more globally, away from a purely Westernised perspective. Deconstructing what is crime, by accommodating transnational ideas and including more colleagues from non-westernised criminological traditions, seem likely to be burning issues that we shall be discussing in the next decade. Whatever the future hold there is never a dull moment with criminology.
So Jos tweeter community was agog with the scandal of the alleged torture of 31 year old Benjamin Arum Izang by personnel of the Operation Safe Haven (OPSH) Military Special Task Force (STF) conducting internal security operations in Plateau State. The family reported that the torture eventually led to Benjamin’s demise because of the fatality of the injury inflicted on him by the military personnel.
The sad event that led to this unfortunate incidence is reported to be an altercation over a fifty-naira egg (approximately 11 cents) between the deceased and a certain Blessing, an egg hawker whose egg was said to be broken by Benjamin. Failure to reach an understanding led Blessing to report the matter to the personnel of the STF, who quickly swung into action, albeit, one that involved the torture of Benjamin.
An investigation by Dickson S. Adama (a media correspondent) revealed that the Media Officer of the STF indicates not been aware of the incident. However, the family and the concerned public are crying for justice as this is not the first of such cases in the State. Rightfully so, scholars and practitioners of peace and conflict consider this incidence as forum shopping, a decision by disputants to choose a security agency to intervene in their dispute, based on the expectation that the outcome will favour them, even if they are the party at fault. Studies including my doctoral research on the military security operations in Plateau State indicates this as a recurring problem when the military conducts security operations in society.
Often, when dispute ensues between two or more parties and both desire to emerge victorious or to exert their position on the other, desperate actions can be taken to ensure victory. One of such actions is the decision to invite a third party such as the military which is often not the suitable institution to handle matters of civilian disputes. In my doctoral research, I detailed the factors that makes the military the most unsuitable agency for this role, key among which is that they are neither trained nor indoctrinated for law enforcement duties. More so, the task and skill of law enforcement and managing civilian disputes which involves painstaking investigation and ascertaining guilt before conviction/serving punishment is the primary role of the police and the criminal justice system, which the military is not a part of. The military trains for war and combat mission, to kill and to obliterate and essentially, their culture and indoctrination is designed along these tenets.
Given this, when the military is involved internally as in the case of Benjamin and Blessing, it engenders numerous challenges. First, with the knowledge that the military dispenses ‘instant justice’ such as punishment before determining guilt, civilians such as Blessing will always seek this option. Tweeps such as @ByAtsen tweeted for instance that ‘same soldiers at the same outpost did this to another who, unlike Benjamin, is still alive nursing his wounds.’ One challenge is that where forum shopping denies justice, it breeds lawlessness and can further evoke public outrage against the military. In turn, this can erode the legitimacy of the security role of the military. Where this occurs, a more worrying challenge is that it can exacerbate rather than ameliorate insecurity, especially where civilians feel compelled to seek alternative protection from coercion from State forces and threats from the armed groups the military was meant to avert.
 Jos is the capital city of Plateau State Nigeria. The State was once the most peaceful State in Nigeria (arguable) but is now embroiled in intermittent and protracted violence, between the mostly Christian natives and Hausa/Fulani ‘settlers,’ and series of insurgent style attacks of rural farming communities by marauding herdsmen widely believed to be Fulani herdsmen.
 Keebet Von Benda-Beckmann, ‘Forum Shopping and Shopping Forums: Dispute Processing in a Minangkabau Village in West Sumatra’, Journal of Legal Pluralism, 19 (1981), 117–59.
 Judith Verweijen, ‘The Ambiguity of Militarization: The Complex Interaction between the Congolese Armed Forces and Civilians in the Kivu Provinces, Eastern DR Congo’ (Utrecht University, 2015).
 Sallek Yaks Musa, ‘Military Internal Security Operations in Plateau State, North Central Nigeria: Ameliorating or Exacerbating Insecurity?’ (Stellenbosch University, 2018) <https://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/104931> [accessed 14 March 2019].
In the 1960s, or so I am told, there was a very popular weekly television programme called That Was The Week That Was, informally known as TW3. This satirical programme reflected on events of the week that had just gone, through commentary, comedy and music. Although the programme ended before I was born, it’s always struck me as a nice way to end the week and I plan to (very loosely) follow that idea here.
This week was particularly hectic in Criminology, here are just some of the highlights. On Monday, I was interviewed by a college student for their journalism project, a rather surreal experience, after all, ‘Who cares what I think?’
On Tuesday, @manosdaskalou and I, together with a group of enthusiastic third years, visited the Supreme Court in London. This trip enabled a discussion which sought to unpack the issue of diversity (or rather the lack of) within justice. Students and staff discussed a variety of ideas to work out why so many white men are at the heart of justice decisions. A difficult challenge at the best of times but given a new and urgent impetus when sat in a courtroom. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective and impartial when confronted with the evidence of 12 Supreme Judges, only two of which are women, and all are white. Arguments around the supposed representativeness of justice, falter when the evidence is so very stark. Furthermore, with the educational information provided by our tour guide, it becomes obvious that there are many barriers for those who are neither white nor male to make their way through the legal ranks.
Wednesday saw the culmination of Beyond Justice, a module focused on social justice and taught entirely in prison. As in previous years, we have a small ceremony with certificate presentation for all students. This involves quite a cast, including various dignitaries, as well as all the students and their friends and family. This is always a bittersweet event, part celebration, part goodbye. Over the months, the prison classroom leaves its oppressive carceral environment behind, instead providing an intense and profound tight-knit learning community. No doubt @manosdaskalou and I will return to the prison, but that tight-knit community has now dissipated in time and space.
On Thursday, a similarly bitter-sweet experience was my last focused session this year on CRI3003 Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. Since October, the class has discussed many different topics relating to institutional violence focused on different cases including the deaths of Victoria Climbié, Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, as well as the horror of Grenfell. We have welcomed guest speakers from social work, policing and the fire service. Discussions have been mature, informed and extremely sensitive and again a real sense of a learning community has ensued. It’s also been my first experience of teaching an all-female cohort which has informed the discussion in a variety of meaningful ways. Although I haven’t abandoned the class, colleagues @manosdaskalou and @jesjames50 will take the reins for a while and focus on exploring interpersonal violence. I’ll be back before the end of the academic year so we can reflect together on our understanding of the complexity of violence.
Finally, Friday saw the second ever #BigCriminologyQuiz and the first of the new decade. At the end of the first one, the participants requested that the next one be based on criminology and music. Challenge completed with help from @manosdaskalou, @treventoursu, @svr2727, @5teveh and @jesjames50. This week’s teams have requested a film/tv theme for the next quiz so we’ll definitely have our work cut out! But it’s amazing to see how much criminological knowledge can be shared, even when you’re eating snacks and laughing. [i]
So, what can I take from my criminological week:
- Some of the best criminological discussions happen when people are relaxed
- Getting out of the classroom enables and empowers different voices to be heard
- Getting out of the classroom allows people to focus on each and share their knowledge, recognising that
- A classroom is not four walls within a university, but can be anywhere (a coach, a courtroom a prison, or even the pub!)
- A new environment and a new experience opens the way for discord and dissent, always a necessity for profound discussion within Criminology
- When you open your eyes and your mind you start to see the world very differently
- It is possible (if you try very hard) to ignore the reality of Friday 31 January 23:00 ☹
- It is possible to be an academic, tour guide, mistress of ceremonies and quiz mistress, all in the same week!
Here’s looking forward to next week….not least Thursday’s Changemaker Awards where I seem to have scored a nomination with my #PartnerinCriminology @manosdaskalou.
[i] The first quiz was won by a team made up of 1st and 2nd years. This week’s quiz was won by a group of third years. The next promises to be a battle royale 😊 These quizzes have exposed, just how competitive criminologists can be….
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.
- Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
- Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
- Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
- Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
- 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
Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly. Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences. We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity. As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class. I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.
All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better. A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength. Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved. The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population.
As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος) it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented. Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job. It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month. Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school.
This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege. It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is. I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit? To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify. Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions. A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems. Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am. A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused.
I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view. Do those who experience racism voice it? Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories. Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
 A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.