Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The DA at the North South Criminology Conference, and what we did there...

The Differential Association are fresh from our excitement of presenting a workshop at the recent North South Criminology Conference on the topic of Irish criminology, what it is, what it can offer, and where we are:

  • Is criminology still the ‘absentee discipline’ in Ireland?
  •  Has Ireland demonstrated a distinctive criminal justice landscape?
  • If so, can it offer insights to wider criminological scholarship?
  • What are the barriers to criminology in Ireland – anti-intellectualism, political apathy, statistical vacuum?

Since the inception of The Differential Association over 18 months ago, we have been intrigued and delighted to read a diverse variety of criminological texts, from classics such as David Garland’s “The Culture of Control” to the emerging theories such as Robert Agnew’s conception of environmental change and its potential impact on crime. In all our discussions we seek to consistently pose certain questions of the texts, namely; can this be applied to the Irish context? The more we asked this question, the more purchase it gained, which ultimately led to the bright idea to discuss this with a wider group in a workshop.

Additionally, we wanted to evaluate the current state of the Irish criminological enterprise. The name of the workshop was a loose play on the recent Loader and Sparks book, Public Criminology? (2011). Our criminological neighbours in Britain often seem to reflect on their discipline – asking what role does criminology have? How can a more influential and productive discipline be encouraged? What is the value of criminology? Contrastingly, in Ireland, when we undertake a similar type of scan it tends to result in lamenting about criminology being Ireland’s ‘absentee discipline’.

We had a genuinely insightful discussion, and were honoured to be joined by such luminaries as Prof. Ian O’Donnell of UCD, Prof. Richard Wright of University of Missouri-St.Louis, Prof. Shadd Maruna of Queen’s University Belfast, Dr. Claire Hamilton, Senator Ivana Bacik and our own stellar DA members and supporters.

In light of the myriad fascinating comments made at the workshop, we decided we would share some of the key issues which cropped up:

Throughout the two-day conference various issues were echoed by a large number of speakers, several of which had previously arisen at DA meet-ups, and seemed to be recurring issues. For example, the lack of statistical data, rendering policy formation something of a grope in the dark.

The feature of localism and the specific social context of a highly integrated society also emerged.  With strong rural networks, Dr. KirstyHudson elaborated the consultation processes to date along with the possible ramifications of sex offender registration and notification in Northern Ireland.  Kirsty emphasised the necessarily differential application of such a scheme to Northern Ireland, changing the template somewhat from that applied in England and Wales.  It was urged that this high degree of connectivity in the community should be utilised to implement a culturally specific and appropriate procedure which played localism as a strength.

On the same panel, Geraldine O’Hare of the Probation Board of Northern Ireland again addressed a recurring issue within Irish criminology, namely the lack of statistical data.  Speaking about the risk assessment of sex offenders, Geraldine informed us that in previous years Ireland and Northern Ireland had lacked their own statistical information on sex offender recidivism rates and comparisons with risk assessment outcomes.  However the implementation of an Ireland-wide ‘stable and acute’ assessment framework is now reducing a reliance on figures from other, often non-comparable jurisdictions, and providing a sound empirical knowledge base from which to plan interventions and responses. In his own presentation, The Differential Association member Martin Quigley, also emphasised the almost whole-sale policy transfer of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 from England and Wales, articulating yet another influencing factor in the Irish criminal justice policy making process.

Turning to culturally specific contexts and how political styles emerge from within, Ian O’Donnell spoke at the launch of his new work with Eoin O’Sullivan, CoerciveConfinement in Ireland, of the impact of ruralism in Ireland, which may have enabled the confinement of the many men, women and children who were deemed of little use to the practical agricultural industry of Ireland historically.  Taking this forward, does this ruralism contribute to a certain and noticeable anti-intellectualism within Irish politics and reflected in society generally?

As has been noted, there is a very short-term focus on pragmatism within policy-making in Ireland, as evidenced in economic decisions for the economic times with no reference to wider ideology.  Does such pragmatism spring from a society concerned with practical problems and eschewing more lofty matters?

Historical context and ripples from it could also be found in the formation of the Irish state and the effect of this on our current criminal justice landscape, such as whether the Irish focus was generally on a front-end conception of the system.  As a state formed with an eye to security issues and which was forced to confront these throughout much of its history, the strengthened powers of the police and the courts were often the key considerations as opposed to back-end issues such as prisons.  What exactly is to be done with security threats once they have been processed through the various organs, found guilty and incarcerated?

Throughout much of the general DA discussion on policy-making too we have repeatedly spoken of the importance of local actors, and of the quicksilver effect that one person with vision or momentum can have, notable examples including the influence of Charles Haughey on the Department of Justice during his time there in the 1960s and the equally driven and energetic work of Michael McDowell during his time in the Department in the 2000s.  We often ask ourselves is it a case of Irish exceptionalism to be particularly susceptible to policy entrepreneurship – and if so why?  We feel this focus on the personalities of policy-creation is a lens which can illuminate much that would otherwise appear, perhaps, natural and explicable through reference to grand international trends.

Working with such questions in mind, Mary Rogan’s new book Prison Policy in Ireland not only illuminates the political, historical and social forces behind Irish prison policy, it is also an insightful contribution to broader penological scholarship and points to new methods of analysing penal change in other jurisdictions.

Another question which arose during the workshop was the power of the lobby and how this directed matters of criminal justice law-making.  Are the various industrial groups another impetus of policy in Ireland, taking into consideration the influence of such groups as the Garda Officers’ Associations and the Prison Officers’ Association.

Other matters of note that were raised at The Differential Association workshop was the distinction of the European tradition versus the US tradition of the location of criminology within universities, which led to the question how does criminological character differ whether criminology as a field is located under the umbrella of law versus sociology, reflecting European and US traditions respectively.  

The positive manoeuvrings in Irish criminal justice at the moment were warmly acknowledged, and bright lights, such as the excellent and sustained work of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.  Turning a possible negative into a definite positive, the point was raised that while Irish criminology may still be underdeveloped, we have at least avoided certain pitfalls by virtue of our nascent character, such as being thrall to administrative concerns and answering only questions posed by Government, as well as the danger of making itself irrelevant.

Criminology may no longer be absentee in Ireland – the regular meetings of the DA, new publications and journals concerned with Irish criminal justice matters, along with the annual Irish Criminology Conference all point to the range and scale of criminological activity.  More practically however, the lack of positions for newly qualified criminology students, and the traditional path of Irish emigration were highlighted as a major concern.  Overall the tone was positive and optimistic, though.  Irish criminology is out of the tracks and is developing in an interesting and possibly distinct way; Irish criminal justice patterns and events – both contemporary and historical – are still in need of much excavation and analysis.  Under these conditions the one thing we are certain of is that Irish criminology can only continue to expand.

This blog was written by Lynsey Black, Louise Brangan and Martin Quigley.

The views expressed are the authors’ alone.

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