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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

A crime, but who cares?

homeless

“IMG_8755 – Copy” by stivoberlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Amongst all the furore over Brexit, the European elections and the disintegration of the main political parties in the United Kingdom, a small but not insignificant news story crept into the news melee.

‘The number of physically disabled people affected by homelessness in England increased by three quarters during an almost 10- year period’ (BBC, 2019a, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019).  It is not merely coincidental that the ‘almost 10-year period’ aligns with the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in 2010. Measures, continuously pursued by the Conservative Government until October 2018 when Theresa May, the soon to be former prime minister, declared at a Tory party conference that austerity was over adding, ‘the end is in sight’ and there are ‘better days ahead’ (Independent, 2018a). Give her her dues, with the demise of the Tory party, the latter part was an insightful prediction.  Let’s not let the Liberal Democrats off the hook though, reluctant bedfellows they may have been in the coalition government, but bedfellows they were, and they had the power to vote down many of the Tory party dictats.  They may have curried favour with the electorate during the European elections, but we should not forget their part in the austerity measures.

Alongside the issues of homelessness, we see the use of foodbanks has increased phenomenally (Independent, 2018b), fuel poverty affects over 10% of English households (Independent, 2018c) and social care is collapsing (BBC, 2019b; Guardian, 2018).  To put it as simply as possible, the common denominator is the austerity measures introduced by government that directly impact on the most vulnerable in our so-called civilised society.  This and previous governments can point to the budget deficit, the ineptitude of the previous government and the economic downturn caused by the banking crisis (The Economist, 2013), but how do they justify the impact of their policies on the disadvantaged and those who can least afford any cuts?  Bizarrely, the least vulnerable have seen little or no impact on their standard of living other than perhaps for the middle classes there is the monotonous moan about access to doctors or dentists in a timely manner (the rich don’t even have to worry about this).

In my visits around schools I discuss what we mean by the term crime. Reiner (2007:21) states that ‘[t]he term ‘crime’ is usually tossed about as if it has a clear and unambiguous meaning’, but nothing of course is further from the truth.  One of the key ideas I posit is that of harm caused. This of course has its own problems in terms of definition and scope, but it does allow one to focus on what is important. If harm done is a measure of crime, or crime is defined by the harm done then we begin to see the world, actions by government, institutions and individuals in a different light.  With this notion in mind, we can start to ask when and how do we bring the greedy and those that abuse their power either intentionally or recklessly to book?  Maybe, just as Boris Johnson might well be prosecuted for misconduct in a public office over the alleged lies, he made relating to Brexit (BBC, 2019c), we might see ministers held to account for decisions they make that have catastrophic consequences for thousands of the most vulnerable in society.

BBC (2019a) Homeless and disabled: ‘I’m at my wits’ end’, [online] Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/disability-48433225/homeless-and-disabled-i-m-at-my-wits-end [accessed 29 May 2019].

BBC (2019b) English ‘short-changed on care funding’ [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-48438132 [accessed 30 May 2019].

BBC (2019c) Brexit: Boris Johnson ordered to appear in court over £350m claim, [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48445430 [accessed 29 May 2019].

Independent (2018a) Theresa May declares ‘austerity is over’ after eight years of cuts and tax increases, (3 Oct. 2018), [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-austerity-end-over-speech-conservative-conference-tory-labour-a8566526.html [accessed 30 May 2019].

Independent (2018b) Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs (24 April 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-bank-uk-benefits-trussell-trust-cost-of-living-highest-rate-a8317001.html  [accessed 30 May 2019].

Independent (2018) More than one in 10 households living in fuel poverty, figures show (26 June 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-uk-figures-poor-bills-cost-households-a8417426.html, [accessed 30 May 2019].

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2019) Live tables on homelessness [online] Available at http://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-homelessness , [accessed 30 May 2019].

Reiner, R. (2007) Law and Order: An Honest Citizen’s Guide to Crime and Crime Control, Cambridge: Polity.

The Economist (2013) The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course [online] Available at www.economist.com/schools-brief/2013/09/07/crash-course [accessed 30 May 2019].

The Guardian (2018) The social care system is collapsing. So why the government inaction? (3 Oct. 2019) [online] Available at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/03/social-care-collapsing-government-inaction [accessed 30 May 2019].

Celebrations and Commemorations: What to remember and what to forget

Today is Good Friday (in the UK at least) a day full of meaning for those of the Christian faith. For others, more secularly minded, today is the beginning of a long weekend. For Blur (1994), these special days manifest in a brief escape from work:  

Bank holiday comes six times a year
Days of enjoyment to which everyone cheers
Bank holiday comes with six-pack of beer
Then it’s back to work A-G-A-I-N


(James et al., 1994).

However, you choose to spend your long weekend (that is, if you are lucky enough to have one), Easter is a time to pause and mark the occasion (however, you might choose). This occasion appears annually on the UK calendar alongside a number other dates identified as special or meaningful; Bandi Chhorh Divas, Christmas, Diwali, Eid al-Adha, Father’s Day, Guys Fawkes’ Night, Hallowe’en, Hanukkah, Hogmanay, Holi, Mothering Sunday, Navaratri, Shrove Tuesday, Ramadan, Yule and so on. Alongside these are more personal occasions; birthdays, first days at school/college/university, work, graduations, marriages and bereavements. When marked, each of these days is surrounded by ritual, some more elaborate than others. Although many of these special days have a religious connection, it is not uncommon (in the UK at least) to mark them with non-religious ritual. For example; putting a decorated tree in your house, eating chocolate eggs or going trick or treating. Nevertheless, many of these special dates have been marked for centuries and whatever meanings you apply individually, there is an acknowledgement that each of these has a place in many people’s lives.

Alongside these permanent fixtures in the year, other commemorations occur, and it is here where I want to focus my attention. Who decides what will be commemorated and who decides how it will be commemorated?  For example; Armistice Day which in 2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. This commemoration is modern, in comparison with the celebrations I discuss above, yet it has a set of rituals which are fiercely protected (Tweedy, 2015). Prior to 11.11.18 I raised the issue of the appropriateness of displaying RBL poppies on a multi-cultural campus in the twenty-first century, but to no avail. This commemoration is marked on behalf of individuals who are no longing living. More importantly, there is no living person alive who survived the carnage of WWI, to engage with the rituals. Whilst the sheer horror of WWI, not to mention WWII, which began a mere 21 years later, makes commemoration important to many, given the long-standing impact both had (and continue to have). Likewise, last year the centenary of (some) women and men gaining suffrage in the UK was deemed worthy of commemoration. This, as with WWI and WWII, was life-changing and had profound impact on society, yet is not an annual commemoration.  Nevertheless, these commemoration offer the prospect of learning from history and making sure that as a society, we do much better.

Other examples less clear-cut include the sinking of RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912 (1,503 dead). An annual commemoration was held at Belfast’s City Hall and paying guests to the Titanic Museum could watch A Night to Remember. This year’s anniversary was further marked by the announcement that plans are afoot to exhume the dead, to try and identify the unknown victims. Far less interest is paid in her sister ship; RMS Lusitania (sank 1915, 1,198 dead). It is difficult to understand the hold this event (horrific as it was) still has and why attention is still raised on an annual basis. Of course, for the families affected by both disasters, commemoration may have meaning, but that does not explain why only one ship’s sinking is worthy of comment. Certainly it is unclear what lessons are to be learnt from this disaster.

Earlier this week, @anfieldbhoy discussed the importance of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster. This year also marks 30 years since the publication of MacPherson (1999) and Monday marks the 26th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. In less than two months it will two years since the horror of Grenfell Tower. All of these events and many others (the murder of James Bulger, the shootings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Duggan, the Dunblane and Hungerford massacres, to name but a few) are familiar and deemed important criminologically. But what sets these cases apart? What is it we want to remember? In the cases of Hillsborough, Lawrence and Grenfell, I would argue this is unfinished business and these horrible events remind us that, until there is justice, there can be no end.

However, what about Arthur Clatworthy? This is a name unknown to many and forgotten by most. Mr Clatworthy was a 20-year-old borstal boy, who died in Wormwood Scrubs in 1945. Prior to his death he had told his mother that he had been assaulted by prison officers. In the Houses of Parliament, the MP for Shoreditch, Mr Thurtle told a tale, familiar to twenty-first century criminologists, of institutional violence. If commemoration was about just learning from the past, we would all be familiar with the death of Mr Clatworthy. His case would be held up as a shining example of how we do things differently today, how such horrific events could never happen again.  Unfortunately, that is not the case and Mr Clatworthy’s death remains unremarked and unremarkable. So again, I ask the question: who decides what it is worthy of commemoration?

Selected Bibliography:

James, Alexander, Rowntree, David, Albarn, Damon and Coxon, Graham, (1994), Bank Holiday, [CD], Recorded by Blur in Parklife, Food SBK, [RAK Studios]

#EveryCanHelps? Why are we normalising foodbanks and poverty?

foodbanks

Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).

The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.

 

The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.

 

The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.

 

The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.

 

 

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes

United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E

 

 

 

 

Autism: Police discretion and decision making in an uncertain environment

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A question that always strikes when discussing my dissertation topic is why did I chose that particular area to research – is it a topic that I was passionate about, or was it my personal life experience that lead me into that field? The answer to these questions is quite simply, no. In fact, it was a topic I accidentally fell into after reading existing research on the area for one of my other modules in second year. Intellectual disabilities within the Criminal Justice System are quite often misunderstood, and as with all academics, the more I read the more questions I had. Taking this topic at face value, the field is extremely vast, therefore after taking some time to digest many angles of research I narrowed my topic down into two areas. Firstly, an institution that I have always been interested in, policing, and one intellectual disability in particular, autism (ASD).

To give you a brief background; the examination of the relationship between criminal offending and intellectual impairments is proved as complex and problematic. This is due to the issues associated with the definition of intellectual disability, as well as the contribution of unreported crime which means researchers can only examine individuals who are currently involved in the criminal justice process (Talbot, 2007). From a policing perspective, these complexities and concerns increase in terms of conflicting procedures and relevant training which can later impact levels of service and effective results (Mercier, 2011). Amongst academic literature, it is evident that contemporary policing institutions are subject to increasing budget cuts which means that police staff must exercise discretion in processing large amounts of work with inadequate resources, in which shortcuts and simplifications are made (Lipsky 2010; Loftus 2012). This is highly problematic as policies have a tendency to occupy a one size fits all approach. In effect, this becomes increasingly difficult when dealing with individuals with autism, as increased support and time is needed to sufficiently deal with vulnerable groups.

In terms of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this is a common form of learning impairment which can affect patterns of behaviour within a social setting. Autism is characterised by a triad of impairments, which includes difficulties in social interactions, communication and repetitiveness in daily activities (Roth, 2010, p.6). The varying expression and severity of these characteristics means that autism is recognised into sub-types, and therefore, is also considered as a spectrum disorder (King and Murphy, 2014).

On the occasions that an individual with ASD comes into contact with the police and wider criminal justice services, it is normally a result of their social and communication skills being misunderstood which means that they are not given the appropriate support (Cockram, 2005; Tucker et al, 2008). Research suggests that autistic individuals are likely to become extremely distressed in unfamiliar, confusing and loud situations whereby their actions and behaviour can be easily misinterpreted and subsequent actions could escalate the situation (Hayes, 2007). Complimented by the current implications previously discussed that are faced by the police and wider services, it is no surprise that there are issues and concerns surrounding police responses and decision-making processes towards the ASD community. After personally interviewing police constables and custody officers from Northamptonshire Police to investigate the initial responses when dealing with such individuals; the realities of such dilemmas were highlighted.

After now completing my studies with First Class Honours, I am now fortunate enough to work for The Appropriate Adult Service (TAAS) where such theoretical standpoints are often presented to me in a practical environment. From a personal judgement, Appropriate Adults can be easily dismissed, but just being a friendly face who can help and support a vulnerable person within a custody setting is far more rewarding than meets the eye. In fact, it is my dissertation itself that has lead me into this career and has now also given me a thirst for further study in my chosen research area.

References

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street- Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.  

Loftus, B. (2012) Police culture in a changing world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercier, C. (2011) The first critical steps through the criminal justice system for persons with intellectual disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 39(2), pp.130-138.

Roth, L. (2010) Autism: an evolving concept. In: Roth, L. (ed.) The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century: Exploring Psychology, Biology and Practice. 1st ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp.1-29.

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