Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

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

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