Better call up the cops

My academic background is in sociology, sort of – you could also call it politics, or contemporary history, or European studies. One thing it wasn’t is criminology. So I have a lot of sympathy with the academics cited here, lamenting the decline of sociology at the expense of criminology. (I met one of them – William Outhwaite – while I was doing my doctorate. I wouldn’t say his example inspired my choice of career, but it certainly reassured me that I was on the right lines.)

Needless to say, they find broader social explanations for what’s happening:

Nick Currie, a criminology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says he and his colleagues can confirm a shift in applications towards criminology. “Crime informs every aspect of public policy. There isn’t a car park or a housing estate designed now without taking account of criminal behaviour,” he explains.

“I think the growth of sociology was fuelled by the first wave of working-class people who started coming into universities and polytechnics in the 60s and 70s. Sociology was their subject; it was about them. That has changed. I don’t think students now are even thinking about what they really want to study; it is much more [about] what will make me employable.”

Despite being head of Oxford University’s centre for criminology, Dr Ian Loader is not in favour of the shift. “I started to think, when I worked at Keele, that criminology is replacing sociology as a core undergraduate subject,” he says. “But I don’t think criminology is a discipline. It is a field of study, but it is better for someone to come to it as a graduate, not for a first degree. But you try telling that to vice-chancellors. Universities are getting much more entrepreneurial, and crime attracts students.”

I teach Criminology students these days (sorry, William), but I think there’s a lot in this. That said, I think it’s arguable that the rise of criminology has responded to real social and political changes, which need to be studied and understood. As Nick Currie says, at government level crime informs every aspect of public policy – and we need to keep an informed eye on what that means in practice.

Take Blair’s celebrated soundbite about being tough on, well, you know. Here’s Ross McKibbin from the last LRB:

‘Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime.’ This was an entirely reasonable formula for a party that felt it was on the back foot over crime but knew that crime is largely generated by social deprivation. But policy has in practice been increasingly tough only on crime.

And here’s a letter I wrote in response (they haven’t printed it, the blighters):

Ross McKibbin repeats the common misconception that New Labour has been “tough only on crime”, neglecting the causes of crime. It’s true that Blair, like Thatcher and Major before him, does not believe that governments can or should try to prevent crime by promoting social justice. But on the broader question of whether government has any part to play in preventing crime, this government has departed radically from its Conservative predecessors. A range of theories about the causes of crime has been put forward – and acted on. Crime may be caused by drugs, with addicts stealing to fund their habit; if so, mandatory drug treatment will help prevent crime. Crime may be caused by yobs driving respectable citizens off the streets, making it easier for criminals to operate: if so, dealing with anti-social behaviour will help prevent crime. Crime may be caused by the incorrigible lawlessness of a small minority: if so, mandatory parenting classes will help prevent crime, by enabling parents to rein in disruptive children before they become delinquent adults.

Drug treatment and testing orders, parenting orders, anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs): these are all New Labour innovations, targeting behaviour which is believed to lead to offending rather than waiting for offences to be committed. If we believe, with McKibbin, that “most crime is generated by social deprivation”, we may dismiss this approach as populist tinkering, but this would be to underestimate its coherence – and its impact. Over 3,000 ASBOs were issued in 2004 and 4,000 in 2005, prohibiting individuals from specified non-criminal activities (disorderly behaviour, drinking in public, entering specific areas…). The maximum penalty for breaching an ASBO – which, studies suggest, happens about half of the time – is a five-year prison sentence. This is getting “tough on the causes of crime” with a vengeance.

This isn’t what McKibbin would recognise as thinking about the causes of crime, but neither is it the know-nothing lock-’em-up approach of the Tories. Or rather, the Howard-era Tories – after ten years of New Labour, I expect Cameron will take an equally wide-ranging approach. I did a Web search the other day for the classic Daily Mailism “the cause of crime is criminals”; I found it on the UKIP Web site.

One footnote. The public image of the ASBO had already changed by the time it was introduced – it was originally intended as a measure to deal with “neighbours from hell” and serial intimidators, not the badly-behaved kids it’s now associated with. It looks as if a second shift has taken place in the last few years. The 2002 Police Reform Act introduced the “ASBO on conviction” or “criminal ASBO”, imposed to accompany or follow a penal sentence. Apparently 70% of ASBOs imposed between 2003 and 2005 were “criminal ASBOs”. Interesting. I don’t know what it means, but it’s interesting.

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