Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Re-imagining the use of criminal records in Europe

By Andrew Henley, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

In the context of the recent, but limited, reforms to the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in England and Wales it is worthwhile considering different approaches to criminal record data which have been taken across continental Europe. To this end, I recently attended the 6th Annual Lecture of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Edinburgh, delivered this year by Professor Elena Larrauri from the Universitat Pompeu de Barcelona. I would like to express my thanks to the Keele University Research Institute for Social Sciences for agreeing to fund my attendance at this lecture as part of my PhD research.

Professor Larrauri notes that the use of pre-employment criminal record screening has increased due largely to a culture of risk aversion and a desire by the public for increased security and protection from what formerly convicted people ‘might do’ in the future. Yet despite this expansion in screening, criminal records have received relatively little attention from academics, with the notable exception of the United States where the availability of conviction data is comparatively widespread.

The expansion of pre-employment screening produces an impact in three areas related to the regulation of criminal record data. Firstly, how much disclosure is acceptable? Do we, for instance, believe that all employers have the right to ask about criminal records or do we take the view that such information should be subject to some sort of privacy controls? Clearly the more risk averse a society becomes, the more likely it is to tend towards the former rather than the latter point of view. Secondly, is the issue of expungement time, or how long it takes for criminal records to become ‘spent’ or ‘sealed’. Again, it is easy to imagine how the length of this period will tend to be dependent upon the level of risk aversion in a society. The third issue relates to which jobs should be subject to pre-employment criminal record screening and formed the main basis of the lecture.

In continental Europe (as opposed to the UK), conviction-based employment screening has often been limited to the public sector and, in particular, roles in the administration of justice such as judges, police and prison officers. Until now little attention has been paid to blanket bans on the employment of people with previous convictions in public administration. But Professor Larrauri posed the question as to whether we should simply accept it as a given that people with a criminal record are automatically excluded from public sector roles. She notes, for instance, that an ‘automatic exclusion’ approach can expand to other roles in public administration including office clerks and ultimately even the gardener who works in the grounds of a public building. Additionally, she highlights the fact that a range of employment has increasingly become subject to forms of occupational licencing meaning that taxi drivers, nightclub door staff and even bingo hall callers have required ‘clean’ records in some jurisdictions.

In relation to private-sector employers, comparatively little information about the extent of criminal records checks is available in continental Europe. However, Professor Larrauri notes that EU directive 2011/92/EU on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children may mark a shift in this position given that it will enable some private employers to ask about previous convictions. She noted, however, that the legislation does not give criminal records a ‘conclusive force’ (telling employers who they may not employ) but rather empowers them to ask about criminal records in some situations. Caution was also expressed that forms of screening brought in to combat sexual abuse can often open the door to screening for violent offences or for any employment which relates to the somewhat ill-defined and broad category of ‘vulnerable adults’.

In order to combat unnecessary discrimination against people with convictions who have served their sentences, two models currently exist. In the ‘spent model’ employers are legally prohibited from considering criminal records after a period of time has elapsed. The problems associated with this however, are in determining what are appropriate ‘expungement times’ and the fate of the ex-offender during this interim period whilst they wait for their conviction to become ‘spent’. In the ‘anti-discrimination model’ employers are advised that they can only exclude people where there is a ‘close nexus’ between the nature of the conviction and the type of employment being applied for – for instance, between fraud and work in the financial sector or between speeding convictions and driving jobs. The issue with this model is that it can often represent a delegation of the power to punish from the state to employers, since the exclusion from employment which results can be seen as a form of punishment in its own right.

Professor Larrauri suggests that, as an alternative to these models, the judicial and legal system should take ownership of criminal records and incorporate them into the process of delivering punishment at the point of sentencing. Given that the purpose in using criminal record data is supposed to be an attempt to reduce risk to the broader public (although it is not firmly established to what extent this data remains predictive of future offending in the long-term), this could mean the imposition of certain occupational disqualifications for an extended period following the end of a sentence. This would mean that certain people would be disqualified from specific occupations rather than all forms of employment. Additionally, such disqualifications would be based on individual assessment rather than blanket bans and would necessarily be time limited rather than indefinite. This is because bringing criminal records into the field of punishment, rather than seeing them as a ‘collateral consequence’ of a conviction, would mean that the usual legal and human rights safeguards associated with punishment (for example, Article 7 of the European Convention – ‘no punishment without law’) would then begin to apply, which currently they do not.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Sociology society supporting the local food bank

Posted by Emma Head

In this post one of our second year students, Nicola Edwards, reflects on the decision the Keele Sociology society made to support the Stoke-on-Trent food bank.

It has become impossible to ignore how the Government’s recent austerity measures have impacted upon local people. The previously comfortable are now facing hardship, the vulnerable are facing desperation. This is the reason the Trussel Trust Food Bank opened in Stoke-on-Trent this May; demand has been so high that an additional food bank opened early November in Newcastle-under-Lyme. In 2010 there were over 16,000 children living in poverty, this was just under 30% of the 0-19year old population. Stoke-on-Trent food bank testify that this has risen dramatically since the Indices of Deprivation report was released in 2011, ranking Stoke-on-Trent 16th in the list of 50 most deprived areas.

Despite such worrying statistics it was the personal stories of those who have experienced poverty that touched the newly formed Keele Sociology Society. After discussing how I had experienced needing to skip meals as a new mum ten years ago, due to rent and childcare costs higher than my wages, and hearing the stories told by Amy who volunteered with her local food bank and had seen first-hand why so many had to turn to their food bank for support, we knew as a group we had to do something.

Spurred in to action we visited the food bank and the society set to work arranging a two day collection on campus at Keele. All of the committee members rallied around to raise awareness of the food bank and the society’s food drive while society members showed their commitment to such a worthy cause by enthusiastically collecting in the freezing cold, volunteering their time and donating food. Together we collected 421 items of food and £53 in spare change (given to the food bank for when supplies of a particular item are low). Each food parcel supplies 3days food and would cost in the region of £28. Our donation will go towards feeding around 30-40 people for 3 days this winter. A small dent when you consider the food bank has already given out over 2000 food parcels, feeding approximately 6000 people since May. However, the food bank relies upon donations and volunteers only. Our collection, plus others like it in schools, churches, and supermarkets, is what makes the service possible and simply enables those most vulnerable to eat.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Keele Santander Research Scholarship for Spanish Graffiti Project

Dr Andy Zieleniec, lecturer in Sociology and Media Communication and Culture, has been awarded a £5000 Keele Santander Research Scholarship for his project on the Paradox and Playfulness in Spanish Urban Street Art.

Through the scholarship Andy will make site visits to Spain’s three largest cities, (Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia) to conduct ethnographic research and record the various styles, role and function of contemporary graffiti and to develop relationships with academics, artists and writers interested in this area of urban and cultural research.

The Santander grant will allow Andy to focus on the particular and specific experience of graffiti in some selected Spanish cities. Spain has a long history of wall art in the form of political murals and sloganising dating back to the Civil War and this has been carried through to the present day.
Graffiti, ‘writing on walls’ is as old as the architecture and buildings it appears on. There is a long history of people leaving signs of their passing in all ancient cultures, from the Pyramids, Hadrian’s Wall, the Parthenon and Constantinople. 

 However, from the 1960s and 1970s graffiti has been associated with urban youth culture and the politics of new social movements.
The influence of graffiti writers in Philadelphia and New York in creating new styles, using new techniques and materials and also of colonising more and more spaces in the city has become a global phenomenon. Graffiti in its many forms is now commonplace in cities across the world. It decorates or defaces, depending on your point of view walls across the world.
Graffiti can be considered a blight on the face of the modern city or it can be considered as the opportunity for disenfranchised predominantly urban youth to express themselves.

Alternatively graffiti is an art form that is exhibited in art galleries and bought and sold for large sums of money in auction houses around the world.  

The aim of the research is to apply theoretical perspectives on the production of urban space (Simmel, Lefebvre, Harvey etc.) to analyse how graffiti can be understood as acts of intervention and active engagement in the cityscape that resists the dominant discourses and approaches of planning and urban design by (mis)using and appropriating space.
That is, graffiti is an everyday practice and subcultural that changes the way we see, read and experience the city.
How we think about who has the power to design, plan, build and regulate the city impacts on who can use or shape everyday environments with their own input and use.
This ‘reading of the city’ through the signs and symbols written and painted on its building and streets reflects claims and demands for a more inclusive understanding of urban experience that prioritises a more democratic and inclusive ‘right to the city’, and one that emphasis an aesthetics of play, fun, humour, etc. instead of merely acts of anti-social vandalism.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Human Studies - Special issue on Transcendence and Transgression

by James Hardie-Bick

Ronnie Lippens (Criminology) and James Hardie-Bick (Sociology) have guest edited a special issue of Human Studies. This collection brings together a series of papers that explore the twin notions of transcendence and transgression. The collection includes three papers from our school. James Hardie-Bick explores the work of Ernest Becker on the nature of evil, Tony Kearon’s paper is on the bourgeois transcendent self and Ronnie Lippens' paper outlines three images of radical sovereignty in the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Paul Rebeyrolle.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Diogenes in Uruguay


Mark Featherstone

After spending the last few weeks watching austerity matches and riots across Europe and reading about the situation in Greece which has catapulted the far right group Golden Dawn into the political mainstream, I came upon a story about Uruguay’s peasant president, Jose Mujica, that makes startling reading for anybody who has grown cynical about the incestuous relationship between political power and money in Britain, Europe, America, China, and pretty much everywhere else. This cynicism is, of course, well founded because the core principle of neo-liberalism, the political-economic ideology introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s / early 1980s, is that political freedom is inseparable from economic freedom. In other words, in a functioning democracy, the individual’s main concern, and main way of expressing themselves, should be economy. Elections are, thus, elections concerned with economy, rather than any abstract principles about social justice or such like. This is how it is today. In the west, at least, we imagine that democracy and capitalism are inseparable.

In reality this does not quite work out because the result of too much economic freedom or what we might call, following the late Andrew Glyn, capitalism unleashed, is a profoundly undemocratic turn caused by the need to manage increasing levels of inequality and unrest. This is the case because capitalism produces inequality and, in the dark days of contemporary capitalism, little sense that a belief in the modernising aspect of capitalist economics will ever really deliver the good life for the majority. Instead, what we have today is a majority who no longer believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and a minority who desperately and cynically cling to the fantasy that capitalism can work for everybody because it has worked for them and made them extremely rich off the backs of the labour of the poor and those living in a state of endless precariousness where poverty is always potentially just around the corner. In the face of this condition, democracy is not really an option, as the Greek situation has shown. Instead, what is required is a bureaucratic, authoritarian, brand of capitalism organised and run by technocrats who have absolutely no sense of political theory or ethics, but a good working knowledge of Machiavelli and the other classic theorists of power and manipulation. Contemporary China is the classic example of this shift, which involves the separation of capitalism and democracy and the new marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism, and this is why many commentators now speak about the Beijing, rather than Washington consensus.

How, then, does this relate to Mujica, president of Uruguay? The reason Mujica is such an interesting, and important, figure is because he flies in the face of the conventional, and cynical, wisdom which says that today, under conditions of neoliberal globalisation, capitalism and democracy, money and politics, are inseparable, and that no politician can see further than the obsession with economy – profit and growth are essential to the good society. According to this model, we cannot be happy unless we are labouring, making money, spending money, and living the good capitalist life. Mujica shuns this life. As the BBC report, he lives on a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and looks after cattle with his wife. He donates most of his salary to charity, drives an old VW beetle, and spends time with a three legged dog. Explaining his outlook on life, Mujica reflects upon the 14 years he spent in prison because of his membership of the communist guerrilla group, the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement. He explains that he was forced to live a more basic life and that he grew to see that one does not need to be a consumer. Indeed, he notes that this is impossible for most of the world, because the American consumer society model is completely unsustainable as a global socio-economic model.  This, then, is a politician who is absolutely not part of a global technocratic elite who cannot see beyond the idea of growth and the expansion of capitalism. On the contrary, I think the Mujica is the model of a new, more, humble politician, a man who stands outside of the cynical western elites, and is willing to point to a new more sustainable, human, future. He is absolutely not trapped by the old Thatcherite logic, There is No Alternative!

In this respect, Mujica’s story reminds me of the story of the Ancient Greek kynic Diogenes, who was famously called Diogenes the Dog for his simple living habits, and because he set up house in a barrel. According to the German writer Peter Sloterdijk, who has written a biography of Diogenes, he lived in a barrel and was called a Dog because he behaved like an animal. Does this mean, then, that Diogenes was an uncivilized beast? Perhaps, but this is not really Sloterdijk’s point, nor the value of thinking about Mujica, because the real beasts of contemporary society are us, the masses who are wedded to the infernal cycle of production and consumption which means that we never do anything, but simply reproduce the conditions of life. I cannot live without my luxuries, so I must work all hours God sends in order to keep myself in this situation. This is truly a natural condition, a metabolism, because we have no time to do anything other than work and shop. By shunning this life-style, what Diogenes offered, and Mujica offers, is ironically a vision of a more human life, where we have time to think, and live, without feeling like the end of the world is just around the next corner.

It is, of course, not easy to do this, and break away from the capitalist metabolism. As Sloterdijk explains, the opposite of the Ancient kynic, who basically walks away from the society that turns him or her into a beast of burden, is the contemporary cynic, who knows how bad things are but continues to behave in the same way anyway, simply because that’s how it is, and what one does. We follow the plan, because there is no other plan. But I think that now, under conditions of austerity riots and a general state of disbelief about the value of capitalism in realising people’s hopes for the future, we stand somewhere between Sloterdijk’s cynics and kynics. On the one hand, people know things are very bad, that capitalism does not work, and so on, but they are carrying on regardless, but on the other hand, they realise something must change, that the world needs to be organised along more human, sustainable, lines, simply because the alternative to doing nothing, and cynically carrying on may be complete social, political, and ecological devastation. This is, then, the question, today – cynically keep going, or leap into the unknown? Who would have thought that the answer to this most pressing of questions would reside with a contemporary Diogenes living on a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Montevideo who would, I’m sure, absolutely reject the view that he has anything particularly learned to say about the problem of contemporary global society?