Crime as a Cascade Phenomenon

Cascades of Violence deploys data from across South Asia to conclude that war tends to cascade across space and time.

Professor John Braithwaite is a Distinguished Professor and Founder of RegNet (the Regulatory Institutions Network) at the Australian National University. He was awarded the BSC Outstanding Achievement Award in 2017 and is an Honorary member of the Society.

Braithwaite and D’Costa’s (2018) Cascades of Violence can be downloaded for free here

This post sketches why it could be analytically fertile to view crime as a cascade phenomenon. Once we see crime through the cascade lens, we can imagine how to more effectively cascade crime prevention. Like crime, crime prevention often cascades. Braithwaite and D’Costa show how peacemaking cascades nonviolence. Happily, there is strong evidence to support the conclusion that nonviolence is also a cascade phenomenon. Hence, seeing crime through the cascade lens opens up fertile ways of imagining a macrocriminology of crime control. Self-efficacy and collective efficacy are hypothesized as catalysts of crime prevention cascades in the macrocriminology that interests me.

Cascade phenomena are defined as those that spread to multiply instances of themselves, or to create contagions of related phenomena. Cascade explanations are staples across the physical and biological sciences: the cascading of particles in particle physics, cascading of particular particles called bacteria and viruses with infectious diseases, environmental cascades to climate change, cascading of liquids (lava, water) in the geological formation of planets. In the social sciences, cascade explanations have also been common in the writing of Rosenau, Schelling, Sunstein , Kuran, Sikkink and Gladwell, among others. With crime, we have long known that people are more likely to cheat on their taxes if they perceive a lot of cheating among others and that contagion effects are particularly likely with high profile crimes such as hijackings, assassinations, kidnappings, suicide bombing and spates of serial killing.

Non-criminologists have been more fascinated by cascade possibilities than criminologists. Mathematician Quetelet in 1835 was puzzled by the high statistical variance in crime across space and time. Economists often puzzle further that this variance is so huge compared to variables that are seen as candidates for explaining variation. This leads to the hypothesis that cascading on itself might provide a better explanation than exogenous changes in rational incentives driven by costs and benefits of crime. They point out that interactions among people could cascade to explain the variance. If one crack cocaine dealer interacts with five others to persuade them that becoming a dealer is smart, and each of them so persuades five others, and so on, then this dynamic can multiply huge space-time variance between a point in space-time where that process takes off and others where there has been no cascade.

Information cascades where people make decisions on the basis of their observations of other peoples’ actions seem particularly attractive for explaining why criminal behaviors like looting or rioting are normally near zero, but can multiply quickly once someone starts a stampede. Herding into illegal tax shelters is likewise an information cascade phenomenon according to my 2005 book, Markets in Vice, Markets in Virtue. Braithwaite and D’Costa note that more common kinds of crime also behave like wars in this regard, as they sought integrated explanation of crime-war clusters. They point out that the best explanation of whether your house will be burgled in the next six months in many countries can be whether it was burgled in the last six months; and likewise, the best explanation of whether your country will suffer a war this year may be whether it suffered another in the past three years. Whether the house next door was burgled or the country next door convulsed by war are also good predictors.

When Lawrence Sherman and other criminologists found that crime was concentrated at three per cent of the addresses of large cities and that policing strategies concentrated at those hot spots could substantially reduce crime at them, the natural reaction of criminologists was cynical. Our cynicism was directed at the hypothesis that criminals will respond by shifting their crime from old hot spots to nearby locales, or to create new hot spots.  Subsequent research did not bear out this displacement hypothesis.  Indeed, it showed not only that hot spot policing reduced crime at the hot spot, but it also had positive spillovers in reducing crime to lesser degrees in areas surrounding hot spots. Why did not criminologists then proceed with a sense of excitement at the surprise of having their expectations reversed? Why not explore and develop a converse theory that there may be cascade effects of crime prevention success?  Criminologists tend not to respond to overturned cynicism with excitement at the opportunity to build theory on new inductive insights, preferring to move on to cynicism about something else.

Reframing crime as a cascade phenomenon implies a shift from focus on individual offenders to building a new macrocriminology. Such a reframed macrocriminology is my current work-in-progress. Braithwaite and D’Costa’s study of cascades of violence across South Asia was a considerable empirical undertaking that could, perhaps, be submitted as a proof of concept, though no more than that. The conclusions of that book about war are undoubtedly more important than those about crime, particularly in showing what can be done with the insight that the best way of protecting ourselves from future wars is to stop getting into current ones. Yet a neglected reason for the importance of that policy work is that war and crime cascade into each other so profoundly.

My suspicion is that the cascade lens could illuminate a good framework for the kind of macrocriminological reframing that can make a fist of big patterns in the evolution of crime such as why western societies have dramatically less violent crime than they had centuries ago; why so many Latin American societies have so much more criminal violence than other regions; why East Asian societies have experienced dramatic reductions in violence for half a century or more; why in the same period the United States has had a higher crime rate than other Western societies. Mainstream criminology devotes remarkably little attention to such macro patterns compared to the attention mainstream economics devotes to why certain spaces and times have superior growth, or mainstream political science to why some spaces and times are less democratic, more authoritarian.

How could a framework like control theory be seen by many criminologists as one of the most empirically supported of all theories without confronting it with macro questions such as whether it really makes sense to say that the United States has so much more crime than Canada, Europe, Australia or Japan because Americans are less able to control their impulses? My proposal is that conceiving crime as a cascade phenomenon is one possibility for a better path to reconfiguration of criminological theory.


Professor John Braithwaite, School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), Australian National University.



Copyright free image: from author.

Applying the criminological imagination to the Armed Forces community: Challenge or opportunity?

Many of the significant issues faced by veterans, post service, fall outside of the traditional focus of the criminological lens.



KAlbertsonDr Katherine Albertson, Senior Lecturer, Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Department of Law and Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University. Katherine has completed a British Academy funded narrative history interview project with criminal justice engaged veterans; Forces in Mind funded evaluation of a veteran-specific social capital building recovery service; and is currently conducting an Armed Forces Covenant funded community capacity building project working with the Armed Forces community across South Yorkshire.

Two significant yet apparently contradictory anniversaries coincide this year with regard to the public identification of, and with, the UK Armed Forces community. Attention is currently focussed on positively marking the sacrifice this community made in centenary celebrations of the end of the First World War. Meanwhile it is a decade since the 2008 National Association for Probation Officers (NAPO) report identified, distinctly less positively, more than 20,000 ex-service personnel languishing in the UK criminal justice system.

The subsequent lack of debate of this startling finding did not end until the Howard League’s (2011) assertion that members of the Armed Forces community represent the largest occupational subset of the male prisoner population, effectively bringing the problems with some members of the Armed Forces community to the attention of public, political and criminological spheres.  In the same year we saw the ratification of the UK Armed Forces Covenant in which document responsibilities to current and former Armed Forces personnel and their families are formalised. The subsequent Government response came in the form of Lord Ashcroft’s Veterans Transition Review (2014) and for criminal justice specifically – the Phillips Review (2014). Despite a number of initial forays of research work in this area – proffering outmoded explanations of veterans’ offending, largely in terms of individual deficits – developments really seem to be becoming more sophisticated and moving forward much more quickly over the last few years.

During my initial work, focussing on veterans’ contact with the criminal justice system and substance misuse, it became apparent fairly quickly that these classically criminological topics were among a much wider range of social ills faced by veterans, post service. These include concerns such as working age veterans in the UK are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their civilian contemporaries; just 39% of employers would consider employing a veteran without industry specific experience (YouGov, 2017) and that 54% of the general public believe service leavers have a physical, emotional, or mental health problem (ONS, 2017). Personally, being involved in this piece of work highlighted certain restrictions from operating within the traditional criminological canon. Many of the significant issues raised fell outside of the traditional focus of the criminological lens.

The benefits of a strengths-based, culturally competent holistic approach to veteran status as a positive identity marker is highlighted in my evaluation of a veteran-specific peer support service. Veteran status can facilitate reciprocal and generative relationships, for example, supporting desistance from crime identities or sustaining recovery from substance misuse. Key to this relational, social capital building approach to working with veterans is a reduction in social isolation through to the development of a positive community participation-based identity. In short, those engaging in the project successfully attained an alternative positive ‘military veteran citizenship’ identity.

This highlights the fact that traditional research on military veterans may have suffered from taking an inappropriate approach. An initial epidemiological or etiological and incontrovertibly quantitative approach to this topic area effectively marginalised a broader more holistic focus. Such an holistic focus, if grounded in the phenomenology of emotional work, can incorporate into criminology the impacts of “background conditions such as power, gender, social class, ethnicity” (Katz 2002, p 376). The significant impact of class, status and issues of identity and behaviour expectations over the life course were further underlined during our British Academy/ Leverhulme narrative life history interviews with military veterans. Veterans, like all cultural groups, are not homogenous. A veteran’s pre-military background is as important as – and impacts on – their time in the forces and their post service history.

There are general lessons to be learned! Armed Forces community issues, as a case study in point, illustrate that the criminological imagination would benefit from approaching offending from a broader explanatory framework incorporating diversity, human rights and social inclusion agendas. Future studies require a focus on issues of transitions in identity, incorporation of the community and the public’s interaction with, and response to, the Armed Forces community and an assessment of structural opportunities afforded. These studies must also include attention to the impact of decisions of the state and wider international forces which shape transitional experiences. In other words, a focus beyond the ‘offending population’ is required. These holistic explorations, for the time being, remain scarce.

We also cannot ignore the all too familiar underlying (and increasingly global) discourse of undeservedness which tends to infuse such contemporary debates. In this context, competing public images of military veterans and their families represent them as more or less “deserving” or “undeserving” based on circumstances beyond their control. This ultimately introduces a false ‘moral’ or puritanical edge to the discussion and may influence policy and practice decisions concerning the distinction between those we deem the most justified of rights holders within the Armed Forces community, and those we feel have no legitimate claim on our scarce resources. This is however familiar territory for the criminological lens, parallels with the community reintegration of custody leavers.

That is not to say, however, that veterans’ issues are not increasingly being considered critically within British criminological circles. The notion of veterans as victims of state-initiated conflict has been proffered as an analytical challenge; the term ‘Veteranality’ has been introduced to encapsulate how the criminal justice system has barely begun to come to terms with working with veterans who commit crime. Bourdieuian concepts, such as habitus and field have recently been employed to theorise the distinct, yet interconnected, spaces between military and civilian worlds highlighting the long lasting influence or cultural legacy of a military history.

Although potential contributions from cultural and zemiological criminology may have much to offer in this context, it is becoming clear that the Armed Forces community including veterans, as a cultural group, have a unique experience in which a multi-disciplinary approach would appear extremely relevant and from which we could learn lessons more generally. As McGarry and Walklate, in their British Society of Criminology Newsletter piece, “The ‘Criminology of War’, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” advise, we ought to exercise caution in approaching studies from ‘within the confines of established criminological enclaves’ (McGarry and Walklate 2017, p 44).

Wider developments in the criminological literature have shifted a focus on initiation of crime to that of exploring social and relational processes as both protectors and supporters of positive identification markers for desisters from crime. An effective position from which one can explore the shifts in identity and identification with this transitioning ex-military cohort, tied to the importance of wider relational factors in the cementing of desistance processes, is most notably encapsulated within the third stage of the desistance processes – tertiary desistance. Described most eloquently as the result of a ‘dialectical relationship between one’s own personal identity, and the availability of positive social role opportunities’, operating to ensure the individual retains agency, as ‘ultimate concerns emerge from, are immersed in and shape their relational worlds’ (Weaver, 2012, p. 405).

The tertiary desistance framework prioritises opportunities for the processes of gaining a sense of social acceptance, belonging and participation, both within one’s own community and wider society, thus enabling wider less solely ‘criminal’ focussed concepts of citizenship, social justice, integration and solidarity to be considered (Maruna 2012; McNeil 2014; Fox 2015; 2016). This approach can then incorporate the significance of understanding of the nature and patterning of ex-forces personnel’s opportunities to form social connections, community ties and their interactions with the civilian public.

My research indicates, it is from this perspective, borne out of the criminological canon, which allows for the consideration of identity, recognition and group stigma-related issues that can ensure the future development of the criminological imagination can be applied most usefully to the Armed Forces community. It is clear a distinct Critical Veteran Studies approach is the way forward. This will enable a sharper focus on the significance of interconnections between personal experiences, community relations through to wider society and the political sphere for this increasingly politicised and currently targeted community. My current area of project work with the wider Armed Forces community Covenant in South Yorkshire  is informed by this contextualisation.

Katherine is an active member of the Observatory for military veteran affairs ( and a member of the International Advisory Board for the Forces In Mind Trust funded research project at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. The project is focussed on exploring negative transitioning from the British military back into civilian life. Katherine has recently authored a chapter entitled: ‘Building social capital to encourage desistance: Lessons from a veteran-specific project’, in the Routledge Companion to Rehabilitative Work in Criminal Justice, due for publication in 2018. Katherine is also co-author, alongside Dr Emma Murray and Dr Paul Taylor, of an international edited collection entitled: Military past, civilian present: International perspectives on veterans’ transitioning from the Armed Forces‘, due for publication in 2019.



Ashcroft Review (2013) The Veterans Transition Review.

Fox, K. J. (2015). Theorizing community integration as desistance-promotion. Criminal justice and behavior, 42(1), 82-94.

Fox, K. J. (2016). Civic commitment: Promoting desistance through community integration. Punishment & Society, 18(1), 68-94.

Howard League (2011) ‘Report of the inquiry into former Armed Service personnel in prison’

Katz, J. (2001) ‘Analytic Induction’, in Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (eds) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Oxford: Elsevier.

McNeil, F. (2014) Three aspects of desistence:

Maruna, S. (2012). Elements of successful desistance signaling. Criminology & Public Policy, 11(1), 73-86.

National Association of Prison Officers (2008) Ex-Armed Forces Personnel and the Criminal Justice System.

Phillips, S. QC, MP (2014) Former Members of the Armed Forces and the Criminal Justice System: A Review on behalf of the Secretary of State for Justice.

Weaver, B. (2012). The relational context of desistance: Some implications and opportunities for social policy. Social policy & Administration, 46(4), 395-412.



Dr Katherine Albertson, Senior Lecturer, Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Department of Law and Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University.



Image courtesy of The Veterans Foundation, see more on

“You wanna know what it’s all about”: Art with Veterans in Custody

“what it means to have served ones country and later to serve a prison sentence”


Dr Emma Murray is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice at Liverpool John Moores University. Emma’s research focuses upon the welfare of veterans’, particularly those convicted of a crime in England and Wales and how we might better understand them in policy, critical pedagogy, and through art.

TDegenhardt Dr. Teresa Degenhardt is a Lecturer in Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast and a Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. Teresa has worked on the intersection between war, crime and punishment in discourses on the war on terror, on military interventions, and the development of border security technology.

On April 6th, 2017, The Separate System[1], a film made by artist Katie Davis, in collaboration with military veterans in prison was premiered at FACT (Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology), Liverpool. As part of a broader event entitled ‘To Serve’, the audience were asked to consider what it means to have served ones country and later to serve a prison sentence. As the Chair and invited guest (respectively), we were tasked with responding to the film – an art work ‘owned’ by many – which attends to the visceral experiences of military life and the criminal justice system. Over the moving images and sounds of the prison and public spaces in the film, veterans speak their narratives to their imagined audience. Indeed, the audio alone is important and through this work their voice has a platform. The notable lack of veterans voices in discourses of the convicted veteran has already been suggested as a glaring omission (Murray 2016; Treadwell 2016), as such this platform is empowering. As the literature on war and the military continues to emerge with vibrancy in criminology, we contend that this artwork invites those veterans who participated into our theorising – placing the embodied and aesthetic experiences of their lives as they know them in sharp focus.

Our Approach

It is important to note that this was not a research project but an art project – and we do not intend to ‘evaluate’ the art but rather harness some of the key messages, as we see them, for further criminological enquiry. We approach this artwork, conscious that experiences of war, and of the criminal justice system are inherently embodied and sensual, as is becoming a soldier, a veteran, and a criminal. As such, we see this an opportunity to engage with those aspects of the convicted veteran’s life experiences that are difficult to capture through language. Crucially, this socially engaged process of knowledge production offers insights which were signed off by veterans themselves.

Our inquiry focusses upon two broad questions:

  1. What does this form of engagement with veterans in custody offer to criminological scholarship on war and the military?
  2. What might veterans in custody gain through their collaboration?

We do not claim to be able to answer these questions in detail here, nor do we have the space to attend to all which the work has to offer. Instead we bring three stills[2] from the film to bear upon our current work and thinking on war, criminal justice, and those who have experienced both. And believe that the images selected (and those that fall outside of our remit here) have the potential to advance our understanding of the personal, symbolic, material, relational and transformative aspects of veterans in custody lived experiences.

Embodying the Separation

From the opening scenes we are invited into consider the separation that the ‘convicted veteran’ perceives of body and place because of the attached label. Their veteran status separates them from others in custody, and their conviction separates them from more dogmatic images of what it means to be a veteran to society more broadly. Or at least this is their perception.

The Faceless Body


This image without the face, appears to us amid the sounds of prison doors closing, symbolising the moment when the often-uniformed ways in which we come to know the veteran (epitomising a sovereign’s pride and bravery) is left behind. The symbolic power of the faceless body offers an insight into the visceral perception of those who participated. It also reminds researchers to be mindful of the ontological and epistemological questions necessary when placing veterans in custody into a broader critical criminological commentary. Particularly to ensure that the socially constructed, yet self-constituting experience of being a veteran, isn’t overlooked.

The Space of Separation

One becomes a veteran in civilian society. The veteran status serving as further evidence of the separation between the military and the civilian space which they serve, or at the very least that military experience, once disclosed, alters how one is understood. The convicted veteran however, is removed further. The spaces of multiple separation portrayed in this film offer an insight not into how the convicted might understand their identity and place in society, but the space (i.e. the military or the prison)  in which new forms of subjectivity (i.e. the convicted veteran) are created and exercised through the individual.


The prison wing captured through this image makes visible the distinction, representing the materiality of the disciplinarian techniques deployed by the state to contain and separate this violence from military violence. Here, the convicted veteran represents a glitch in that governmental machine – a failure of disciplinarian techniques and their separation.

“Civvie Street” or War landscape?

WarSeparation is, of course, the works’ recurring theme. Separation however, is also relational – occurring only with reference to that from which one is separated (whether physical, imagined or otherwise).  For the veterans who feature in this film, that is civilian society – or “Civvie-Street”. The destruction apparent in the last image chosen for this piece captures the demolition of a building in Liverpool. Working closely with Katie, veterans can share memories of war, evoked in an otherwise ‘peaceful’ street, noting how the clear distinction between inside/outside, us/them, good/bad, war/punishment and peace/war are more problematic than ever in the 21st century (Degenhardt 2010; Loader and Percy 2012). Through this image, veterans themselves, share how they have experienced that complexity, and how that complicates their resettlement post-service. The continual reference to ‘Civvie-Street’ might also remind us that while both the military and criminal justice are important to studies of the convicted veteran – our subjects have a third reference point – society.

Projecting the Voice

Aware that their work will have many audiences, those involved took the opportunity to project their truth across the prison wall, and back to the civilian society they find so difficult to be part of. Telling us of the struggles of routine tasks which were done for them in the military, and of how civilians had asked them questions about their deployments, urging them to confess of the violence they may have experienced and indeed committed. They tell us how they had felt betrayed by the state, and how it has included and excluded them for violence. As an audience we hear of the importance of using your weapon, the fitness, the safety, and the difficulty to adjust to civilian norms and law. They tell us of bullying and of how they were discharged (through a letter). Their voices, and the parts of their bodies which they chose to share (such as their eyes and tattoos), a sort of performativity depicting the gaze and the marks of their experience of both state institutions.


As 2018 draws ever closer, these insights are of growing importance. It is a year which marks the end of the centenary of World War 1 (1914-1918); twenty years since Ruth Jamieson (1998) published her seminal chapter ‘Towards Criminology of War’, urging us to consider the complex connection between war and crime; and ten years since National Association of Probation Officers report made national news with their claims about the prevalence of veterans serving a sentence in prison or in the community in England and Wales. Each serving as important reference points for the study of war within criminology. Taken together, these three milestones reveal how war, its violence and its affect are represented, reproduced, and imagined in way which ask us to question the distinction between military and civilian life, connections, and distinctions between total institutions such as the prison, and the military – and the liminality of the ‘veteran offender’ upon such thresholds.

Arts with Veterans in Custody?

Which brings us back to our questions. We hope to have demonstrated the potential of this form of engagement with veterans to unearth some of the most complex understanding of the experience of conflict and conviction, those that can hardly be expressed through language. When veterans collaborate with artists in this way, affective understandings of themselves can be harnessed and reproduced through creative practices which are inclusive and participatory. In art we see the capacity to produce culture- rather than just express it – where culture is intended to be that which connects human beings. When veterans collaborate in such projects, they tell more than their story, they also ask their audience to interrogate their own schemes of intelligibility.



Degenhardt, T. (2010) ‘Representing War as Punishment in the War on Terror’, International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory, 3 (1): 343-358.

Jamieson, R (1998) ‘Towards a Criminology of War’ in Vincenzo, R; South, N & Taylor, I. (Eds) The New European Criminology, Crime and social order in Europe London: Routledge.

Loader, I, and Percy, S (2012) ‘Bringing the ‘Outside’ In and the ‘Inside’ Out: Crossing the Criminology /IR divide’ Global Crime 13: 213

Murray, E. (2016) ‘The Veteran Offender: A Governmental Project in England and Wales’, in McGarry, R & Walklate, S. (Eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Crime and War. Palgrave MacMillan.

Treadwell, J. (2016) ‘The Forces in The Firing Line? Social Policy and the ‘Acceptable Face’ of Violent Criminality’, in McGarry, R & Walklate, S. (Eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Crime and War. Palgrave MacMillan.


[1] The Separate System (2017) Katie Davies with Andy, Billy, Callum, Danny, Gaz, Gaz, Jay, Jonno, Mark, Mark, Paul, Rob and Trevor. Commissioned and produced by FACT. Supported by the Armed Forces Covenant Fund and Paul Hamlyn Foundation. With thanks to HMP Altcourse and HMP Liverpool. Available at

[2] The Separate System (2017) video still, © Katie Davies, commissioned and produced by FACT, supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, all rights reserved


Emma Murray, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice, Liverpool John Moores University, @Emma_T_Murray


Teresa Degenhardt, Queen’s University Belfast

Copyright free images: from the authors.