Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The whole-life sentence and ‘playing to the gallery’

By Andrew Henley, PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced today that people who kill police officers should face a mandatory whole-life sentence without the possibility of parole. May’s rationale for imposing this sentence is that: "To attack and kill a police officer is to attack the fundamental basis of our society. We ask police officers to keep us safe by confronting and stopping violent criminals for us. We ask them to take risks so that we don't have to. That is why I am clear that life should mean life for anyone convicted of killing a police officer.” The chairman of the Police Federation has endorsed May’s proposal stating that: "There is no hierarchy when it comes to victims of murder, however police officers risk their lives on a daily basis confronting danger on behalf of others. Would-be offenders must know that they will receive the most severe penalty possible." Since the abolition of the death penalty in 1998 and its effective cessation in 1965 with the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, the whole-life sentence has been the maximum penalty which the courts in this country can impose. Recipients of this severe punishment are usually those convicted of multiple counts of murder and the list of prisoners with a whole-life term reads like a roll call of the most horrific serial killings in British legal history.

At the heart of today’s political statements are firmly held beliefs in the notion of a ‘social contract’ between citizens and the state and an understanding of criminal behaviour as being based on some sort of rational calculation of the costs and benefits of committing an offence (“Would be offenders must know…”). The basis of a ‘social contract’ is formed on the idea that individuals can only be legitimately bound to a society if they have given their consent to the way in which it is arranged. This theory thus views as ‘crimes’ those transgressions which breach the social contract and which are therefore justifiably met by the state (on behalf of citizens) with some form of punishment as a deterrent from criminal behaviour. The idea that the murder of a police officer is to “attack the fundamental basis of our society” therefore derives from the notion that an attack on a police officer is the same thing as an attack on the state itself – the act of murder being elevated by the Home Secretary’s words from one of (severe) interpersonal harm into a virtual act of treason - a crime against the government, against Her Majesty no less!

Yet the populist stance of the Home Secretary fails to consider a number of critical factors which might suggest that ‘whole-life terms for cop killers’ are not such a sensible idea. Firstly, the imposition of such a sentence suggests that there is no worse crime possible in law. So the murder of one police officer gains equity with all the crimes of Ian Brady, Harold Shipman or Fred and Rosemary West respectively. Questions would then inevitably follow as to whether the murder of one police officer (however horrific) can really be equated to the murder of a suspected 215 people as in Shipman’s case. Without the reintroduction of the death penalty, there would simply be no higher sanction available to the courts to enable them to communicate the gravity of an offence – the discretion over minimum terms currently enables judges to do this.

Secondly, and contrary to the claims of the Police Federation chair, such a policy does unwittingly create a hierarchy of victimisation. If a whole-life term becomes mandatory for killing a police officer, why not for a nurse, or a school teacher, or a member of the armed forces or a child…or a vulnerable elderly person (I think you can see where this is going). Before long, demands would be made for whole-life sentences for all murders thus guaranteeing a further bloating of the prison population as lifers cease to be released on licence supervision. The notion that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’ is also somewhat undermined if (to paraphrase Orwell) ‘some members of the public are deemed more equal than others’.

Thirdly, whole-terms might have the effect of not only extinguishing all hope of eventual release amongst those sentenced, but also removing any disincentives to further offending whilst in prison. This could have the effect of endangering prison staff and other inmates as lifers with nothing to lose see no additional consequences to settling prison disputes with violence. Currently, decisions of the parole board on whether or not to release a life-sentenced prisoner on licence must pass the ‘threat to life and limb’ test. Most lifers are fully aware that their success before a parole board is largely contingent on behaviour in prison and progress in the eyes of personal officers and prison psychologists.

Finally, May should consider the lessons of history from one of her Conservative predecessors as Home Secretary, when it comes to making pronouncements about suitable punishments. Home Secretaries once had the discretion to set the minimum terms of those sentenced to life. Following the murder of James Bulger and other cases politicians were stripped of this power and minimum terms (or ‘tariffs’) are now set by judges. Michael Howard (later accused of “institutionalised vengenance” and “playing to the gallery”) had increased the minimum terms of Bulger’s killers due to public pressure and tabloid campaigning. It would seem that appropriate sentencing is best not left in the hands of politicians alone and despite May’s rhetoric, any decisions on changes to mandatory sentences will (rightly) be considered by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

The loss of any public servants in the line of duty is undoubtedly tragic and emotive, and cases such as the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky and more recently those of PC’s Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes are no exception. Yet the mobilisation of a harsher penal policy in their name is hardly a fitting legacy to their courage and dedication to duty. It is at best misguided and at worst a cynical act of populism intended to distract from significant cuts to the policing budget and the pay and conditions of officers.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Chinese Dystopias

By Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology

Over the course of the last couple of years I have extended my work of utopian and dystopian thought into the study of Chinese utopias and dystopias. Apart from work on the utopian, and dystopian, dimensions of the contemporary Chinese city, I have also explored the idealistic aspects of Chinese philosophy. At today’s Sociology seminar, I presented my latest paper on the recent Chinese dystopia, The Fat Years, entitled 'Chinese Bulimia: Utopian and Dystopian Bodies in Chinese Thought'. In this paper I seek to explore Chan Koonchung’s novel, The Fat Years, in the context of Chinese history. In the first part of the article I seek to situate the book in the history of western dystopias, such as We, 1984, and Brave New World, which imagine the individual being annihilated in the totalitarian city, before exploring it in its original Chinese context. Here, I show how the Chinese context of The Fat Years translates the western dystopian contrast of the alienated individual and totalitarian city into the problem of the obese, stuffed, body and the excessive post-modern city. In this case, near future Beijing. Closer to the capitalist dystopia of Brave New World than the totalitarian fantasies of We and 1984 because of the ways in which it connects domination to the drugged body, the horror of The Fat Years resides in the story of the creation of a city of self-satisfied consumers under the influence of MDMA. Here, the population of Beijing is controlled through consumption, ecstasy, and the state-management of metabolism. However, while this capitalist horror story is familiar enough to western readers of Huxley and Burroughs who similarly explored the junky body, my argument is that this focus on metabolism is also particularly Chinese.

In order to explore the Chineseness of The Fat Years, I read the ideas of metabolism, consumption, and obesity through a discussion of Gang Yue’s book, The Mouth that Begs, which draws on Foucault’s theory of bio-politics and Bordo’s work on the corporeal economy. For Gang Yue it is possible to understand Chinese history through the problem of hunger, starvation, and the need to find food. In his view, the history of China is the history of metabolism and the economy of the body, and we are encouraged to think about dystopia in terms of the bio-political horror of the starved body. But while this thesis may be appropriate to understanding ancient China, or the China of Mao and the Great Leap Forward which starved over 40 million peasants, it is not sufficient for understanding contemporary neoliberal China and particular neoliberal urban China. Here, I refer to The Fat Years, and argue that what it says about contemporary China is that the problem of Chinese bio-politics is no longer simply the starved body, but also, and more especially the obese, self-satisfied, body that means that body politics become impossible. In this context, the obese body, wallowing in luxury and the ecstasy of consumption, is no longer able to sympathise with the condition of the starved, wasted, body that is simply its miserable other. The reason for this is that the stuffed, full, body has no lack. It cannot possibly identify with the starved, empty, body that is nothing but lack.

Exploring this situation, I argue that the true problem of the obese body of The Fat Years is that its self-satisfaction precludes any kind of bio-political challenge and leads it to abandon the starved body to the horror of famine. My suggestion is that it is possible to find this condition in contemporary China today, which is divided between a post-modern neoliberal elite and a rurban lumpenproletariat which exists on the very edge of survival. Given the bare life of the Chinese worker, the lumpenproletariat who labours onto starvation and death for the sake of the Chinese economic miracle, and the self-satisfaction of the stuffed body of the new Chinese middle class, which is incapable of recognising otherness, I argue that China has been able to imagine that it has arrived in a Confucian utopian future conditioned by balance and harmony. Against this view, I suggest that The Fat Years tells the dystopian truth of contemporary Chinese neoliberalism by exposing the horror of a bulimic system absolutely divided between two classes characterised by on the one hand, unproductive consumption, and on the other hand, nonconsuming production. Finally, situating The Fat Years in the context of two events, the CCPs ban on literature concerned with science fiction, utopia, and time travel, and the mass suicides at the Foxconn factories which make Apple gadgets for the western market, I argue that contemporary Chinese society may be seen as a kind of fantastical utopia of being rich in the process of becoming a horrible dystopia of conflict, poverty, and starvation in a global capitalist system on the very edge of collapse.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Motoring offences clampdown: are we all fine now?

By Helen Wells, Lecturer in Criminology

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has announced that fines for a variety of motoring offences will rise from £60 to £90. Offences covered by the increase included speeding, driving through a red light and using a hand held mobile device. Interestingly, the offence of careless driving (for which a new fixed penalty is proposed) was couched in terms of behaviours that we can probably all recognise: cutting up other drivers, eating a sandwich or lighting a cigarette at the wheel, driving at an inappropriate speed and needlessly hogging the middle lane on a motorway. What is not so immediately recognisable is the legal definition of any of these behaviours, which all require some degree of interpretation. No doubt, however, the choice of these irritating activities is deliberate and is likely to appeal to motorists who often criticise the behaviour of other motorists whilst defending their own activities which they view as comparatively more minor or insignificant.

Current reporting of the announcement in the media has, perhaps surprisingly, focussed on the enforcement of the offence of using a mobile phone while driving – not on speeding. Even the Daily Mail opted to use the word ‘safety’ in its headline (and did not put it in its usual sceptical “scare-quotes”) and seemed to support the need for more enforcement to ensure that these new penalties and offences have the desired effect. Seemingly, there is more of a consensus from motorists that mobile phone use is a genuine and legitimate focus for police attention, although at first glance the offence does show several similarities with speed limit violations. How might we explain this differential reaction then?

Research into the criminal histories of motoring offenders has focussed on ‘serious’ traffic offenders (drink drivers, dangerous drivers, disqualified drivers) so we are unable to comment on whether or not mobile phone users are ‘real’ criminals in off road contexts (as ANPR research tells us those without insurance, tax or MOT tend to also be) or whether they are more likely to be otherwise law-abiding individuals, but my money would be on the latter. Both the offences of speeding and mobile phone use are ones that can be, and are, committed by the ‘ordinary’ driver. They are the sort of behaviour that a ‘law-abiding’ driver might drift into, and out of, without too much malign intent. Of course, the level of intent and the level of harm are not correlated and even the smallest lapses in attention can lead to some catastrophic results, but persuading the public of this is not easy. No wonder, perhaps, when recent central government guidance on road safety advocates a ‘twin track’ approach to offending that reflects the fact that some drivers have ‘lapses’ (and need education) while OTHERS ‘cause significant harm’ (and should be punished). So how come the 400+ comments offered to the Daily Mail site on this story (at the time of writing at 2pm on the day the story came out) are broadly supportive of the crackdown on mobile phone use when they are so noticeably less so when it comes to stories about speeding and speed cameras?

Well, the research basis for the two offences does not provide many answers to this question. The legitimacy of enforcing against both types of offences is supported by a growing research base that links the behaviour to an increase risk of a crash occurring. For some reason, this seems to be believed more in one case than the other. Whilst suggestions that speeding is responsible for 1/3 of road crashes continue to be challenged, the findings that mobile phone use reduces the drivers’ attention by in excess of 70% seem to be more readily believed, and were even quoted supportively in public responses to the story on both The Guardian and the Daily Mail websites.

Perhaps, then, it is explained by the prevalence of the offence. Whilst research suggests that almost all drivers speed at some point, perhaps we are not all as inclined to pick up our mobile phone whilst driving. Perhaps this is simply because our phone may not be to hand in the way that the accelerator is to foot, or perhaps we are all more receptive to new road safety messages than old ones. Perhaps exceeding the speed limit has been positively reinforced by years, even decades, of ‘getting away with it’, and mobile phone use while driving has yet to become such a habit.

Perhaps, in the end, it is all down to drivers simply wanting to get where they want to go. The peculiar thing about speeding is that, if another driver is doing it, and gets away with it (by which I mean does not cause a crash) then we may consider that they have assisted our passage to our destination by not holding us up. It is slow drivers that more often come in for criticism, in my research experience – something perhaps alluded to in the DfT announcement about a crackdown on inappropriate speed. Another driver using their mobile phone, however, produces no benefit to anyone else in terms of keeping traffic moving, and (I’m talking from my own experience of observing phone-using drivers here) is more likely to be left at a junction with us sitting impatiently behind, veering across onto our side of the road or hampering our progress in some other way. As such, we may support enforcement attempts that problematize what they are doing at the expense of our freedom of movement.

Unlike speed limit infringements, detecting people using their mobile phones at the wheel is going to require humans. It will not be a case of automated enforcement clicking driver after driver and generating fine after fine at relatively low cost. Perhaps, given a context of declining traffic officer numbers phone-using drivers just don’t foresee a clampdown in this area as posing them much of a problem.

POSTSCRIPT: FORTHCOMING PhD STUDENTSHIP OPPORTUNITY: Do the issues raised in this blog interest you? Are you looking for the opportunity to conduct research in this area? Well read on. The DfTs announcement, as reported, failed to make any reference to educational alternatives to fixed penalties although the 2011 Strategic Framework for Road Safety suggested that education programmes would feature heavily in future activity and early research shows that they have some success in changing attitudes. In an era when any proposals to target driving offences are met with calls of ‘revenue raising’, alternatives that do not contribute to central or local funds have been popular with drivers and enforcers alike. Offering the driver an opportunity to learn from their mistake and to modify their behaviour may be viewed as a fairer alternative to the fixed level fine and, crucially in the case of Speed Awareness Courses offers the driver the chance to avoid the really unpopular aspect of the penalty – the endorsement points. Just such an alternative specifically aimed at changing attitudes to mobile phone use amongst those caught offending in this way operates in Staffordshire and preliminary research into its effectiveness suggests cause for optimism. A PhD studentship, funded jointly by Keele University and Staffordshire Police, and looking into the longer term effects of such a course will begin shortly, so if the issues in this posting are of interest to you, watch this space for information on an exciting opportunity in this area!