Saturday, 13 October 2012

The mark of conviction

By Andrew Henley

Michel Foucault remarks in Discipline and Punish that “it is the conviction itself that marks the offender with the unequivocally negative sign”. In the UK, the National Policing Improvement Agency recently stated that there are currently 9.2 million people on the Police National Computer due to a previous conviction for a recordable criminal offence. This staggering statistic equates to roughly one in three men and one in five women in the working age population. The information held by the police on convictions, in addition to other data such as arrest records and ‘soft intelligence’, has been increasingly available for disclosure not only in areas such as employment but even in applications for housing, financial services and travel visas. Having a ‘criminal record’ is therefore hugely problematic for a very sizeable number of people.

Whilst the process of desistance from crime has been shown to involve a distinct shift towards a pro-social identity, being publicly labelled an ‘ex-offender’ will evidently have a conflicting impact on a reformed individual’s sense of self. The labelling of ex-offenders can often be fuelled by media constructions of criminality which can generate negative and stereotypical social views of ‘the offender’ or the ‘ex-con’ which are infused with notions of ‘dangerousness’ or ‘unreliability’. The implications of such crude labels are exacerbated for people with previous convictions by the political climate in which they occur. David Garland has described the gradual abandonment of a more welfare-oriented approach to correctional criminal justice policy in both the UK and US and a move towards a ‘culture of control’ in the late-modern or ‘risk’ society. This culture, he claims, places the risk management and containment of ex-offenders as the new objective of penal policy rather than the successful restoration and social reintegration of such individuals. This trend of ‘othering’ can also be evidenced within contemporary political discourses whereby the ‘safety of the law-abiding majority’ and the ‘rights of victims’ are often invoked to marginalise concerns over the welfare and treatment of ‘offenders’ and - perhaps by extension - ‘ex-offenders’.

In this climate, a criminal record has therefore been likened to a stigma but to date the ‘mark of the conviction’ to which Foucault referred has remained relatively under-researched in the UK when compared to other possible areas of criminological inquiry. My PhD research at Keele University is intended to help address this academic shortfall. Over the next three years, I will be conducting interviews and case studies with members of the award-winning charity UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders. The charity campaigns for greater equality of opportunity for people who have not only served their sentences but crucially have committed themselves to living a life free from crime in the future. I will be exploring questions such as how the stigmatising effects of previous convictions might manifest themselves in everyday social relations and how this impacts on people in terms of their sense of self and emotional well-being.

For a broader look at issues relating to desistance from crime, readers may be interested in the documentary The Road From Crime, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and George Mason University. 

Andrew Henley is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

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