Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

There’s more to a public probation service than public protection

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The argument made by three Chairs of Probation Trusts about the reforms to the Probation Service reflects the main arguments being made by Napo, the probation officer’s union, to what is, in effect, the privatisation of 70% of the Probation Service’s work. This argument, briefly, is that the reforms are being implemented too quickly and will less protection of the public. Whilst this argument results in eye-catching headlines and appeals to some people’s fears of crime it risks backfiring because it reminds the public that there are ‘dangerous’ offenders at liberty in society and lead people to turn against the very existence of probation and community sentence: if these people are capable of killing why were they released from prison in the first place? The argument implies that probation’s primary purpose is to protect the public and detracts attention away some of the major issues related to privatisation and the framework of payment by results (PbR) which is part and parcel of the reforms. Quite how these ‘results’ will be calculated remains to be seen, although we know it will involve the use of reoffending rates to measure how good a service has been in delivering a particular service. There are two issues with this: firstly, reoffending rates are by no means an easily identifiable and measurable signifier of effectiveness. Do, or should, reoffending rates take changes in seriousness or frequency of offending into account? How do we deal with those people who commit a crime which does not come to the attention of the police and so on – can we count them as a ‘result’?

The second issue is threefold and relates to the way in which offenders actually desist from crime. Firstly, paying private companies and voluntary organisations for ‘results’ implicitly says that they are primarily responsible for any change that occurs in that person’s life. However, much of the research into the ways in which offenders desist from offending gives considerable priority to both the motivation of the offender, as well as their broader social context: improved relationships with families and friends, a more mature outlook which comes with the aging process, and better social networks are seen to be important factors in how successful an offender is likely to be in achieving a crime-free life. Secondly, offenders who have some autonomy and control over their desistance journey do ‘better’ than ones who are coerced into treatment and rehabilitation. Affording such priority to the role of delivery organisations could result in offenders having less autonomy and agency over their life choices. Put simply, PbR risks taking credit away from the offender for any change in their life and transferring it to the delivery organisation. A public Probation Service, on the other hand, can (quite literally) afford to give offenders credit for their own rehabilitation. Indeed, a common theme to come out of discussions I’ve had with probation officers was that the work done by offenders in turning their own lives around should be prioritised. Thirdly, much of probation’s work has an indirect impact – helping someone find a job gives them money to feed themselves but, indirectly, can improve their self-esteem and gives structure to their daily routine. Similarly, giving someone the opportunity to sit down and talk through their issues with a probation officer gives them skills and insights which might not have an immediate benefit but could have relevance several years down the line. There is, as Rob Canton has put it, great power in the virtue of obliquity (paywall). Thus, rather than representing a potential risk to public protection, a stronger argument to be made is that these reforms risk disempowering people who are, let’s not forget, people in need of some kind of support and help from the state to effect their own change rather than beings who exist simply to enhance the profits of private companies or be labelled dangerous offenders against whom the public must be protected.


Written by criminologyandstuff

October 29, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Posted in criminal justice

Cambridge University suspends student

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The University of Cambridge has suspended a student for a peaceful protest against David Willets MP. The student recited a poem which was then repeated by other students, human microphone style. After the protest, the students were condemned by the University for limiting free speech although several eminent academics spoke up in support of the students‘ right to free speech, which was not on a par with that of Willets. Although many students were involved in the protest, the University decided to prosecute just one of them. In response, 60 students and staff sent a ‘Spartacus’ letter to the University Advocate requesting them to be given the same charge because they were ‘were all involved in it – whether directly or indirectly, actively or in a supportive capacity’.

Yesterday, the University Court sentenced the student to 7 terms, or 2 and a half years, suspension from the University. Many have denounced the sentence as disproportionate, and there is no doubt that it is. But there are other issues that are just as important. The decision by the Court is incoherent and inconsistent.

The University Advocate who prosecutes allegations of breaches of discipline requested a one term suspension. It seems that the Court overruled this in favour of a much more severe sentence. We must ask ourselves why this happened. Perhaps, the University wanted to send a message to those students and staff who expressed support via the Spartacus letter that their actions are not acceptable in order to, crudely, scare them into being quiet. This is problematic from a criminological perspective for two reasons: one normative, and one empirical.

Normatively speaking, we must ask whether it is right for the University to use one student as a scapegoat for the actions of others? The fact that the majority of jurisdictions in the world do not use such a means of sentencing alerts us to the unethical nature of this sentence (although there is evidence of sentencers doing just this when sentencing people who took part in the London riots of last summer. That these sentences received plenty of media and public scrutiny is telling). The Court’s actions can be directly linked with Bentham’s thesis of utilitarianism in which a punishment is acceptable if it reduces the likelihood of future harm, or mischief to use Bentham’s term. However, Bentham included a caveat: that punishment should be the minimum possible to stop further ‘mischief’. Is one student receiving a 2 1/2 year sentence going to prevent further ‘mischief’ of this kind within the University? Who knows, but somehow I doubt it; especially considering the anger that seems to be swelling amongst the student body. There is another issue here. Bentham said that ‘Subjects should obey Kings… so long as the probable mischiefs of obedience are less than the probable michiefs of obedience‘ thus ‘taking the whole body [of people] together, it is their duty to obey only when it is in their interest’ (Fragment on Government: 56). The people engaged in the protest no doubt see that disobedience in this case outweighs the negative impact of the Government’s reforms to higher education. The protesters’ interests are that of the future of the University. It is possible that their own careers will become dominant in the face of such authoritarian action by the University and so the University is likely to succeed in this regard only if it also wishes to elevate individualism over collective thought and allow the ethos of competition to gain a deeper foothold within the University as a whole. Utilitarianism demands an ethos of collectivism to work. As Wolff  (2006: 50) points out, utiliarianism might be seen as a law-breaker’s charter if, for example, my mischief made me happier than it made you sad. This is overcome by indirect utilitarianism in which the effect of widespread ‘mischief’ is supposed to lead people to want to follow rules because this is what will lead to more happiness. Implementing illegitimate rules and, as is the case here, punishing them with illegitimate sentences, will not advance the cause of increased happiness for all. Within the theory of utilitarianism, laws are only justified if they contribute to more human happiness than any feasible competing arrangements. Has this sentence worked with regards to creating more happiness? I think the answer is, no. Very simplistically, David Willets still has a regular platform on which to speak: there has been no permanent damage inflicted on his right to free speech. One student no longer has any right to free speech within the University and has had to put a temporary stop to his studies (although only time will tell re whether he plans to continue his PhD after his period of suspension), and a body of students are increasingly angry with an institution which appears to be working against them on all fronts. Moreover, if the sentence does deter individuals from similar protests then the sentence serves to close down free speech for many more people than just one student. If, as the University insists, free speech is a ‘fundamental principle of the University’, then it’s hard for them to justify their actions.

Potentially, the harsh sentence will prevent students from making a stand because they will now be fearful of a similar sentence. This is presumably what the Court wants. It’s not possible to make a neat jump from the criminological theory of deterrence to the university setting but it is worth dwelling on what we do know about deterrence theory. The data supporting the effectiveness of deterrence as a means with which to deter crime is patchy but there is one finding which stands out: that the severity of a sentence is much less likely to deter than an offender’s perception of whether they’ll get caught (certainty) and how quickly they will be punished after being caught (celerity). I expect the celerity issue is of less importance here so I’ll stick with certainty. The University presumably wants people to know that if they restrict freedom of speech then they will be punished. The problem is that they have only prosecuted one student for actually doing so: there are 60 people who are admitting to being complicit with the action but who are not being punished. Some of them were part of the human microphone, others expressed support for the protest in quieter means but none have been punished. If the Court is relying on a theory of deterrence then it seems that it is seriously flawed.

Perhaps the Court was using a retributivist theory of sentencing. A retributivist theory of sentencing relies on consistency, generally through the application of ‘just deserts’. That is, similar offences should receive similar sentences (notwithstanding a need to take aggravating and mitigating factors into account). The theory demands people to be held to consistent moral values, because retributivism is all about morals (Moore 1987). It is about communicating a message to an offender telling them that they have done wrong (see Duff’s work on communicative punishment), and that they must pay. The University Court can be seen to be distinctly inconsistent in this regard. On the one hand, they defend the right to free speech whilst on the other, they punish a student for exercising this right. Whilst we may not all agree on the students’ actions, the inconsistency here is plain.

CUSU (the Cambridge University Students’ Union) has created a petition here (members of the university only) calling for the sentence to be quashed. If this happens, I’ll be pleased (I have no idea whether it is likely, or not) but it seems like a somewhat shallow end to the proceedings. If the University does quash the sentence and really is committed to free speech then they should give students a legitimate platform on which to speak. The students were not, if I understand correctly, unequivocally opposed to David Willets speaking to the University but were angry at the fact that a Government Minister was being given a privileged platform on which to lay out his ideas with little opportunity for opponents to his plans to have their say. One could argue that the students would have had the right to ask questions of Willets after his talk, but it does not overcome the fact that Willets would have been the only person to have formal legitimacy. The very setup of the event (as is the case with all public speeches) exacerbates and illustrates the power differential between two parties and the University has a duty to mediate this.

Alternatively, the University should prosecute those who signed the Spartacus letter, overcoming my criticisms regarding the certainty of punishment. If the University truly believes its actions are justified, then this must surely be the right course of action to take. It would then be up to the Court to decide whether there was sufficient evidence in each case for a sentence to be meted out (as I said, not all signatories were involved in the protest). The University might also like to take consistency into account when sentencing students. The University needs to avoid hypocrisy. It is perfectly possible for the University to accept that the student had a right to free speech, but that this was gone about in the wrong way – there are numerous examples of sentencing frameworks which can handle such complexities – and the sentence(s) handed down should reflect this.

Written by criminologyandstuff

March 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Posted in criminal justice

Policing the November 30 Strike Action

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I am showing solidarity with lecturers at my University and all other public sector workers who taking part in the strike action today – although I don’t exactly have a job from which to strike I have avoided the department (and was particularly disappointed at it not cancelling a conference occurring there today) and am not responding to work emails. I also went into Cambridge to join the UCU feeder march up to Parker’s Piece and then took part in the march around Cambridge.

Neither the feeder march nor the main march were heavily policed – despite me seeing a much heavier police presence than usual on my way in to town, there were very few police accompanying us on the actual march. Interestingly, the heaviest police lines were situated at the entrances to the Lion Yard and the Grand Arcade – the main shopping centres in Cambridge town centre. The fact that the police seemed to be mainly interested in maintaining the separation between the public and private spaces and protecting the private organisations which occupy those shopping centers in Cambridge is pretty nice symbolism for the problem underpinning and stimulating the action taking place today. Moreover, does it suggest a misunderstanding of what is happening today – are the police conflating these marches and picket lines with the riots of August 2011? Very worrying if so.

One further thought: I think that the unions need to make sure they don’t stray into the realms of ageism with their opposition to raising the retirement age to 68. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a retirement age of 68 – it’s no more arbitrary than 65 already is and there are many jobs that can be carried out perfectly well at age 68 – indeed there are people who want to carry on working beyond 65 but aren’t allowed to do so. However, many speakers on the stage as well as the placards being held up were suggesting that anyone aged over 65 is, to put it bluntly,  past it. One of the megaphone wielding Union stewards taught the crowd a chant and then said ‘if you can’t remember that now then you’ve got no chance when you’re 68’ – I think my 85 year old grandma would have something to say about that! The cuts to pensions are being driven by an ideology which predicates the private over the public; market forces over the equal distribution of capital – this is the issue; not an arbitrary 3 year difference in the pension age and the Unions would do well to remember it.


Written by criminologyandstuff

November 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Posted in criminal justice

Shock horror… an offender had a bit of luck!

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Another example of how ex-offenders are vilified in the media (and maybe in public opinion). The ITV gameshow has, shock horror, allowed an offender to win £1m in a game of pure luck. For some reason, the media doesn’t think that offenders, a group of people who probably have the worst luck in life, can engage in a bit of fun to win some cash.

When the show was launched in May, presenter Ant McPartlin said there would be checks in place to ensure winners were “not going to be criminals”.

At the same event, Cowell said the show was likely to feature “all types”.

Asked how show bosses would make sure there was a worthy winner, McPartlin said: “All the checks will be in place so they’re not going to be criminals.

What exactly is a ‘worthy winner?’

Moreover, as Stephen Farrall has pointed out on the new, recommended, Discovering Desistance blog,

Interestingly, the chap in question goes on to report that he is helping his family, now working and wants to use the money to start a new life. As someone who has interviewed numerous people who have stopped offending, this all sounds very familiar – albeit that few have the fortune (no pun intended) to win £1m. But again, we can’t see past a person’s past …

Why can’t we give the guy a break? He’s clearly trying to make amends and giving him the chance to legitimately win some cash to ‘start a new life’ is surely no bad thing.

Written by criminologyandstuff

September 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in criminal justice

Should offenders lose their benefits?

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A couple of days ago Iain Duncan Smith said that ‘If you knowingly and willingly embark on criminal behaviour, the consequences of that should be… that you lose some of your benefits under the current system’. But isn’t that the point of a fine? It really annoys me that benefits are seen as some kind of privilege rather than a right (which is especially irksome in the case of contributions-based JSA which is, in effect, someone claiming money back from the state that they have paid into the system).

What this suggests to me is that the government think that those who are in benefits need punishing more than those who are in employment – how does having a job not make one less culpable when found guilty of a crime (in fact, it could increase culpability if the offence is related to an abuse of power in the workplace)? Surely, in the interests of proportionality the fine is a fairer way of financially punishing people than removal of their benefits. In any case, if the offender gets sent to prison (as many rioters are being), they will lose their benefits anyway.

Written by criminologyandstuff

September 8, 2011 at 11:40 am

Posted in criminal justice

The popularity of crime

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I like Google’s new tool, the Book Ngram Viewer with which you can search 5 million books published between 1800 and 2000. Apparently Google have normalized the results by the number of books published in each year so the results shouldn’t be too skewed. I thought I’d run some criminology related searches.


Crime, Criminal, Offender:

We might not be living in such a crime obsessed world as we might think. Interesting to note that offender is less popular than it was.

Prison, Probation:

Interest in the prison appears to have waned with probation staying stable after the formalisation of the Service in the early 20th Century. Interest in the prison population has shot up:

And, my favourite, Risk:

The Risk Society!

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December 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Posted in criminal justice

Army veterans and the criminal justice system

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I don’t know what to make of the Howard League’s report which says that ‘when they do [go to prison] veterans are more likely to be serving sentences for violent and sexual offences’ and the government’s desire to use ex-service personnel as a way to economise in the Probation Service, as reported here.

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December 1, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Posted in criminal justice