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Take a leap…it might just be worth it!

When I was asked to write a blog about doing research for my dissertation, I immediately went to https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/category/first-class-dissertation/ to read what others had written before me. Previous entries covered race and discrimination, homelessness, hate crime, and working with sex offenders, among other things; all good meaty stuff that is highly relevant to the study of criminology, and to society.

I knew I was taking a risk when I decided to mix it up and write a criminology dissertation that was based on historical crime and punishment, as there was the chance that it fell into neither camp. From a historian’s perspective, I wasn’t researching a primary source, per se, and from a criminologist’s perspective, would it have enough relevant criminological theory?

I just knew I wanted to do something to do with historical crime and punishment, but I didn’t know where to start. Eventually I came across two quotes that I thought were relevant to my subject area: ‘the rulers of eighteenth-century England cherished the death sentence’ (Hay, 1975:17), and; ‘a quasi-judicial role such as [the royal pardon] is not a suitable function for the executive’ (Travis, 2009:9). From these, my idea was firstly to examine who received the death penalty and why, and why some were pardoned while others were not. Secondly, when it came to pardoning, who had the power to pardon and what were the criteria used? I was also particularly interested in the political aspect of this.

What soon became obvious was that even 200 plus years ago, it was the same people committing crime as it is today: the working-class poor, the marginalised and the desperate. And just as today, when those with money, power and connections commit crime, it was not considered crime in the same way, and therefore, the punishment was not the same. I could see then, that I would be able to apply relevant criminological theory. I also needed to incorporate a fair bit of law and constitutional changes to the criminal justice system. As we were always being reminded that criminology is a ‘rendezvous’ subject that encompasses many other disciplines, this gave me the confidence to forge ahead!

I actually really enjoyed researching my dissertation, especially the case studies. After doing lots of research on the Old Bailey Online, I found 3 cases from 1789 which highlighted 3 different outcomes for the same crime, as a way of showing the criteria used for deciding who was pardoned and who was left to hang. I also examined several more recent death penalty cases from the 20th and 21st centuries, to show that the royal pardon is still an essential part of the criminal justice system, despite modernisations designed to replace it, like the introduction of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.


My advice to students in year 2 is: start thinking about your dissertation early! It took me a long, long time to decide what I wanted to research, and I researched a lot of stuff that I didn’t end up using. At one point I was so worried that I even talked to @paulaabowles about deferring my dissertation until next year! But I’m so glad I didn’t do that. I won’t lie to you, it is hard work and requires a lot of time and dedication, which is why it’s so important to pick something that interests you. In the end, though I still worried that it would be too ‘in the middle’ to please either camp, I thoroughly enjoyed doing this piece of work, and was quite sad when it was finished. To be rewarded with a First was beyond anything I could have hoped for, and I’d like to think that was due not only to my hard work, but also to the passion I had for the subject matter.

References:

Hay, D. (1975). Property, Authority and the Criminal Law. In: Hay, D., Linebaugh, J., Rule, J., Thompson, E. and Winslow, C. (Eds). Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Verso. Pp. 17-63.

Travis, A. (2009). National: Royal Pardon: Legal Reform: I shouldn’t be able to make these decisions, says Straw (Guardian Homepages). The Guardian (London, England). P.9.

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.

The pandemic and me – Lessons I’ve learnt from the #lockdown

This lockdown has certainly given us time to think and perhaps reflect on a variety of topics and situations. I’ve shared a few thoughts below and I wonder just how many are universal in some way.

I need to ensure I have a structure to my day and week.  I think we all need some sort of structure to our lives and that structure is often given to us by work and perhaps other sociable events such as going to the gym or going to a coffee shop.  It may be that the weekly shopping provides us with an anchor, Saturday may be a shopping day or religion might dictate a visit to a place of worship on a particular day.  At times I’ve found myself getting confused about what day it is, Groundhog Day, I think.  However, for the most part, I think I’ve got it sorted out.  My wife and I discuss our schedule every morning over a cup of coffee.  We have sorted out a routine of work, daily chores, fun bits and exercise.

My willpower is tested but I can be determined.  I have never been a heavy drinker, the occasional binge, yes but then who hasn’t?  It is however, quite easy to slip into the habit of having a glass or two of wine in the evening, every evening and perhaps a gin and tonic or two.  I can’t go anywhere so thinking about having to drive the next day is not an issue. It’s not until you start totting up the consumption that you realise maybe you might have to reign this in.  ‘School nights’ are back again, no drinking in the week.  I make up for it at the weekend though.

I’m not risk adverse, I just like to think I’m logical.  I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist or in fact any scientist to work out that the government (particularly a Conservative government) would not enforce the cessation of most business in the country without a very, very, very good reason.  Stay in has been the mantra and of course we all know how difficult it is and we all know that as usual, the most vulnerable in society have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. Logic dictates, well at least to me, that going out to any store anywhere carries a risk.  Some risks are necessary, for instance a trip to the chemist to pick up a prescription, but a trip to a DIY store, really?  I’m sorry but given the risks, I think it’s a no brainer. Not only do I not want to catch the virus, but I would be distraught if I thought that through my own selfishness I had passed it onto someone else.

I never really thought about all those people that are truly special.  We clap every week for the carers and the NHS and all those involved who are truly remarkable. I do ask myself though, would I want to turn up to work in a supermarket? Would I want to be out delivering parcels or the post? Would I be a NHS volunteer?  Would I be happy working on public transport or emptying dust bins? There are so many people doing ordinary, even mundane jobs and volunteering roles that I now appreciate more than ever.  And I would go far as to say I am humbled by what they do and continue to do despite the risks.

I appreciate the world around me. Not being able to go out and socialise in some way, be that work, or friends or family has provided more time for other activities.  Our walks to the next village and back on roads devoid of most traffic has revealed an astonishing array of wildlife to be gazed upon and appreciated.   That is of course if you’re not gasping for breath following a walk up a steep hill (well I call it steep but in a car its barely noticeable).

Some things don’t change.  I’ve also noticed the gate to the footpath across the fields near our house has gone. A heavy wooden gate which, apparently has been stolen.  On our walks we have noticed the increased number of cyclists whizzing along the road.  Most give a wide birth, but some don’t seem to have a care for others, one nearly colliding with us as he flew around the corner. It seems with the reduction of cars; the idiotic driver has now given way to the idiotic cyclist.

What will a ‘new normal’ look like.  At some stage we will get back to normal but its difficult to contemplate when that will be and what it will look like.  Maybe getting back to the old normal is not what is needed.  I’m trying to envisage how I will make changes in consideration of what I have learnt during this lockdown.  What changes will you make? 

Hypocrites or just human?

At a time of a significant religious festival in the Christian calendar and at a time of global anxiety, sacrifice and distress, it seems apt to reflect on where we stand in it all.

Like most, I watch the television, listen to the radio, tap into social media (albeit only on limited occasions), receive emails and listen to family, friends and colleagues.

I am amazed by the sacrifice that some people make to protect or look after others and yet dismayed by the actions and comments of some.  And yet as I ponder on the current situation I realise that it only brings into focus behaviours, actions and comments that were already there.  Perhaps, the circumstances have allowed some to shine or provided more of a focus on those that already do outstanding things, and this is a good thing but human nature as it is, doesn’t really change. Here are a few examples, I’m sure if you reflect on these you will think of more.

  • We lament at the inequality in the world, but we do little about it.  Instead, we fight to buy up all the toilet rolls that we can, lest we run out.
  • We complain the government haven’t done enough in the current crisis and then flout the guidelines they gave us on social gatherings and movement or cause others to do so (did you really need that Amazon order?)
  • We complain about our work conditions, but we are content for the company or organisation to continue paying us, often saying they don’t pay us enough
  • We are upset by colleagues who do us a disservice and then denigrate others because of their so-called ineptitude
  • We complain about being bullied but go on to display the same bullying behaviours that we complained about
  • We call people misogynistic but then in the same breath suggest that the world would be better without men or that women do a better job
  • We accuse people of being racist but then use derogatory and stereotypical language to describe those that we accuse
  • We condemn those that we see as privileged and suggest they should give up their wealth and status. And yet we fail to consider our own privilege and are not prepared to give up what we have (see the first comment re inequality)
  • We see the criminal justice system as unfair but would be the first to complain if we were a victim of crime and the offender wasn’t brought to justice. What we see as justice is dependent on the impact the wrongful act has on us
  • We commit crimes, albeit perhaps minor ones or committed crimes when we were younger and didn’t know better, yet we castigate others for being criminal.  Welfare cheats are awful, but tax payments are to be avoided

I could go on, but I think by now you get the general idea. I’ll return to religion if I may, not that I’m religious, but I did start off the blog with an acknowledgement of the timing in line with the Christian calendar: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”, (John, 8:7).  Maybe we should be a little more honest with ourselves and think about what we say or do before we judge and condemn others.  I do wonder though, are we all hypocrites, or is it part of the pathology of just  being human?

San Francisco: A City of Contrast

Golden Gate Bridge

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Often when I visit different cities around the world, I notice that huge contrasts in the standards of life experienced by others are ‘plain for the eye to see’ within such small spaces.

What seems interesting is that inequality between the rich and poor are striking within western countries that are often perceived as being quite wealthy, ‘forward thinking’ and technologically advanced. This brings me to my recent trip to San Francisco, a city partly characterised by the beautiful red Golden Gate bridge which is situated near a beach where sun kissed, athletic and healthy-looking San Francisco residents seem to spend their free time socialising, sailing on boats, walking their pedigree dogs and playing sports. Of course, the view of the isolative Alcatraz prison to the East of the bridge dampens the illusion that San Francisco is a city which has historically upheld progressive and rehabilitative ideas. Whilst today, within this very same space, and more evidently, within a few blocks walk from this location, residents experience life in a very different manner. Many individuals are homeless, have significant physical and mental problems, the occasional prostitute hangs around attracting business and drugs are taken and offered out to passers-by. And on that very same red bridge many individuals attempt to and/or take their own lives out of desperation. So, for me, San Francisco exemplifies a city that is steeped in inequality.

In fact, a recent United Nations (2017) report points to high housing prices, the lack of social, educational and healthcare services for poorer Californian populations and tough responses to issues of homelessness and petty crime as being key to the increasing and continued levels of inequality within cities such a San Francisco. Last week in seminar sessions [CRI1007] we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What appears interesting here is that despite an international agreement that every individual should have a Right to Life, domestically, San Francisco’s approach to the provision of social and medical care for individuals results in the lesser quality and length of life for poorer populations. As in San Francisco the Right to Life is limited, as the city does not seem to be obliged to protect individuals who may die due to ill mental or physical health, the lack of medical insurance or the numerous experiences of poverty.

Prior to visiting San Francisco, I was quite excited to revel in its famous music scene and its picturesque charm. Yet, despite it being a fantastic place to visit that is full of eccentricity and character, the sombre tone of the city was made blatantly clear. I did however, leave feeling incredibly grateful for non-government organisations and communities who often provide for those who are viewed as being ‘deviant’ and not worthy of help. Such as the Gubbio Project, which, with the help of volunteers and public donations, provides Church shelter and basic provisions for the homeless. However, it is clear that a greater amount of support is required for the poorer residents of San Francisco.

 

Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

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