Over the past week or so, I have become involved in a number of debates about various topics, during which I have tried to present the case for something other than the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach to criminal justice. This case has largely been rejected, and instead I have personally become the focus of the argument – being attacked for my own personal views and for trying to put across an alternative viewpoint to the politically-driven theory portrayed through the lens of the popular press. I want to take you through just a couple of examples of these attacks.
Case 1: The Arrest of Stuart Hazell
As many of you will be aware, Stuart Hazell was arrested on the evening of 10th August and subsequently charged with the murder of 12-year-old Tia Sharp, who was the grand-daughter of his partner.
Whilst I, just like the majority of rational thinkers, deplore such a heinous crime, I was disgusted at the trial-by-media that ensued. Even before Hazell was arrested, he was being called a “monster” and a “beast” on social networking sites, and, upon his arrest, the hashtag #BringBackHanging was trending on Twitter – with the majority of tweets mentioning Stuart Hazell (and obvious others, such as Soham murderer Ian Huntley).
In the UK, we have a criminal justice system that, in theory, assumes innocence until guilt is proven (or, at least, agreed upon by a jury of your peers). This key point in our constitution, however, seems to be completely disregarded as soon as a particularly disgraceful crime is committed and reported in the mainstream national press. Take the case of Jo Yeates from late 2010. Her landlord, Christopher Jefferies, was widely lauded in the tabloid press as a loner and strange, with these traits being linked subtextually to the idea that he was in some way responsible for her disappearance and, in turn, murder. This was later found to be untrue, with Vincent Tabak being convicted of Jo’s murder – but the damage to Mr Jefferies’ reputation was already done. He was unable to walk the streets of his local area, and was vilified on a national level for a crime he was never involved with – purely on the basis of his eccentric appearance and (what society at large judged to be) strange mannerisms.
So when Hazell was being attacked so vigorously, especially among social networking circles, I felt compelled to argue against this vilification. What I tried to convey was the idea that, although he may later be found guilty of this, a particularly heinous crime, he should not be judged in public and by the media until he is found guilty in a Court of Law. I was not arguing the case that he may be innocent. That would be unwise as I have not had the opportunity to review the evidence (which, admittedly, looks quite compelling at face value).
For debating this issue, particularly when challenging the #BringBackHanging tag being used widely on Twitter, I received the following reply:
“No wonder there’s so many sick murderers around then with softly softly approach”
I’ll address comments like these in more detail further down.
Case 2: Ian Brady – Endgames of a Psychopath
Having watched the recent documentary on the case of Ian Brady, during which I was interested to see that there was a lot of emphasis of the psychopathy of Ian Brady, but very little on his troubled upbringing. Whilst his innate personality probably has more to do with his offending that does his upbringing, it is my feeling that his past should not be discounted as completely useless in trying to understand his crimes (in keeping with my principally psychodynamic approach to understanding behaviour).
Upon checking the social media analysis of the documentary (which was inevitably huge), I was faced with a screen full of hateful tweets and posts deploring Brady and his crimes, and calling for, once again, the reintroduction of capital punishment. One tweet did catch my eye:
I was perplexed by this tweet. Brady has been incarcerated since he was found guilty in 1966 – 46 years ago. He is never going to be released, and would have faced the death penalty if his trial was 12 months earlier. When I queried what was meant, I unknowingly entered into a debate with what felt like the right-wing arm of the supporters club of Scottish football club, Glasgow Rangers. Among the tweets I received over the following 24 hours, included:
“fact is he was convicted and imprisoned for the murder of 5 kids. He took away their lives, his should have been taken by us”
“genuinely if that’s what our future holds with the likes of you and views like that then we are fucked.”
“Very strange view point empathising with child raping sadistic murderers”
“lefties like yourself, would probably give child murderers, community service.”
These tweets hardly came as a surprise, but I felt that it was important to, at the very least, challenge the prevailing view. After all, if nobody questions widely held stereotypes, how are we to progress as a society? What did surprise, and sadden me, was the following message that I received when pointing out the fact that the documentary was skewed in such a way to present psychopathy as a criminal trait:
“Harper u are a fuckin bender n if I ever see ur smarmy wee face in public #UrGettinRipped ya fat puddin”
Make of this what you will, but I believe that this message alone can be used as evidence for the fierce opposition we face as critical thinkers when presenting a balanced, evidence-based argument about criminal justice.
The Call To Arms
What I would now like to see is a more rigorous attempt to push evidence-based criminology into the mainstream. We have for too long been in the background, shouting about our liberal thoughts and academic research from afar. But now is the time to force the political establishment to take this mass of evidence more seriously.
In the UK, we currently have a progressive-thinking Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke. We need to capitalise on this and lobby him to introduce changes to the justice system in line with our research findings (lowering the prison population by dropping short-term sentences, developing and establishing diversion schemes for mentally disordered and intellectually challenged offenders, and allowing low-level offenders to serve their sentences in the community are three key ideas that should be implemented immediately).
But we need to go further.
Firstly, we need to strengthen the identity of our brand of criminology. It should be our aim to establish what we now know to be critical criminology as the gold-standard. It is not enough to simply publish academic papers and tell about our research exploits at conferences with like-minded thinkers – it is time for a more forceful attack on the status quo. This attack needs to go right to the core of right-wing thinking on criminal justice and expose conservativism’s true conceptualisation of crime – a tool to win votes, score political points over their rivals and, in the end, retain political power.
Secondly, we need a more prominent public campaign. At present, we are individuals working against the established schools of thought, where positivism is the order of the day. We should lead the movement to address public attitudes towards crime, justice policy and offenders. The media will be a useful ally in this quest, but getting them on-side will be a tough ask, given their allegiance to various political ideologies. However, a public campaign for change is likely to be the only way of our research findings trickling into mainstream thinking and make our dreams of an evidence-based, and society wide, approach to criminal justice a reality.
So our time has come. We need to seize it with both hands and make our thinking come to fruition. No longer shall we be the laughing stock of criminological thinking in the mainstream press. We need to communicate our ideas in concise, but understandable terms, and make it clear that to explain crime is not to condone it.
Understanding leads to progress, and this is what we strive to achieve!
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