Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Public Criminology and Evidence-based Policy

Public Criminology and Evidence-Based Policy

Loader, I. and Sparks, R. (2010) Public Criminology? Criminological Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Key Ideas in Criminology), Routledge


Wacquant, L. (2011) From ‘Public Criminology’ to the Reflexive Sociology of Criminological Production and Consumption, British Journal of Criminology, 51(2), 438-448

A new book from Ian Loader and Richard Sparks aims to provide an incisive synopsis of public criminology today and to provide recommendations for the future. In Public Criminology? the authors pose the question - how can we introduce rational debate to the current political hot potato that is criminal justice policy? Is it possible to depoliticise crime and keep it on the agenda? Is it pessimistic to think that an ideology-free, cross-party interest in progressing thinking on crime is unlikely?

Crime is, of course, one of the issues that everyone tends to claim a certain authority on; ever been robbed, ever been burgled, ever heard a robust exchange of opinions on early release or sentencing? In light of the dominance of the ‘common sense’ mode of thinking on this topic, have the public dispatched with the actual experts as irrelevant?

What constitutes public criminology? Is it the frequent presence of academics on panel shows and news segments? The dearth of public criminologists is perhaps exemplified in a recent Guardian article which proposed a list of 300 public intellectuals in Britain; the list showed the prevalence of novelists, poets and historians– but there were few names on the list directly related to criminology, with only Stuart Hall (Policing the Crisis) appearing, although there were lawyers and legal academics such as Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve. If this book is a state of the nation on public criminology, then the evidence appears to suggest the concept is still largely theoretical.

Loader and Sparks mention possible ‘cooling devices’ which can take the heat out of the debate on crime. One such device is the intriguingly named Crime Science (to compensate for what many see as the tarnished criminology brand, defiled by an original sin of biological positivism). See, for an example, the appeal of crime science in the populist and sentimental naming of the Jill Dando Centre at UCL, an institute which might actually stand a chance of being known by general public.

Loader and Sparks offer a typology of public voices on criminology: the lonely prophet, the observer-turned-player, the policy advisor, the scientific expert and the social movement theorist/activist. A criticism of this classification system is found in Wacquant’s review article, where he writes that this focus on agents ignores the more fundamental issue of structure. The landscape of criminology is changing, he claims, and a review of the emerging institutional map is needed. Wacquant cites the rise of the think tank as an example, institutions which pitch themselves as the meeting place of research and policy while the underlying ideologies of these various think tanks is lost and their research accepted by many as value-neutral.

One question arising is, does this typology of public criminology voices fit Ireland? We do not seem to have the same variety of contributors to debates on crime. Is this heuristic typology actually of any use? Ireland, as ever the exceptional case, would perhaps struggle to field a list of candidates to match each category. This leads to further questioning of the applicability of the book itself. In his blog on the subject, Jonathan Simon claims that Public Criminology? cannot adequately reflect the situation in the US. Comparing the ‘heating up’ of the law and order debate in the UK to that in the US, Simon challenges the authors to realise that the US has stalked regrettably far ahead in terms of the politicisation of crime. So is this a book with relevance only to the UK? And is it even relevant in the UK at the moment? The economic imperative faced globally is having interesting effects on national law and order policy; the moral panics are fading for the present, and the doorstep issues have become the immediacy of employment and assistance for those struggling to cope. Can we really label this environment one which is continually ‘heating up’?

The Differential Association felt that Ireland simply wasn’t experiencing the same politicisation of criminal justice policy as that described in Loader and Sparks’ book, therefore it was felt that there was no need of ‘cooling devices’. However it was felt that engagement with policy formation would definitely be a welcome development, because while we do not appear to have a seething populist mass of punitive feeling on our hands, there are very few academics involved in policy discussion in Ireland.

We felt that this book was an interesting read, likely to provoke debate in criminological circles, yet it remains too slight to tackle its subject-matter. There are burning questions and matters of substance lacking from the text, which it is hoped the authors come back to at a later stage. One of the critical issues is whether the politicisation of crime is really increasing – have developments since this book was written prompted a need for more thinking, and more nuance?

Is it unreasonable or shallow to suggest that criminology departments should engage in better PR and make strenuous efforts to develop contacts in the media if they are serious about becoming public spokespeople? How far should such an academic involvement with communications and PR extend, and would academics be willing to engage with such a system? We should keep in mind that the nature of media reporting often jars with the academic system. The media pundit and expert often require snappy sentiments, large degrees of certitude, along with being expected to provide a controversial interpretation of the debate at hand. Is it possible that criminologists avoid news outlets out of a fear that it could undermine the legitimacy of their work; after years of rigorous research perhaps many criminologists wish to protect their findings from being reduced to a polemic sound-bite?

The role of the media in this is crucial. It was felt that the coverage of criminological seminars and conferences in Ireland was admirable and an improvement on that of the UK.

How are criminologists to engage with policy, and consequently, with the public? Alex Stevens’ article on evidence-based policy offers an ethnographic view of the inner workings of a policy department, and makes compelling reading on a process rarely glimpsed. He writes that many policy-makers expressed the view that frequently the evidence required was just not available to them, and that academics consistently failed to address the questions posed by policy-makers, and subsequently failed to provide practical recommendations – is there an argument for more closely aligning research needs with research output? Obviously there are qualifications here because there should be autonomy in research, but consider the idea of a central database, accessible to academics and university departments, of research currently required by policy units.

How is policy made? In Stevens’ article, he exposed a world reliant on Google, which considered HBO’s The Wire as evidence, stacked with civil servants eager to provide cursory evidence as a means of elevating their status, rather than as a necessary buttress for effective policy. The warning came to civil servants that they should avoid specialisation at all costs, to ensure that they remained of general use rather than offering niche expertise.

In Ireland we appear to favour a pragmatic policy creation approach, identifying what needs doing and moving to do it, without any engagement in larger philosophical discussions. It is difficult to find many ideological pushes in justice legislation in recent years in Ireland (save possibly Michael McDowell’s initiatives while in office). There appears to be a vein of anti-intellectualism running through policy-making and politics in Ireland, or as Martin succinctly put it, we experience a great deal of ‘criminapathy’ in this country.

And now we leave you with yet more questions. Is there an exact definition of a public criminologist? And what is the precise definition of a criminologist, when the public currently attach the label to true crime writers and forensic investigators? In the UK, David Wilson has created a role for himself as a feted ‘celebrity criminologist’, writing and speaking on many of the more sensational crime events, engaging the public attention for the cases which they readily engage with. This is less true of bread-and-butter issues such as penal reform and sentencing, which find it difficult to attract interest once storms of fury evaporate. What, for that matter, is academia for? Does it exist to inform and engage with the public, or to underpin policy, or does it exist as an endeavour in itself?

This blog was written by Lynsey Black and Louise Brangan.

The views expressed in this blog are the authors' alone.

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