After the Pandemic: Criminology and Social Harm after Covid-19

We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world

ADiaper

Andy Diaper MA (Crime and Justice) works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His research interests are what he calls ‘street life’:  Homelessness, drug dependency/dealing, street drinking, sex work and people who for a variety of reasons enact most of their lives on the street.

 

We are living in exceptional times as Covid-19 appears to be running out of control throughout most of the world. The death toll rises daily at a frightening rate, the fear and tragedy touches everyone’s lives. It feels ever more difficult to get clear and trustworthy information as scientists and politicians in England and indeed from around the world give out contradictory statements. Globalisation has never felt more real or terrifying.  How do we keep ourselves and loved ones safe? Will life ever return to ‘normal’ again? Our collective ontological security is fast slipping away.

Is this a good time to contemplate change? Or to begin planning future research whilst we are surrounded by so much death and pain? The short answer is yes but care and empathy are called for. We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world. It is far too early to speculate what changes will occur in the long term but that should not stop tentative exploratory work being carried out now. What better time to start collecting data such as ethnographic inquiry, diaries, collating statistical information now be it false or accurate, the truth can be looked for later.

It is a time of thinking out loud, time to look for the questions to ask, not a time to formulate answers. Perhaps the best way of achieving this is in the form of blogging and social media as opposed to the more formal academic paper. This is also an effective way of reaching a wider audience because of this it is also important to write in an accessible way. Greater reflexivity is required to place us within the research, the epidemic will have touched all our lives. It can be argued that for too long criminology has produced important work deserving of better dissemination, but never gaining the wider recognition it deserves. We are on the cusp of the ‘new normal’ it is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

There has been much speculation on the value of social science during Covid-19. It has been argued that the only science of value concerning the pandemic is medical or related fields such as epidemiology.  This may well be true at the most fundamental level in saving lives and understanding the nature of the virus. The function of the virus is to find hosts to make reproduction possible. However, how the virus can move through populations, who is most vulnerable and at risk is very much the domain of social sciences.

So where does criminology come into play?  At the simplest level it can be seen to fulfil two functions. Firstly, the study of the introduction of the new  ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’  (2020, Act) and the scope of the effects on our civil liberties. The 2020 Act touches on many aspects either by amending existing statutes or creating new ones. These changes affect many facets of our lives removing some fundamental freedoms: one being the power to restrict public gathering or to prohibit them entirely. It can be argued that when emergency powers are introduced  they can often outlive the original phenomena. Leading to the danger of using the legislation in ways that the Act was not originally created for. There is also the examination of the effects of Covid-19 on crime in general for example the rise in domestic abuse and how some volume crimes appear to have decreased. It will be a time to revisit how we theorise crime.

Secondly there is the social harm perspective to the pandemic. It should be remembered that a zemiological perspective can be used to analyse crime as well as social harm. David Downes famously stated that criminology was a rendezvous discipline and as such zemiology should now be embraced in the same way as sociology or social psychology to give two examples. This is not the place to put a full argument forward on whether it should become a discipline or not. At the time of writing this piece the four nations of the UK are beginning to lift the lock down incrementally. Business and schools  are being urged to re-open despite concerns from elements of the public, press, opposition MP’s and scientists.  On the effect this may have in creating a second spike to the virus, we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare the groundwork for future research. At this time, we do not know what effect this lifting the lock down will have on people’s lives. However, it is not difficult to speculate if this lifting is too early and a second spike is created the devastation could be horrific. It is already tentatively coming to light that the pandemic has affected the vulnerable in society the most. The elderly in care homes, those in poor housing and the lowest paid doing the most dangerous jobs with insufficient protective equipment. Social harm has already occurred, but it could become far worse. It is the time to begin to gather the evidence to build future research even if it does feel very ‘raw’ now. It is also a good time to consider Engels concept of ‘social murder.’

As was said at the beginning this piece contains no answers only questions. By beginning the process when many are struggling to simply get by daily is a big ‘ask’. However, by formulating the questions whilst the pandemic is still all around us, we will form better questions, leading to better research and who knows, answers to better understand and control future disasters.

I will finish on a famous saying from a 1980’s American cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Contact

Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher

Email: Andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper

 

Images: courtesy of the author

Do we know enough now?

Academics need to engage with policy makers and the public to implement what we already know about the causes of crime and the implications of law and order policies.

Barry GodfreyBarry Godfrey is Professor of Social Justice and has published over twenty books on the history of crime. He is currently editing a Special Edition of the Howard League Journal on the impact of crime history.

 

 

There have been thousands of studies of criminal behavior and of society’s attempts to control it over the last two centuries. Academics think that even more research will enlarge, challenge, and refine our knowledge, and indeed it will. However, because – or perhaps despite of – the vast number of academics now involved in the criminological enterprise, there is considerable agreement about the causes and consequences of crime and punishment.

Historians of crime would find a similar consensus. The vast majority agree that crime is a social and historical construct; that institutions of control are shaped by their histories; that class, gender, and race all conditioned treatment in, and by, the criminal justice system (and still do); that economic inequalities were broadly linked to crime (and still are); and that society has long relied on ineffective nineteenth century forms of punishment (and still does).

I accept that these conclusions lack nuance. Different viewpoints, theoretical perspectives, and empirical wrangles are important, but I would suggest that any differences are dwarfed by the general agreement. Internal liturgical debates are important to us, but not to the general public and are confusing for policy makers (who often find our debates exclusionary, irrelevant, and frankly, bewildering). I am coming around to their point of view. At the very least, we should concede that our research is sometime incomprehensible to ‘outsiders’ and is not user-friendly to anyone who might transform it into practice or policy. Given that we have a common(ish) platform of academic understanding about crime, I would join others to argue that the greatest challenge for academics is for us to use our research to create a strong, meaningful, and persuasive dialogue which influences policy makers to improve the criminal justice system, and to engender more positive public attitudes towards offenders and ex-offenders.

In 2002 Paul Wiles noted that there was a growing gap between academic and public debate, lamenting that we have ‘lost the knack of engaging’. Sociology seems to do much better – according to Michael Burawoy in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association.  Later, in 2010, Uggen and Inderbitzen encouraged criminologists to follow the sociological lead in order to bring together “empirically sound research and comprehensible messages to diverse publics”. This meets the zeitgeist. The ‘impact agenda’ of various research exercises in the UK and elsewhere is of course a half-hearted and largely ‘half-arsed’ attempt to measure our worth in terms and criteria not of our choosing, but it has undoubtedly encouraged a greater level of engagement between academia and policymakers/practitioners. We are also in the business of making sure that our research ‘does something’ to improve policy and practice whether we like it or not. If we fail to engage with the policy realm, then are we at best academic parvenus, at worst a costly (remembering that most of our research is publicly funded) irrelevance?

Having influence over policy and practice is not easy to arrive by, of course. There are unforeseen consequences, and even the predictable outcomes are complex. Policy makers have different agendas, often serve political interests which are antipathetic to our own and require simplicity where we privilege complexity. For every example of the policy realm successfully using our research, there is a disaster story; yet for every disaster story, there is an example of our research being successfully used.

Teaching crime history and criminology may be the biggest impact any of us will have. Our lectures later become the common-sense attitudes towards crime that thousands of students take with them as they graduate from universities every year. However, we also know that sharper and more direct relationships with partners outside of the university can lead to more immediate positive impacts on society. Changing attitudes amongst the student body, hoping that our teaching will cause them to be more pro-social in the future, is a long game. To address the multiple crises society faces today, we need something quicker. We need to press our case. I am not, by any means, suggesting that we stop doing research. That would be perverse given the advantages and opportunities afforded by the second data revolution and the conjunction of readily available digitized crime records, the development of visual methods, and the number and increasing diversity of crime historians nationally and internationally. It would also, I suspect, go against the fundamental essence of being a researcher: research is what we like to do. However, we now have a broad consensus about the causes and consequences of crime, and the shaping of that consensus seems to demand action.  None of us are happy that there are still so many biases in the system, that Victorian penology still predominates, and that class and race still determine outcomes in the criminal justice process. So, is it now time to devote our efforts, not to collecting more and more evidence, but to use what we already know to influence others, and to bring about the change that we, and society, needs?

Contact

Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool

Email: Barry.Godfrey@Liverpool.ac.uk

Copyright free images courtesy of author

Justice must be seen to be done

An intersectional analysis of observations of Crown Court trials for rape and serious sexual assault.

Ellen Daly

Ellen Daly is a PhD candidate at Anglia Ruskin University. Her research explores the use of rape myths and other narratives in rape and sexual assault trials in England and Wales.

 

In recent years there has been a great deal of media attention paid to the prosecution of rape. Most recently criticisms have frequently centred around the falling prosecution rate in England and Wales. Although reports of rape are increasing, the number of prosecutions continues to fall. This means that many victims are not getting the justice they are seeking through reporting to the criminal justice system. Only a tiny portion see justice, and for victim-survivors from minoritised or marginalised groups the chances of seeing a conviction are even slimmer. This begs the question “why?” – why does it seem that victim-survivors from particular groups are more likely to find justice through the criminal justice system?

Evidence suggests that victim-survivors from particular backgrounds have limited access to justice as a result of structural inequalities and various aspects of their perceived identity (see for example Lovett et al 2007 and Hester 2013). There is little contemporary research that addresses these issues, particularly in the context of criminal court. Criticisms of Crown Court responses to rape and sexual assault often focus on the influence of rape myths on trial practices and outcomes, but very little has been done to explore the links between what goes on in the courtroom and the differences in attrition rates for women from minoritised or marginalised groups. This is what my PhD research seeks to explore.

Rape myths are frequently pointed to as offering an explanation for the lack of justice for rape and sexual assault victim-survivors as a whole, and with good reason. It is well established, through a strong body of research from a range of disciplines, that rape myths are commonly accepted among the general population, including by those involved (or potentially involved) in the administration of criminal justice. This includes research that evidences the existence of rape myths at trial and their influence on jurors.

Rape myths have featured in every rape and sexual assault trial I have observed so far and have usually had the function of either blaming the victim or excusing the defendant’s alleged actions. They are utilised as a tool for casting doubt on victim-survivor testimony and to bolster the defence of the accused.

In my observations I have heard the behaviour of victim-survivors being questioned, implying that but for their actions the incident would not have occurred. I heard a victim-survivor being questioned on her drinking habits and binge-drinking, even though a central argument to the defence case was that she was not drunk on the night in question. These arguments draw on rape myths that seek to minimise the behaviour of the accused by positioning the victim-survivors as bearing responsibility for what happened to them.

I have heard victim-survivors being positioned as liars who are seeking revenge or are embarrassed and regretful. In the courtroom, these myths that position women as liars rely on the misconception that false allegations of rape are common, when actually we know that not to be true.  These lines of argument may be particularly pertinent to juror decision-making when considered against the backdrop of mass media coverage regarding collapsed cases.

These myths can be applied to all victim-survivors though, so their presence doesn’t necessarily answer what could be happening to impact specifically on those from minortised and marginalised groups. Provisional findings from my research indicate that one possibility is that narratives around social class are used in trial and that they intersect with the gendered rape myths that are already known to exist in the courtroom.

There are no direct references to social class, it is more subtly implied through small seeds sown throughout the trial. There are frequent references to victim-survivors and defendants being uneducated and unintelligent, which come against the context of evidence which establishes that they live in an impoverished town, on a council estate, that they receive state benefits, are unemployed or are in insecure work. All of which are things that are reflective of working-class stereotypes in our society. The work of Charles Murray in the 1990s on the so-called ‘underclass’ in Britain and its subsequent and continued uptake by the media and politicians, provides a starting point for arguing that stereotypes often portray working-class people as poorly educated or of lower intelligence compared to those deemed middle- and upper-class.

In my observations, defendants being of low intelligence was being presented by the defence as an inability to lie or pretend, positioning them as the credible party the juries should believe above the victim-survivors. To illustrate, two trials included text message evidence of what could be read as confessions to the events in question. In these trials the specific wording used by the defendants was thoroughly picked apart by both prosecution and defence, with the prosecution proclaiming that the defendants’ explanations were ridiculous. Whilst on the other hand, the defence in both cases rationalised the choice of words as being because the defendants are uneducated or unintelligent, that his words were not intended as a confession to rape or sexual assault and can simply be explained by his poor grasp of English grammar and vocabulary. These narratives are taking the counter-side of the ‘women lie’ rape myth, by suggesting that these ‘unintelligent’ working-class men are too stupid to lie convincingly and therefore must be believed.

Other narratives related to social class draw on middle-class ideals of respectability. Victim-survivors are portrayed as not conforming to these standards of respectability, whether that be through their drinking habits or the way they present themselves. We needn’t look much further than reality TV to evidence how young women, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, have been portrayed as heavy drinkers whose behaviour and ways of dressing are used to depict them as ‘easy’ and ‘up for anything’ (recent examples include Geordie Shore and TOWIE). This of course links to gendered rape myths around respectability, which are based on middle-class ideals.

The findings I’ve outlined here perhaps begin to answer how some groups of victim-survivors appear to have a lower chance of seeing a conviction in their cases. Narratives drawing on victim-survivors’ and defendants’ perceived identity or membership to a particular group, which in the examples outlined here related to social class, intersect with gendered rape myth narratives. Therefore it is not only rape myths that play a role in undermining the credibility of victim-survivors and bolstering the presumed innocence of defendants. The reality inside the courtroom is much more nuanced than that. Myth-busting measures are unlikely to have the desired effect without taking account of broader structural inequalities. Fair justice cannot come from a system where convictions and acquittals can be made based on myths and stereotypes.

Contact

Ellen Daly, Anglia Ruskin University

Email: Ellen.daly@pgr.anglia.ac.uk

 

Copyright free images courtesy of the author