Tag Archives: Crime

Reaction to the Riots: Interview with Geoffrey Pearson

Reaction to the Riots: Interview with Geoffrey Pearson
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
15 September 2011

First published in 1983, Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears is widely acclaimed as a seminal text in British criminology. The Economist praised it as “a calm and witty history of moral panics that have gripped England over the ages… a brilliant survey”. Pearson is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He spoke to Ian Sinclair about the recent riots in Britain.

IS: Can you summarise the main arguments and themes of ‘Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears’?

GP: The argument of Hooligan can be easily summarised. First, youth crime is invariably seen as something new, a radical departure from the stable traditions of the past. In fact there is a long connected history of youth crime stretching back over more than a century and a half, with people responding to each episode by looking back to a ‘golden age’ of peace and tranquillity.

I trace this back first by looking at the ‘Teddy Boys’ of the 1950s, who were regarded by many as evidence of a ‘new’ streak of insubordination that had overcome young people ‘since the war’. Then, I look at the pre-war alarm about youthful irresponsibility evidenced by ‘juvenile delinquents’, where there was a tendency, again, to look back to the stability in British society before the war before that.

However, before the Great War we find massive social concern about the newly-named ‘Hooligan’ gangs who rampaged around Victorian London in the late 1890s, engaging in pitched-battles between rival neighbourhood gangs and attacks on police and innocent passers-by. Similar street-fighting gangs were known and feared elsewhere in this period by different names – ‘Scuttlers’ in Manchester and Salford, and ‘Peaky Blinders’ in Birmingham. The Hooligans had adopted a uniform dress-style: bell-bottom trousers cut tight at the knee, neck-scarves, heavy leather belts, peaked caps, and a ‘donkey fringe’ hair-style with their hair heavily cropped and a tuft on the crown of the head. They were sometimes known as the ‘belt and pistol’ gangs because of allegations about their use of firearms, but more common implements were knives, iron bars, catapults, leather belts with heavy buckles, and boots said in some parts of London to be toe-plated with iron ‘to kill more easily’.

This history can then be traced back beyond the moral panic about ‘garotters’ in the 1860s to the huge social concern about ‘juvenile depravity’ in early Victorian society in the 1840s and 1850s, and beyond that to the long-standing preoccupation with unruly apprentices in pre-industrial society.

What is remarkable is that each time that this social anxiety crystallises around the youth question, it is accompanied by the same vocabulary of complaints. For example, the lack of respect shown to all forms of authority, whether parents, teachers, the police or the courts that is said to be a radical departure from the subordination shown in the past. Young criminals are also said to be becoming younger. Then there is the repeated accusation of family decline and the break-up of parental discipline, often linked to the demon drink (nowadays substance misuse). Finally, the corrupting influence of popular amusements – whether the penny-hop theatres and dancing saloons of early Victorian Britain, the Music Hall entertainments later in the century, the gangster ‘movies’ of the inter-war years, television and rock-and-roll in the 1950s, then video-nasties, hip-hop music and gangsta rap – held to be encouragements to imitative ‘copy-cat’ crime.

It is not that nothing changes. Of course things change. But this long, connected vocabulary of respectable fears seems itself immune to change. It is like some moral dodo, but one that keeps escaping from the museum, and is currently rampaging around the streets in the responses to the recent riots.

IS: Why has the idea of a ‘golden age’ of law and order been so popular throughout modern history? What are the drivers of this common sentiment?

GP: This is an interesting question. At one basic level, the durability of the idea of a ‘golden age’ has something to do with what we call nostalgia. It is also driven by the experience of living with modernity – a relentless process by which all conventions and moral sign-posts are up-rooted, leading to an experience of existential anxiety, especially among an older generation.

What is not clear to me, however, is whether this appeal to a ‘golden age’ is found in other national cultures. It is possible that societies such as France or the USA look at the past as a positive experience of republican upheaval, rather than in a mode of cultural pessimism. What is certain is that this way of thinking is deeply embedded in the British (or do I mean English?) national culture.

IS: How does the public debate surrounding the recent riots across the UK fit with the thesis outlined above?

GP: In so far as the events themselves are concerned, there are both continuities and differences. One apparent difference is that riots flared in so many otherwise disconnected localities. However, this is hardly unprecedented – we only need to recollect the Brixton disorders of 1981 that were followed by so-called ‘copy-cat’ riots in the Toxteth area of Liverpool and elsewhere. Indeed, fifty years before that in October 1931, following cuts in unemployment benefits, violent clashes flared between the unemployed and police in more than 30 towns and cities, involving baton charges, the use of high-pressure water-hoses, attacks on the police, looting and disorder, continuing for several days and causing the police to place a guard on shops, banks, court-houses and public buildings. These disturbances were more clearly politically organised, of course, whereas the recent riots were apparently spontaneous and nihilistic. It should be said that the significance of implicating Facebook in the riots is less a question of whether this is true, than that Facebook joins the history of the contaminating and corrosive influences such as Music Halls, movies, video nasties etc. that are accused of encouraging ‘copy-cat’ crime.

IS: What is the role of the mainstream media in this public debate?

GP: The mass media have traditionally played a major role in expressing and mobilising extreme feelings around moral panics. The term ‘moral panic’ should not be understood, as it so often is, as meaning that nothing is actually happening and that the media ‘make it all up’. Something quite significant obviously did happen in August 2011, but the idea of a ‘moral panic’ is that the media emphasise and exaggerate some aspects of what happened while minimising others. This is what news values – ‘writing news’ or ‘making news’ – is all about, and one should not place any blame on journalists, it is what their job is about. This however does not make the more sensationalist wing of journalism morally right.

IS: If the riots and looting were not about worsening discipline among the young, poorer parenting skills, the influence of hip-hop or a more permissive society, what caused them?

GP: It should be clear from what I have already said that the accusations against parental irresponsibility and popular amusements are part of a long-standing stock response to these kinds of disturbances. Because, if parental discipline is worsening whereas in the past it was intact, why does the historical record show that at various times parents were already being criticised and that the family was already said to be in a state of disrepair?

Nevertheless, many young people are growing up in families and communities that do not encourage them to aspire to a ‘normal’ working life, nor are there many opportunities available to them. Of course, unemployment does not lead automatically to violence and rioting. It leads more commonly to apathy and depression, at any rate among people who have lost jobs they previous had (whereas today many young people. and their parents, have never been employed).

A distinguished tradition within sociology has argued that where young people have no way of demonstrating status and self-worth, they create alternative systems of values for this purpose – whether thieving, fighting, defiance of authority, being ‘in the know’ about drugs – which are described by social scientists as ‘subcultures’ and known more generally as ‘gangs’. As John Pitts has persuasively argued, for many young people in modern Britain these ‘subcultures’ are no longer a form of transition from boyhood to manhood, but a ‘final destination’. These young people have nothing to aspire to, nothing to achieve, nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. The result: the acquisitive nihilism recently seen on our streets. Vandalism is the purest expression of this impulse: it does not even afford to property the dignity of something to be acquired, merely to be destroyed.

IS: As an A-Level Sociology student in the mid-90s I seem to remember being exposed to a lot of radical and class-based research and analysis conducted in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Open University, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Glasgow Media Group etc). Am I living under the illusion of a ‘golden age’ of radicalism in British sociology or has there been a shift in emphasis over the past 30 years? If so, what ramifications does this have for explaining events such as the recent riots?

GP: You are right. There was an up-surge in class-based radicalism in sociology during the 1970s and 1980s. This was something inspired by the radicalism of sociology in the USA, the counter-culture, Paris 1968 etc. Not all of this was ‘radical’ in a traditionally class-based Left sense, something I discussed in my book The Deviant Imagination. It had more of a Robin Hood, anarchist, hippie feel, and sometimes embraced far-Right libertarians such as Thomas Szasz in the ‘anti-psychiatry’ tendency.

If this was a ‘golden age’ of academic radicalism, then its rise and decline can be described in two ways. At the biographical level, many of the young academics drawn to radical sociology in the 1970s were people from ordinary backgrounds who were the first member of their family to have gone to university. (I know this because I was part of the same generation, and knew most of the people involved.) This was a time of university expansion following the Robbins Report and also of immense forward-looking optimism. Continuing this biographical line of thinking, these people’s careers (and mine) subsequently became routinised and professionalized, we were drawn into university politics and administration, the changing economic constraints of higher education required us to search for competitive research grants, staff-student ratios increased, etc. To continue this biographical displacement, many of these people were bewitched by Michel Foucault and fell into the traps and snares of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural studies’.

Second, on the more general front, of course, this was associated with a decline in class-based politics in Britain (see Eric Hobsbawm’s essay ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ – written before Thatcherism, long before the disastrous miner’s strike.) Class-based radicalism was replaced, both in academia and in local government, by so-called ‘identity politics’ concerned primarily with ethnicity, gender, and cultural issues. This ‘identity politics’ had already been implicit in the ‘radicalism’ of the 1960s and 1970s. This is the agenda we now inherit.

Even the Conservative Party has now occupied this ‘cultural’ territory given Kenneth Clarke’s accusations against a ‘feral underclass’. But this, too, is nothing new. In the 1930s this ‘underclass’ was described as the ‘submerged tenth’ with proposals for compulsory sterilisation. In the late 19th century it was known as the ‘residuum’: ‘this vast residuum’, as Matthew Arnold described it, ‘marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes’. In the mid-century they were known as the ‘dangerous classes’, a drunken, demoralised and criminal rump, living below the labouring classes and the poor. Before that, they were known as the ‘mob’ and that says it all.

What this all means is that youth crime and violence, and their associated social problems, are not newly arrived but long-standing areas of social difficulty that are deeply ingrained in the social landscape. Correspondingly, they will not be solved by short, sharp shocks. What will be required are long-haul measures to encourage social inclusion. In one sense, Kenneth Clarke is right that imprisonment alone is not enough and must be accompanied by re-education and reform. But his claim that we have a ‘broken’ penal system is knee-jerk nonsense: we’ve heard of David Cameron’s ‘broken’ society for some time, so now we have a ‘broken’ prison system as well. But the prison system isn’t ‘broken’ – this once again appeals to a ‘golden age’ when everything was in working order – because prison itself has never worked. From its very beginnings in the 1840s the penitentiary system was criticised for its functional incapacity to control crime. What is needed instead is a bottom-up process of re-integration, built around families, schools and communities. But the problem remains: how do you ‘re-integrate’ people who were not integrated in the first place?

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Interview with Nils Oberg, Director-General of Sweden’s Prison Service

Interview with Nils Oberg, Director-General of Sweden’s Prison Service
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 December 2014

“I am very reluctant on giving anyone advice on how they construct their criminal policies”, Nils Öberg says.

This humble attitude, though polite, masks the fact Öberg, the Director-General of Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service, has much to teach the UK about crime and punishment. Indeed, the expertise he has gained from running one of the most progressive prison systems on the planet is the reason he gave the annual Longford Trust lecture on penal reform in London last week.

Talking to me before the lecture, Öberg, 54, explains that Sweden’s prison population has been falling since 2004, to around 5,500 prisoners today, including those held on remand. This translates to about 57 prisoners per 100,000 people – one of the lowest rates in Europe. With their prison population falling 6 percent this year Sweden has been able to close four of their 56 prisons. In contrast, as of October 2014 England and Wales had over 85,000 people behind bars – around 149 prisoners per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in Europe. In his recent annual report the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales highlighted a shocking 69 percent rise in prison suicides in a system characterised by overcrowding, rising violence and worsening safety.

How does Öberg explain the significant reduction in prison numbers in Sweden? “We have a couple of educated guesses and hypotheses”, he replies. First, he notes the courts have for a number of years been giving out more lenient sentences, particularly for drug related offences. This follows a 2011 decision by Sweden’s Supreme Court which reduced sentences for serious drug offences, such as drug smuggling. “So that, in combination, would mean the total prison years will shrink as a result of more lenient sentencing”, he says. He also thinks that the recent reorganisation of the police force from 21 independent local forces into one national force may well have affected the efficiency of its criminal investigations and therefore level of convictions. Finally, he hopes the prison service’s investment in rehabilitation has helped to reduce reoffending. The rate of reoffending in Sweden currently stands between 30 – 40 percent after three years – again, one of the lowest rates in Europe.

“The prison sentence is the punishment”, Öberg explains. “We don’t see our role and purpose to punish while the clients and inmates are with us. Our prime purpose is to prepare them for reintegration into society as best we can.” He continues: “We try to keep our focus on addressing all the various issues that our inmates and clients bring with them”. These range from “a very loose connection to the job market to very serious health problems or mental health problems, or broken social relations in general, drug addiction or substance abuse.”

Researching the topic before the interview, I am struck by the relative comfort that prisoners seem to experience in Swedish prisons. Newspapers would be screaming “prison is like a holiday camp!” if similar conditions existed in the UK. Öberg has little time for this argument: “Anyone who holds that view doesn’t know very much about what it is like to be in prison. Anybody in the profession, wherever you are in the world, will know the human cost of incarceration.” Part of blame for the public’s ignorance lies with the prison service itself, he believes: “It perhaps reflects our own inability to educate the public on what we are actually doing and what it is like to be relieved of your freedom for a shorter or longer period of time.”

Öberg’s unwillingness to blame others is also evident in his thoughts on the role of the media. I tell him that significant sections of the British press arguably play an unhelpful role in the politics of criminal justice, amplifying the public’s fear of crime and often pushing for harsher sentencing. For example, the Prison Reform Trust’s latest briefing notes that 45 percent of crimes reported in newspapers in the UK involve sex or violence, compared with only 3 percent of actual reported crime. “I don’t recognise that description”, he replies. He’s referring to Sweden, though his answer applies beyond his country’s border. “Everywhere you go you have cases of violent crimes and tragic stories about victims of crime who have suffered tremendously from the crimes beings committed, but that’s just a reality in any society. That’s the problem. Media’s not the problem.”

However, he does note one significant difference between the Swedish and UK media. “There is a self-censorship in our media when it comes to children. So a child that will have committed a serious crime, the moment the media realises the story is about somebody underage that story goes cold and will not be published for obvious reasons.” It may be obvious to Öberg but one need only think of the endless and lurid press coverage of children who have committed crimes in the UK to realise just how far apart our two nations are on this issue. Sweden’s unofficial agreement is no doubt helped by the fact their age of criminal responsibility is 15 – one of the highest in Europe. In England and Wales it is 10 – one of the lowest in Europe (do you see a pattern emerging yet?). According to The Guardian’s prison correspondent Erwin James, in the UK a life sentence can be handed down to a 10-year old, while in Sweden no one under the age of 21 can be sentenced to life.

Another key difference between our two countries, Öberg explains in his lecture, is there is very little overt political interference in the running of the Swedish prison and probation service. Öberg notes, for example, that criminal justice was not part of the political debate during the recent general elections in Sweden.

Throughout the lecture it’s refreshing to hear Öberg repeatedly refer to pragmatic policies which are based on scientific evidence. Compare this, again, to the press-infused, evidence-free political debate in this country with Labour and the Tories trying to outdo each other on being tougher on crime and criminals. Underpinning this unedifying political spectacle is the assumption that toughness is synonymous with effectiveness. Sweden’s liberal prison service shows this popular canard up for the lie it is. As writer Johann Hari wrote over ten years ago: “The choice is not between ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ it is between effective and useless. ‘Tough’ policies – put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other – just don’t work. It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools – it is the [Michael] Howards and the [David] Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work.”

Speeding and masculinity

Speeding and masculinity
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
May 2012

Are you one of the overwhelming majority of drivers who admits to regularly breaking the speed limit? If so, you probably see it as a minor infraction of the law rather than a serious crime. Speeding is the motoring equivalent of a white lie – something a little bit naughty, something to gently mock your friends and family about, something to laugh at with Jeremy Clarkson as you watch Top Gear.

Speeding is so pervasive even the majority of ‘gatekeepers’ – magistrates, traffic police officers and a small group of driving instructors – admitted to the behaviour when interviewed for a 1997 Transport Research Laboratory study.

However, the basic facts suggest a very different reality. Speed is the main contributory factor in approximately a third of fatal car crashes in the UK, with the Department of Transport estimating that 4,187 deaths and serious injuries in 2009 were attributable to exceeding the speed limit of going too fast for the conditions. “Children are disproportionately represented as victims of speed”, notes Dr Claire Corbett, author of the 2003 book Car Crime. And while the popular image of speeding is someone hurtling down a motorway, arguably the greatest danger is speeding in urban areas. As Mike Penning, Conservative junior transport minister, said in 2010, the risk of death is four times higher when a pedestrian is hit at 40 mph than at 30 mph.

In addition, there is a close correlation between speeding and committing other motoring offences, with what Corbett calls ‘high speeders’ more likely to also drink drive, drive through amber and red lights and pull out from side roads without giving way to traffic, among other breaches. More generally, speeding likely causes more noise and environmental pollution, and more stress to other drivers and non-drivers on the road.

It is these uncomfortable facts that led Julie Spence, the outgoing head of Cambridgeshire police in 2010, to label speeding as “middle-class anti-social behaviour”. She went on to say that while anti-social behaviour is usually defined as rowdy youths or vandalism “driving without care or consideration for other road users is probably among the worst kind of anti-social behaviour in its truest since, because serious offenders can, and do, kill.” In terms of changing drivers’ behaviour, Corbett argues the difficulty “is that individual instances are only very infrequently negatively reinforced and the rarity of harm may help drivers to justify all other speeding occasions.”

Of course, we do not all have the same propensity to break the law behind the wheel. Men and women have very different relationships with cars. So while women often see cars as a way to reduce fear of crime and as a tool for independence, men often use cars to demonstrate their driving prowess and to project an image of success in life. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, research consistently shows men are substantially more likely to speed and be involved in fatal crashes. They account for 82 percent of speeding offences and 97 percent of dangerous driving convictions, according to 2005 Home Office figures. Importantly, men are also more likely to overestimate their own driving skills, with a 2005 Admiral poll revealing 65 percent of men thought they were better drivers than average. Only 47 percent of women thought the same. This male arrogance is especially acute among young men, a 2011 poll by Ireland’s AA Motor Insurance showing 9 in 10 men aged between 17 and 24 believed their driving skills were above average. Psychologists have a name for this – illusionary superiority. That is the cognitive bias that causes an individual to overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their positive qualities.

Corbett lists personality traits such as “thrill-seeking, sensation-seeking, risk-seeking” along with “a sense of time urgency, competitiveness, ambition and alertness” as casual factors linked to speeding. Throw in the need to show competence, control, power and aggression and you have a fairly good summary of the mainstream masculinity that all boys are imbued with as they grow up. But while these traits are fine on a ride-on lawnmower or during a particularly strenuous Wii gaming session, deployed behind the wheel of a powerful car they can be a serious problem, with potentially very serious consequences.

People give a variety of reasons for speeding, including enjoyment of driving fast, that they are in a hurry, the dangers are exaggerated and social pressure to ‘keep up’. But it strikes me that only emergency life or death situations morally justify breaking the speed limit. Do you disagree?

Interview with the Laura Janes on Youth Justice

Interview with Laura Janes on Youth Justice
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2008

In his 1938 study English Juvenile Courts, Winifred Elkin referred to “the view so often expressed by the writers of letters to the Press, that the courts have become over-lenient.” Seven decades later it seems little has changed. The 2000 British Crime Survey (BCS), for instance, found that 75 per cent of respondents believed the courts treated young offenders too leniently.

In radical contrast, the latest report from the Howard League for Penal Reform – Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe – finds that rather than being soft on young offenders, England and Wales actually has the harshest youth justice system in Europe. The study notes that with around 3,000 detained at any one time, England and Wales imprisons far more children than any other country in western Europe, and, at ten years, it has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe.

After welcoming me in to her home in west London, Laura Janes, the Children’s Legal Team Leader at the Howard League and the report’s author, tells me about her recent visit to Belarus, a country that has the dubious distinction of often being referred to as ‘Europe‘s last dictatorship‘. “Even in a country like that they were very shocked about some of our practices in terms of the age of criminal responsibility”. In Belarus, she explains, “there is a maximum sentence for children, whereas we are quite content to give children indefinite sentences in this country, which is virtually unheard of in Europe.”

As a Solicitor who represents children in custody, 30-year old Janes works on telling cases that are rarely seen in a media typically more interested in heightening the general public‘s fear of youth crime. “I have one child who is in custody for cutting up some papers on her headmasters desk”, she relates. “She then threw a pair of scissors. Obviously it’s not good to throw a pair of scissors and thank goodness it didn’t hit anyone or hurt anyone. And it’s not admirable behaviour. But I don’t see that it’s behaviour that warrants custody.”

For Janes this incident is indicative of a culture that is too quick to criminalise children. “When it comes to children we take their liberty much less seriously than adults”, she says. “They have much less control over their lives and much less opportunity to object, and much less power and ammunition to fight back.”

Asked to explain the UK‘s punitive attitude to young offenders, Janes admits that the murder of James Bulger in 1993 produced a significant shift in government policy. However, she argues that this didn’t have to be the case, pointing to a similar incident in Norway at the time that produced a very different response. Janes is referring to the killing of five-year old Silje Raederg by two six-year old boys in the northern city of Trondheim in 1994 – an incident largely unknown in Britain. Whereas the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables at Preston crown court attracted a baying mob clamouring for vengeance, the two Norwegian culprits were treated as victims rather than killers, and returned to school a couple of weeks after the event.

This welfare approach is mirrored throughout other Scandinavian countries and also in Italy, which now has just 500 people under the age of 18 in custody at any given time. But wouldn’t a more lenient youth justice system in Britain lead to a higher level of crime? “The overwhelming evidence is that a punitive approach certainly does not reduce crime. In fact it may be the reverse”, she forcefully replies.

“Lots of young men in adult prisons were children in children’s prisons”, Janes notes when I ask about the long-term consequences of Britain‘s harsh youth justice policy. “We are creating generations of criminalised people who have missed the opportunity to grow out of committing crime or to reshape their lives in a more positive and constructive way.” On an individual level, she argues “we are creating children who are utterly institutionalized, who effectively miss out on their childhood. That is something they will never be able to make up for developmentally.”

In October the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published a damning report on Britain‘s legal and social shortcomings regarding the welfare of children. Unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest our Government is taking the report’s 150 recommendations seriously. “Under Tony Blair we were very punitive, lots of ASBOs, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’”, Janes says. “The idea was that under Gordon Brown we would be thinking more broadly about the welfare needs of young people”. She explains that this progressive change has yet to materialise, with the youth justice system currently being jointly managed by the punitive Ministry of Justice and the more welfare-based Department of Children, Schools and Families. “There is a very strong tension”, she points out. “You see that when you look at the recent Youth Crime Action Plan” which “is actually something that is very punitive in its tone.”

Janes herself would like to see the Government take a stronger welfare approach to youth justice. In addition she would like custody to be used only “in the absolute last resort”, the age of criminal responsibility to be raised significantly and the Government to fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “What the public want to hear from the Government is that we are dealing with the core problems of these young people through investing in social services, mental health provision and constructive activity, so they are not committing crime.”

Returning to British attitudes towards children in comparison to the rest of Europe, most of all Janes says she “would like to see a culture that takes the liberty of children exceptionally seriously, which is what you see in other countries.”

Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe is available from www.howardleague.org, priced £5.