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

Inside the COVID-19 State: Protecting Public Health Through Law Enforcement

Covid19 is a public health threat yet it is treated as a law enforcement priority. This blogpost criticises this approach and rethinks public safety beyond policing.

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Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the winner of the British Society of Criminology’s ‘Blogger of the Year Award 2018’.

 

 

 

After three weeks in a state of isolation following the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, we could be excused for mistaking ourselves for the virus we stay away from. The UK government’s  slogan: ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ has become the mantra we live our lives by, while also setting the tone for a new social contract through which we come together socially by staying apart physically. Accompanying such governmental instructions, new public health regulations were also introduced to ensure compliance through law enforcement. Such emergency measures would be sensible, defensible and desirable even, if being quarantined and policed were to merely supplement rather than nearly substitute the provision of adequate healthcare. Yet, law enforcement has taken precedence over an adequate public health response forcing the government to apologise ‘if people feel there have been failings’.

This is an opportune moment to reflect on why the government chose policing against the public over protecting people from the virus by adopting a law enforcement approach to a public health emergency. The remainder of this blog post will grapple with that question by critically assessing the new “Coronavirus regulations”, and arguing against criminological analyses that disguise the medical nature of the Covid-19 pandemic as a criminal justice matter.

Policing the public as a virus

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the UK government set up a coronavirus action plan to limit the spread of this infectious disease through emergency legislation which created new offences and widened police powers.  These new regulations came in the form of a Coronavirus Bill which passed through Parliament on March 25, 2020 accompanied by a statutory instrument which gave legal force to the new social distancing rules. These rules prohibit people from ‘leav[ing] the place where they are living without reasonable excuse’, during the lockdown, and empower the police to ‘direct’ or ‘remove’  individuals ‘to the place where they are living’ allowing the use of ‘reasonable force, if necessary’. Breaching the prohibition amounts to ‘commit[ting] an offence’ which is ‘punishable on summary conviction by a fine’. Put simply, failure to comply with these instructions means breaking the law and, therefore, committing a criminal offence.

As these laws became daily practice allowing the police to impose fines, disperse gatherings and remove people to their homes, police forces around the country have also issued court summonses, resorted to online shaming, deployed vehicle checkpoints and used aerial drones and roadblocks to enforce the lockdown, targeting ‘bored’ drivers, dog walkers, people sitting on park benches and even shops selling Easter eggs. Such stories may be dismissed as unfortunate, and perhaps inevitable, mishaps, or isolated cases that are harmless if not altogether amusing. Yet other incidents, such as the violent arrest of a man who was moving a tree for his mother, alert us to the danger of extending police powers without due regard for the consequences: especially when their vague nature, broad scope and worrying dependence on discretion render them illiberal, discriminatory and illegitimate too.

Policing as the virus

None of the above is meant as a suggestion that emergency laws should not be observed. However, it must also be stressed that conformity depends on democratic legitimacy, not repressive authority. As they currently stand the new police powers are arbitrary in their design and unrestrained in their force, raising questions about who is more likely to be targeted under such legislation, on what grounds and based on whose interpretation of such laws. For example, whatever may count as ‘reasonable excuse’ or ‘reasonable force’, in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, largely relies on police officers’ individual judgement, despite additional guidelines that change nothing in the actual legislation. Since there is no explicit prohibition on leaving one’s home only once a day, no time limit by which one has to return home, and no requirement that one may leave one’s home only for exceptional reasons, enforcing such vague regulations ultimately results to their arbitrary application by officers who are given wider powers of discretion to decide what restrictions are breached and what charges are to be made. This is made worse by the realisation that these regulations convert almost all “normal” social behaviour into anti-social behaviour, thereby turning fundamental rights and civil liberties such as freedom of movement and assembly into criminal offences.

Some might dismiss such concerns as little more than liberal hand-wringing, yet policing requires ‘the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state’. This means that without public support, policing becomes a fraudulent imitation of its legally-defined remit, and the law morphs into a counterfeit image of itself. In the light of the two-year time span of the Coronavirus Bill and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny or approval of the Coronavirus regulations, references to a “police state” may sound flippant, but they are not unfounded. Such warnings may cultivate alarmism, but they also nurture attentiveness to what happens when citizens’ activities are supervised by diktats from government instead of democratic consent.

Protecting the public from the virus

As critics and supporters of policing as a tool for managing public health emergencies clash, the question of whether policing has any role to play in the Covid-19 crisis asserts itself and demands credible answers. Although the government introduced the Coronavirus Bill ‘for the purposes of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination’,  it is not clear why the onlyrelevant persons’ for enforcing these regulations must be ‘constables, police community support officers (PCSOs)’ or ‘those designated by local authorities and by the Secretary of State’. Given that Covid-19 is a public health threat, it might be sensible to suggest that it requires a medical rather than a criminal justice response.

Accustomed though we have become to consider ourselves a public health risk, as potential hosts cells in which Coronavirus multiplies, it does not follow that the only, the best, or most urgent response has to be the policing of our movement or the restriction of our civil liberties. At least not without testing on a mass scale, and ensuring that the NHS is adequately equipped with enough Protective Personal Equipment (PPE), ventilators, healthcare staff and hospital beds. The decision to prioritise policing over healthcare, therefore, is based more on politics and expedient crisis management than on the prevention, detection, containment, and eradication of Covid-19. As public health experts, Prof. David McCoy among them, note: a ‘greatly expanded testing regime combined with aggressive case detection and contact tracing, coupled with continued physical distancing and improved hygiene’ would have helped us ‘avoid the harms of draconian, population-wide lockdown’.

This is not to suggest that we should disregard the current rules and regulations, but to abide by them in the full knowledge that we are being policed as the virus instead of being tested for the virus. Staying at home to protect the NHS is eminently sensible and truly commendable, but it is done in order to protect the NHS from the initial and ongoing failures of the state to take action. It is a collective effort we willingly make as a result of state failure. Not only did the UK government procrastinate, missing important deadlines to bulk-buy PPE and ventilators, despite shortages in the NHS, but testing also lags behind, ignoring the World Health Organisation’s message to ‘test, test, test’ when Covid-19 was still treated as an epidemic rather than a full-blown pandemic.

Rethinking policing in times of crisis

In the absence of adequate support for the NHS, the government’s public health agenda has ultimately resulted in policing instead of protecting the public, thereby attempting to police itself out of a public health threat. Policing Covid-19 away, however, does not just reek of state negligence by breaching its duty of care to the public. It also invites police- friendly criminologists and dyed-in-the-wool crime scientists to rethink their approach to policing by situating it into its political context, instead of pretending that it is a neutral civil institution. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis this involves asking not what the police should do to respond to a public health crisis, but whether the police should (ever) have a(ny) role in managing such crises.

Designing public safety, be it from violence or infectious diseases, is not and should not be the exclusive property of the police. It can also be practiced in non-coercive means through investment in healthcare, welfare and upheld through social solidarity and mutual aid, not tainted by suspicion, surveillance, punitiveness, or shaming. This involves thinking about who and what the police is, what it does, who does it do it to, and who does it do it for, therefore heeding Raymond Chandler’s oft-quoted yet otherwise largely ignored observation that ‘cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack’.

 

Contact

Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

Twitter: @lfatsis

 

Images: courtesy of the author and Pexels

Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

The authors discuss the role of Higher Education in facilitating desistance from offending.

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Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Swansea University. Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea.

It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice; Shapland & Bottoms). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance   (Lockwood et al., 2012; Runnell, 2017).

Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al., 2017), the Prison Education Trust highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled’ re-enforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners. Evans et al (ibid) conclude more needs to be done to assure greater equality across all demographics of society. We were therefore interested in how HE might be considered a useful public criminology approach for crime avoidance and support marginalised groups to reach their full potential.

This Blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting.  The project brought together academics, third sector and statutory agencies and most importantly we worked with those at risk of (re)offending as partners by carrying out research through ‘doing with’ rather than, ‘researching on’.

The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events. One for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16) and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).

We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity which captures participant’s narratives in a visual manner using drawings, words and symbols and offered immediate triangulation and increased trustworthiness of the findings (Glaw, et al., 2017) through a focus group format.  The research produced interesting data with common themes across both groups.

Aspirations varied but everyone wanted to be happy and ‘get back on track.’ A common desire was to ‘sort my head out’ and have better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle.’

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Pictorial imageSeveral people stated getting back on track in life meant getting a job with some wanting to use their own experiences to help others. The two most dominant aspirations related to positive family ties and relationships, and employment and these were often offered together. Getting back on track related to feeling secure and notions of home, family, health, employment and money. Such aspirations are key drivers to desistance (McNeill) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on HE. However, one of the more concerning factors that came through in the data was the haunting experiences of previous education.

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Indeed, 12 of the 16 participants in the first focus group reported negative experiences, and like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’ with loneliness and isolation a difficult past experiences to overcome. Many also recounted the negative learning experiences within the classroom related to ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ and ‘sent to the back of the class.’ This left many feeling publicly embarrassed, intimidated, seen as a problem and not wanting to engage in future learning. All participants stated that they felt they had not been given a fair chance.

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Ten participants identified learning difficulties as a barrier to education and that their behaviour led to exclusion. A common theme was bullying experiences within education from both teachers and peers. Ultimately this meant that most had feelings of alienation and resentment towards primary and secondary school and that it didn’t meet their needs.

Most participants had experiences of child and teenage abuse (neglect, physical and ‘dark’ stuff) and had been within the care and or criminal justice system during primary and secondary education and that due to all of this they were not ready for education.

However, for participants who had been to prison, it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of educational attainment which they pursued at University on release from prison.

Jones image 5Most participants identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired during a degree was excessive and there were no guarantees that it would lead to a job.

One participant who studied Drama at university, said he had been promised the degree would lead to future opportunities but the course kept changing throughout and he felt let down by the institution.

There was a general mistrust of university and people that worked there and that the university was out for itself and getting money and that it viewed people like them in negative ways and didn’t always support future employment.

There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head heal high – the university has a good vibe about it’.

Pictorial imageParticipants felt that universities need to develop inclusive environments that widen access and offer opportunities to those with a criminal past.

Barriers reported by the participants focused on funding, judgment, mental health and stigma due to their previous criminal conviction(s).

All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was completely out of reach and that the debt associated with going to university wasn’t worth it. Many of group do not have access to transport so simply paying public transport fares was viewed as out of their reach most of the time.

The participants reported that they felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.

The expression of isolation and stigma associated with a criminal conviction was overwhelming for this group and that university ‘didn’t want someone like me’ due to this. The group did want to access HE but the thought of entering into an institution was overwhelming. The words used included ‘scary’ ‘intimidating’ ‘big.’

Pictorial imagePictorial image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They expressed a desire for a new type of HE which focused on delivery to them in their community setting, supported by workers who understood their background and specific needs.

A few participants felt that if they were not treated appropriately in respect of their background and needs, they would likely get angry, frustrated and harm their confidence.

So what does this mean and what can HE do to actually be more supportive of potential students with offending backgrounds and really be a widening access environment? We believe that there are some very clear opportunities that HE could offer to support people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, and these include:

  1. Higher Education based within the ‘community’ setting to remove fear of HE campus and potential stigma and judgement
  2. Introductory and ‘hook’ HE opportunities to remove fear and stigma and build confidence and trust with HE
  3. Specialist trained student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or risk of offending
  4. Free HE opportunities to support motivations and aspirations of HE
  5. Better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan system to those at risk of offending
  6. Higher Education opportunities within prisons that support transition to community setting upon release

We are working on developing such initiatives in Swansea as well as applying for more funding to research this exciting and emerging area on desistance and HE.

 

References

  1. Evans, C., Rees, G., Taylor, C., & Wright, C. (2017). ‘Widening Access’ to higher education: The reproduction of university hierarchies through policy enactment. Journal of Education Policy, 34(1), 101-116.
  2. Glaw, X., Inder, K., Kable, A, and Hazelton, M.(2017), ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16, 1-8
  3. Lockwood, S., Nally, J., Ho, T., & Knutson, K., (2012). ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’. Crime and Delinquency, 58(3), 380-396.
  4. McNeill, F. (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society. Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf
  5. Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf
  1. Prison Education Trust (2017). To be truly inclusive, universities must help prisoners feel they belong. Available at:https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong
  1. Runell, L. (2017). Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8), 894-918.
  2. Shapland, J., & Bottoms, A. (2011). Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists. Punishment & Society, 13(3), 256–282. https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334

 

Contact

Debbie Jones, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk

Twitter name – @debjonesccjc

Mark Jones, Director at Higher Plain Research & Education

Markjones1977@yahoo.co.uk

Twitter name @A_HigherPlain

 

Images: courtesy of the authors