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Public Criminology? A Cool Read on a Hot Topic

By Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime

In a world, like ours, where discourse and policy making concerning crime has "heated up," leaving criminal justice bureaucracies exposed to the raw and often unforgiving politics of crime, what role can criminologists play in producing a better politics of crime? This is the central question that leading UK criminologists Ian Loader and Richard Sparks ask in their important (and short) new book, Public Criminology?.

The title takes off from the vigorous debate within sociology provoked by the interventions of my Berkeley colleague Michael Burawoy on behalf of Public Sociology. But while the book explores the debate and follows its extension among criminologists, it neither remains focused on that debate, nor stakes out a position within its terms. For Loader and Sparks, criminology is always already public since its subject matter, crime, is itself constituted morally, politically, and legally.

But if criminology has always, and often uncomfortably, found itself in close proximity to the state and its political needs, no discussion of the public role of criminology is helpful that does not reckon with the historically specific conditions in which crime and crime policy operate today. The authors point to three central features of the present context of criminology. (1) Unlike in the past when criminal procedures and policies were largely kept within specialist institutions, today talking about and even acting on the problem of crime belongs to a diverse network of actors and agencies concerned with security, some inside the state, but many outside of it. (2) While crime and crime policy where once largely the focus of national institutions and research communities, today both crime and crime control operate transnationally. (3) While crime and crime policy were once only episodically subject to intense attention by the popular media and politicians, this attention is now permanent and central to the fortunes of both, leading to a blistering populist punitiveness that surrounds almost any discussion of crime.

These conditions have produced, what Loader and Sparks evocatively label (borrowing form the current science/politics of climate change) a "heating up" of the climate surrounding discourse and action around crime. Criminology (and law and justice for that matter) now operate in what they call (in Chapter 4) a "hot climate". Public criminology, from this perspective, is not a debate about whether criminologists should try to engage a broader non academic audience, but whether and how criminological knowledge can make more "effective" and "intelligible" contributions in the public sphere given the hot climate in which it operates.

In framing this issue, Loader and Sparks offer a powerful historical, comparative, and sociological analysis of the criminological field that will be of great interest to students and researchers within criminology as well as informed citizens who want to understand the potentials of this loaded science. Notwithstanding the fact that they occasionally claim to be doing something as complicated as "hermeneutics," their prose is readable, jargon free for the most part, and laden with ready to eat or carry away concepts. For example, they offer a brilliantly quick and memorable sketch of contemporary criminology as organized around five existing styles of modes: the scientific expert; the policy adviser, the observer-turned player; the social movement theorist-activist; and the lonely prophet. With far more literary daring than I have, the authors actually expound these positions in first person narratives and later engage in first person discussion with each of these personified styles concerning their own proposal for how criminology can contribute to a better politics of crime. They suggest convincingly that these cover the field reasonably well and one cannot identify a missing position (the closest I came was by flipping the third to derive the "participant turned observer", but this has been a rare if valuable style for example, the late James Fyfe who went from police officer to sociologist, or California's former Secretary of Corrections Jeanne Woodford).

One of the most illuminating sections of the book is chapter 4 where having established that the climate around crime and crime policy is heating up (a view that readers of this blog will have no problem accepting), they examine some of the ways that current criminology seeks to cool it down. Loader and Sparks identify three major cooling devices. One is the tradition of jurisprudential criminology which seeks to emphasize the role of law, rights, and notions of justice in crime control. In effect, this mode of criminology seeks to counter widespread fear of crime with an alternative fear, i.e., that of an encroaching state which demands the surrender of liberty (not to mention dignity) as the price of a problematic promise of security (Lucia Zedner's work has been particularly strong in this mode). Loader and Sparks clearly identify a lot with this strategy (as I do as well). They also usefully link it up to the longer tradition of jurisprudential criminology (my term, not theirs) including the critique of discretion in police sociology of the 1960s and of the legal critique of rehabilitative penology of the 1970s. In the end their major criticism is that this approach fails to adequately account for, or deal with, the conditions that lead to the heating up of the current climate around crime. The appeal to liberty, rights, and strong limits on state power is, in the end, one that has most resonance with elites who do not feel much fear or passion about crime to begin with.

A second cooling device or strategy is the rise of what is often called "evidence based criminology" or sometimes "crime science" (by those who would like to divorce themselves from the longer and more problematic history of criminology, an inclination Loader and Sparks dismiss along with impulses to "passively tolerate" difference or to "take over" criminology which they catalog as part of criminology's anomic internal politics in chapter one). From this perspective, the vulnerability of populist punitiveness with its incessant push for harsher penalties is that it does not work to control crime, at least in a way that is affordable. Criminology, from this perspective, can cool the climate by producing creditable evidence abut what works and what does not. A variation on this approach, concerned with situational crime prevention, is to displace "hot topics" like criminals, victims, and whose to blame, with a cool and dispassionate look at the opportunities that lead to crimes and other untoward events, and the often mundane steps that can be taken to eliminate or at least reduce them. Again, Loader and Sparks are sympathetic to this approach (although they clearly do not identify with it), but argue that the effort to replace politics with "calculation" or instrumental preventive steps, simply ignores that cultural sources of crime politics itself. It assumes that crime simply is what it is, rather than being attentive to how crime is imagined and constituted as a social subject. A good example of this is sex offenders who prey on children unrelated to them. From an evidence point of view, this is really a relatively minor threat and one that almost all current policies do a bad job of reducing, but the shadow cast by such sex offenders on the lives of parents and children has little or nothing to do with the facts, and cannot easily be extinguished with more facts.

Throughout the book, by the way, Loader and Sparks respond to the scientific ambitions of many criminologists in a way that is respectful, illuminating, and in the end, devastating to the pretensions of this ambition. Drawing on the growing field of "science studies," they make the point that the natural sciences are hardly a model for how science can lead rather than be dominated by politics. Indeed the very field from which they draw their "hot climate" metaphor, is a perfect example of how deeply politicized the natural sciences are. This allows Loader and Sparks to accept the ambitions of the crime scientists in a way that only sharpens the significance of their overall analysis of the criminological context.

The final cooling device is the suggestion made by a number of prominent criminologists in both the UK and the US, is that crime policy be insulated from politics through the creation of institutional devices like sentencing commissions, for example, that mediate between politics and policy. The analogy that has been drawn by my colleague Franklin Zimring, is to the role of central banks in insulating monetary policy from populist political demands. Here Loader and Sparks applaud the attention to the role of institutions (which perceives the permanent politics of crime in a way that moves us toward the authors own approach), but caution that the insulators seem to treat this politics as fixed and immutable, rather than something that criminologists can help move. Indeed, I would note that the very analogy drawn with the monetary supply accepts as permanent the extraordinary centrality of crime discourse and policies to contemporary politics and effectively normalizes that.

This brings us to the final chapter and the authors own effort to elaborate a path towards a criminology that can help produce a better politics of crime. What is on offer here is not a new criminological program, nor a particular cooling device, but what they describe as a "sensibility" or a "disposition" that can be shared by all criminologists who recognize and accept the permanence of a political horizon to their subject. For Loader and Sparks, a criminology awake to its public role should seek to be a "democratic under-laborer." The goal of this criminology is quite simply to contribute to a better politics of crime through the production of knowledge in three broad forms: "primary," that is scientific study of crime and crime control (the old expert kind of criminology); "institutional-critical," that is knowledge about how prevailing ways of understanding and acting on crime are produced and reinforced; and "normative" that is knowledge that offers alternative ways of imagining crime. While few criminologists will be at their best in all three (although they list two indisputable greats, John Braithwaite and Anthony Bottoms as examples that this is actually possible, and I would add the late Norval Morris), all criminologists should seek to contribute where they can to all three, and at least cease efforts to define the dimensions they are not good at as irrelevant.

There is much to agree with in this final chapter. Loader and Sparks are continuing, and in my view refining the call made more than a decade ago by the late Stuart Scheingold for a "new political criminology [warning: link may require password authorization]."

I have two objections, one trivial, one more substantive. The trivial point is largely semantic. I couldn't figure out what they meant by "under-laborer" and the image does not leap back to mind even though I think I understand it now. The term comes from the political theorist John Locke, and it presumably underscores Loader and Sparks' notion that criminologists must accept their role as political theorists, but unhelpfully they do not illuminate the metaphor until about half-way through the final chapter. The image is one of "clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish." To be a "democratic under-laborer," as opposed to a technical one, would seem to mean clearing the ground of democratic politics and not simply the academic field of criminology. My substantive objection follows. This is an admirable but it seems to me underwhelming invitation, likely to offend nobody (since almost everyone in criminology can recognize themselves here) but guide few. Moreover, it seems to ignore the fundamental and vital premise which they brilliantly weave throughout the book, that criminology must confront the historically specific context of its public role today in a hot climate. In what era would criminologists, or for that matter any social scientists, not want to be "democratic under-laborers"?

This comes down to the question that the late Johnny Carson used to regularly ask on his Tonight Show, "how hot is it?" My suspicion, informed by wearing a sweater daily in the midst of my first UK summer, is that these fellows do not really appreciate how hot it can get in the USA. For all the efforts of New Labour to mobilize crime fear to its political advantage, British crime policy and discourse remain remarkably more temperate than their American equivalents. Throughout the book the authors speak of "governing crime" as if there remained a real consensus that, at the end of the day, that is what both government and academic criminology care about. But as the title of this blog and my book suggest, both citizens and politicians in the US at least, have become invested in governing through crime. Given that investment, clearing the ground and removing rubbish is both a much more difficult and much more dangerous task than Loader and Sparks seem to imagine.

8/15/2010