31-Dec-20 Criminal Conduct Authorisations

Photo by EVG Culture from Pexels

On 24 September 2020, the Government introduced the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill 2019-21. The Government explained the Bill rationale as follows:

Undercover operatives and agents play a crucial role in preventing and safeguarding victims from the most serious crimes, including terrorism and child sexual abuse. In order to gain the trust of those under investigation, there are occasions where they need to participate in criminality themselves. This is a longstanding capability which remains critical for national security.

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill provides a clear and consistent statutory basis for a limited number of public authorities to continue to authorise participation in criminality, in carefully managed circumstances.

The publication on 24 September 2020 was the ‘first reading‘ and is simply the Bill being published as a House of Commons paper for the first time. The Bill completed its passage through the Commons on 15 October 2020 and had its second reading on 11 November 2020. The second reading is the opportunity for MPs to debate the general principles and themes of the Bill. The Bill then moves to Committee stage, where detailed examination takes place. Committee stage for the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill (referred to here going forward as CHIS) began at the end of November with latest amendments tabled on 11 December 2020.

The notes to the Bill make clear that participation in criminal activity by police, MI5 agents and others “is not new activity”. Rather the aim of CHIS is to put “existing practice on a clear and consistent statutory footing […] It is a continuation of existing practice that is currently authorised using a variety of legal bases”. The concern is therefore not whether criminal participation is appropriate in principle – this seems accepted – but how it should be authorised and what the boundaries of that criminality should be.

In popular culture, our common (albeit fictitious) reference point for British agents involved in nefarious activity abroad is Fleming’s James Bond. James Bond worked for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the government agency charged with protecting the UK from overseas threats. A Guardian article published 15 December 2020 reveals that an MI6 agent had likely breached ‘red lines’ in the field, despite warning. Only after this was flagged by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) in their 2019 report, did MI6 update the Foreign Office. MI6 can seek authorisation for an agent’s activities under section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act. This section allows British agents operating abroad to break any law without fear of prosecution in the UK if they have the written permission of the foreign secretary of the day (Guardian, 15 Dec 2020). CHIS focuses on UK-based activity.

Under CHIS, the details of which crimes are authorised would not be made public, to protect the undercover officer, and a senior judge would report on how the power is used, with no role for the Crown Prosecution Service. The intelligence agencies, NCA, police, HMRC, HM Forces and ten other public authorities would be able to authorise criminal conduct in the UK. Agents would be required to do only what is necessary and proportionate and not to breach the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), which mandates the government to protect life.

Some MPs and human rights organisations, such as Reprieve, would like the government to explicitly state that killing and torture cannot be subject to Criminal Conduct Authorisation (though in principle, that should be covered by the Government’s HRA obligations). However, it is not clear why these acts have been singled out from others: the authorisation of rape, sexual abuse and grievous bodily harm (other than through torture) would also be reprehensible.

Indeed, in the Lords debate on the Bill on 10 December 2020, the scenario of an undercover police officer working as part of a county lines gang is discussed. In the example given, the officer is asked to stab a teenage gang member as a punishment for gang indiscipline. If the officer does not do it, their cover may be blown and their life in danger. For this reason, former front-line detective Lord Davies of Gower proposes that authorisation after the criminal act may, in certain circumstances, be appropriate, since it is not always possible to predict the situations in which an agent may find themselves. Other peers express misgivings about post hoc authorisation. Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for example, argues:

While I share the sentiment that we would not want undercover operatives to be placed in difficult positions simply for acting in the public interest, none the less, one of the key components in the present arrangement is control. The authorising officer must have confidence that proper thought has been given to the consequences of the authorisation, and we do not believe that an after-the-fact analysis, when the activities were not under the control of the public authority, should be retrospectively authorised where an authorisation has such an important legal effect (Vol. 808, Col. 1356).

The CHIS debate raises important questions about undercover work more broadly – the harms related to organised crime or surveillance activity subjects, including victims and low-level perpetrators, as well as to the individual officer. How do we weigh these against the collection of evidence which may prevent future harm?

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, announced by the then Prime Minister Theresa May in 2015, was established to investigate:

  • Module One: Examination of the deployment of undercover officers in the past, their conduct, and the impact of their activities on themselves and others.
  • Module Two: Examination of the management and oversight of undercover officers, including their selection, training, supervision, care after the end of an undercover deployment, and the legal and regulatory framework within which undercover policing was carried out.
  • Module Three: Examination of current undercover policing practices and of how undercover policing should be conducted in future. (Source: ucpi.org.uk)

Unfortunately, dates are still to be announced for Module Three, an element of the Inquiry that could have directly informed CHIS.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry was established to investigate policing practice in England and Wales from 1968. Of particular public concern were the activities of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was involved in monitoring mainly left-wing political groups and causes. Some officers were involved in long-term relationships with around 30 women as part of their cover. Undercover officer Bob Lambert, fathered a child with his partner, an animal rights campaigner, before disappearing when his deployment ended (BBC, November 2020). 

Police identify undercover work as essential to fighting crime, yet the harms – experienced and perpetrated – by undercover work are wide-ranging, particularly for those who are ‘undercover advance operatives‘. These are individuals who are “trained to undertake deployments involving higher-level infiltrations and [who] must be able to withstand intense scrutiny from anyone who may be suspicious” (College of Policing, 2016).

It is hard to imagine the psychological toll of lived deception, committing acts alien to one’s conscience, and the constant risk of exposure and resultant harm, perhaps death. More worrying perhaps, if these experiences have no emotional impact.

We ask much of those employed to keep us safe – police, army, intelligence operatives, private security or detection – but strong oversight should ensure their safety and the safety of others. Since the information on specific cases is so often redacted or learnt piecemeal through the media, it is difficult for the public and politicians to understand exactly the possible scenarios and assess the benefits and risks of undercover work. In addition, the picture is fast-moving, with past evidence becoming obsolete as technology, context, threats and modus operandi change.

Rather than focus on criminal conduct authorisations in isolation, the public and those employed undercover deserve a more expansive and transparent framework for covert operations, including mechanisms for scrutiny, lesson-learning, redress and long-term support, where required. Too often, ‘national security’ or ‘threat to life’ are a convenient roadblock. If the Government (or private companies) cannot define the harms and benefits of undercover work, or cannot establish some key public principles, or cannot acknowledge that accountability for harm resides with the employer, not the employee, then they should not be placing agents in the field.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

8-Nov-20 Containment

snapwiresnaps.tumblr.com/ @PEXELS

This week with my first year Criminology students, we are looking at protest and resistance through art and we have been reading, amongst other things, about border walls.  From the Berlin Wall to the Derry walls, from the US-Mexico border to the West Bank wall, border walls are sites where people have come to protest, to risk their lives in crossing, and to express their emotion through painting, graffiti and sculpture.  While walls have been used for millennia by groups seeking physical protection from attack, today, Carter and Poast (2015) argue, wall construction is predominantly about economic security. 

With walls on the brain, it was interesting timing then to read the story about students at the University of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus who woke on Thursday to find two-metre metal barriers being erected around their accommodation.  The fencing was designed to bar entry between different blocks and therefore inhibit household mixing during lockdown.  The University had however failed to consult or inform the students of this before the fences went up.

Like students around the country, Manchester students had been encouraged to come to University to study.  As is inevitable in close quarter accommodation, thousands of students across the UK have contracted COVID-19.  While students had been promised blended learning – a mix of face-to-face and online teaching – the reality has been that many have not been able to attend campus because they are in the loop of recurrent periods of self-isolation as contacts and flatmates test positive or are awaiting test results.

We know now that in September 2020, independent SAGE advised against the movement of millions of students to universities, expect where students were doing practice or lab-based courses where attendance was critical.  The scientific advisory group advocated a remote learning model until we were, as a nation, in a position of being able to manage the virus better.

But universities were concerned about losing accommodation income and having to offer fee reductions if students were advised to study from home in the Autumn term.  Universities today are much like any large corporation: as well as teaching and research and a large staffing complement, they invest heavily in capital infrastructure – beyond just classrooms and labs, but in study centres, community engagement and business incubation spaces, sport and wellbeing, social spaces – and they invest in developing relationships around the world to solicit fee-paying overseas students. 

Most institutions clearly felt that seeking to manage the COVID risk on campus, rather than at a distance, would reduce their economic risk.

Some have used the language of wellbeing to justify their approach.  Mental health and wellbeing are critical issues amongst this generation of young people, as well as elsewhere in the community.

Yet, the ‘carry on despite COVID’ approach has not enhanced wellbeing, as the experience of Manchester and other students shows.  As young people found themselves stuck in accommodation – in a new environment, with people they didn’t know well –  they posted up amusing yet poignant signs with post-its and paper: ‘HMP MMU’; ‘Students not Criminals’; ‘Send Drink’ and ‘9k 4 What?’ 

Now under lockdown 2.0, universities have been allowed to continue teaching on campus, though “they should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”. Within this grey zone, staff are therefore required under contract to teach on campus as normal, even where learning could be online. Students have been told not to go home

I was struck this evening by Michelle Obama’s tweet celebrating the victory of President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris.  She said that they would “restore some dignity, competence, and heart at the White House” [my emphasis]. 

There was no governance rulebook for COVD-19 and mistakes were inevitable.  We are all great armchair critics.

What has been lacking however, is the heart to acknowledge and learn quickly from mistakes and the heart to recognise the human (as well as the economic) impact of decision-making.

Rather than keeping out intruders, the Fallowfield fences were meant to contain the COVID risk and therefore the economic risk to the University. Over the day on Thursday, University of Manchester senior management realised their mistake and promised to remove the fencing.  What had seemed a good technical fix in a management team meeting, likely looked rather different from student mobile footage of the site, broadcast on national media.

By the evening, students had taken the matter into their own hands and torn the fences down. 

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 


Carter, D. B. and Poast, P. (2017) ‘Why Do States Build Walls? Political Economy, Security, and Border Stability’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(2), pp. 239–270. doi: 10.1177/0022002715596776.

27-Oct-20 Body Snatchers

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

In a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (2003 [1859], Penguin), there is a character called Jeremiah (“Jerry”) Cruncher, who is a porter at Tellson’s Bank in London. Reading the book last year, it took me a while to twig the nature of the business that he and his young son engaged in at night. We know that Jerry carries something on his conscience as he is enraged and violent each time his wife takes to praying on her knees. He is in fact a body snatcher or ‘resurrection man’.

Initially employed by anatomists in the 18th and 19th centuries who required bodies for dissection, body snatchers exhumed the bodies of the recently dead. They were grave robbers. As the number of teaching centres and hospitals grew, so did their trade.

In 1752, Parliament passed the Murder Act which allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be made available for dissection, rather than public display. However, the demand for bodies was unsated and grave robbers interestingly operated in a grey zone: human corpses were not legal property so could not be stolen or owned, as such.

Indeed, the (secular) status of the body after death remains in some legal and philosophical limbo. As Ellen Stroud (2018, p.115) neatly summarises:

The central puzzle of the law of the dead is that a corpse is both a person and a thing. […] Scholars generally divide the law of the dead body into the three intertwined realms of defining, using, and disposing of the dead, and debates in each realm center on where and how to draw the line between person and object. The thing-ness of the dead human body is never stable or secure.

The poor were most likely to fall victim to these resurrectionists, as were abandoned children, infants, and suicide victims. Deals could be struck with prison and gallows officials over recently dead or condemned prisoners.

The rich were able to secure their graves with mortsafes (iron cages around the coffin or iron boxes), with booby traps or pay a night watchman to patrol the cemetery.

In 1832, the Anatomy Act ended the tradition of anatomising felons but did allow for people to give up their bodies for dissection after death. There is evidence that this was abused by some of those managing workhouses, who facilitated for payment the journey of the unwilling but dead paupers to the anatomist’s table (Sen, 2017).

Captive populations, the poor and vulnerable remain at risk of corporal exploitation: in China, there have been allegations of organ harvesting among Falun Gong detainees; in the United States, the Arkansas Prison Plasma Scandal saw prisoners paid for blood donations, infecting thousands across the world with Hepatitis C and HIV (Chase, 2012), to devastating effect in the UK and elsewhere; in hospitals in Liverpool and Bristol, it emerged that for decades the organs of babies and children were systematically removed after they died, without their parents’ knowledge or consent (Bauchner, 2001).

While work on violence, punishment, trafficking, abuse and so on is concerned with incursion into, and exploitation of, the physical body, corporal dignity after death deserves attention too. I think of this today following the news of four deaths of migrants, including two children, in the English channel. Media coverage referred back to the death of 3-year old Alan Kurdi, whose small drowned body was photographed and disseminated around the world in 2015. Published on the pretext of ‘shocking the world into action’: no action came.

Resurrectionists are the grotesque characters of a Dickens novel: a macabre chapter of history. But we should be alert to the contemporary ways in which bodies continue to be stolen and misused.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 


Bauchner, H., 2001. What have we learnt from the Alder Hey affair? That monitoring physician’s performance is necessary to ensure good practice. British Medical Journal, 322(7282): 309–310. Available at:  https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7282.309

Chase, S., 2012. The Bloody Truth: Examining America’s Blood Industry and its Tort Liability Through the Arkansas Prison Plasma Scandal. William & Mary Business Law Review, 3(3). Available at: https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmblr/vol3/iss2/6

Sen, S., 2017. From Dispossession to Dissection: The Bare Life of the English Pauper in the Age of the Anatomy Act and the New Poor Law. Victorian Studies, 59(2), pp.235-259. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/victorianstudies.59.2.02

Stroud, E., 2018. Law and the Dead Body: Is a Corpse a Person or a Thing?Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 14, pp.115-125. Available at: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-110316-113500

05-Oct-20 The Outsiders and Youth Justice

Photo by Afta Putta Gunawan from Pexels

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home” (Hinton, p.1)

This opening line will resonate for many who read The Outsiders (London: Penguin Books, 2016; originally USA: Viking Penguin, 1967) as a teenager and perhaps also watched the 1983 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

The story is narrated by Ponyboy, a fourteen year old member of the ‘Greasers’, who fight running battles with the rich-kid ‘Socs’ on the streets of Tulsa, in the United States. What is extraordinary is that Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the book as a teenager while at high school, although it was not published until she was 19. She was advised to publish under the name S.E. Hinton in case male book reviewers dismissed her writing as a female.

Ponyboy is a sensitive, bookish dreamer, though is also fiercely loyal to his older Greaser peers and gets stuck into the periodic, often brutal, street brawls with the Socs. His parents are recently dead and he lives with his two older brothers who seek to keep Ponyboy in school, maintain boundaries and keep a clean house. Their home is in a down-at-heel area and his older brothers have dropped out of school to work and pay the bills.

The wider Greaser gang members have their share of troubles at home – alcoholism, emotional neglect and violence – although as Hinton shows so well, the rich Soc kids have their troubles too.

One night, a terrible incident changes everything for Ponyboy and we follow him through a heart breaking and intense few weeks. Hinton wants us to understand, if not like, all of the characters. She reminds us of the struggles of growing up through teens and into early twenties: amplified for those who do not have a safe anchor and resources at home.

On 16 September 2020, the Government published a White Paper ‘A Smarter Approach to Sentencing‘. In the section of the paper concerning youth sentences, The Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP set the tone in his accompanying speech:

Judges’ hands are too often tied in handing down sentences to young offenders that are too lenient and potentially put the public at risk. 

While the Government recognises in the document that more must be done to tackle the causes of crime and the inequalities in the youth justice system, the only concrete details relate to punitive measures: for example, increasing the minimum release point from custody for the most serious offences from half-way through the sentence, to two thirds.

Moreover, political commentary in the lead up to the White Paper’s publication had raised the case of Hashem Abedi, who helped his brother Salman plan the Manchester Arena bombing. Hashem was jailed in August 2020 for life and ordered to serve at least 55 years in prison. Yet because he was under the age of 21 at the time of the murders, a whole-life order was not an option open to the courts. Writing in the Sunday Express, the Prime Minster Boris Johnson cited the Abedi case and said that if a young person is involved in a plot to kill dozens of people “then it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘only’ 18, 19 or 20 when you do so”. And so the new White Paper proposes whole life orders to be a sentencing option from aged 18.

The Abedi case is a high profile, terrible, and mercifully rare event. However, the application of whole-life orders for 18 year olds is not the most pressing issue in youth justice (whether you agree with the proposal or not).

More pressing issues in England and Wales include:

• around a quarter of the youth custody population are children who are on remand, and 66% of that group do not go onto receive a custodial sentence (Youth Justice Legal Centre, 2020);

around half of the current youth custody population are Black, mixed heritage, Asian and other ethnicities (other than ‘White’ – which the Youth Justice Statistics define as including White British and White ethnic minorities);

• for the year ending March 2019, children and young people had the highest reoffending rate of all age groups at 38.4%, compared, for example to 28.5% for adults (aged 21 and over);

fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but they make up
around two-fifths of children in secure training centres (44%) and young offender institutions (39%).

The number of young people in custody has ebbed and flowed over the decades – up in the thousands in the 2000s and down to hundreds now in 2020, for example – although this number has less to do with the level of overall youth offending as much as how the state responds.

Containment may be required for the most serious cases, but the vast majority of young offenders are troubled and experiencing significant personal and social difficulties. They are more likely to be from urban, deprived areas and they are more likely to be to be Black or Asian, as these groups are more intensely policed. They may be chaotic, insecure and angry and it can take time to undo the self-protective behaviours and attitudes that develop while growing up under stress.

The public do deserve protection from harm: likewise, young people deserve protection from social and family harm. Punitive sentences incapacitate and have symbolic value in signifying retributive justice, but they are unlikely to deter or to disrupt youth offending patterns.

Governments talk about tackling the social causes of crime, but we know this work is difficult and long term, beyond the electoral cycle. It requires investment in the 0-5 age group through children’s centres and family and parenting support; it requires an enabling rather than punitive approach to welfare and benefits; it requires a rapid response to children struggling at school to avoid exclusion (including early diagnosis and intervention for learning barriers and disabilities); and it requires adults of all ages to get involved in mentoring young people, supporting them to make positive choices and being a listening ear. It takes a village to raise a child, they say.

Some will accuse Hinton of a youthful optimism at the close of the book, when Ponyboy reflects that every young person could be turned around. But it is an indictment on all of us if we cannot muster the policy and personal investment to at least try.

Suddenly it wasn’t only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world and it was to late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. (Hinton, 2016, pp.214-215)

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

27-Sept-20 Marshals and Police

Photo credit: Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Like all significant social events, COVID-19 has its own lexicon of words and phrases that we find ourselves hearing and using – ‘test, track and trace’, ‘a V-shaped recovery’, ‘asymptomatic’, ‘lockdown’, ‘second spike’, and so on. One word doing the rounds currently is ‘marshal’.

To ensure that the public are following social distancing rules, Boris Johnson announced in September the introduction of ‘marshals’ to towns and cities across the country. These marshals are either volunteers or council workers who are asked to patrol busy areas and give advice on social distancing guidelines, hand out masks and sanitiser and provide a visible nudge to the public to comply. They do not have powers to arrest or fine – they would need to call the police were enforcement required – and it is not clear that local councils have received any extra funding for these posts since their unexpected announcement.

COVID marshals have already been trialled in Leeds and Cornwall and they bear some similarity with established night-time economy roles, such as Street Angels or street pastors. The latter are usually charity-based, often faith-based, initiatives where workers walk the streets, seeking to defuse street tensions and help those who have drunk too much, are upset, separated from friends or need to get home safely. Notwithstanding the potentially positive impact of these street workers, some criminologists argue that these initiatives are consistent with a New Right agenda, where groups are co-opted by the state into policing activity, but without cost to the public purse; Johns, Squires and Barton, 2009; Johns et al., 2019; see also van Steden, 2017).

This trend is referred to as the ‘pluralisation of policing’ (Crawford, in Newburn, 2003; Johnston and Shearing, 2003), where the “police increasingly need to work with other government agencies, the third sector, community organisations and the private sector” (Rogers, 2016). Policing ‘beyond the police’ appears consistent with David Garland’s (2002) thesis that late modern society is characterised by a ‘culture of control’, where networked actors and agencies across society are engaged in managing and preventing criminal risk.

On 23 September, the supermarket ASDA announced it was creating a 1,000 new COVID marshal roles to support safety in store. Universities are also employing marshals to patrol student accommodation, social areas and on-campus. Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities are paying security contractor Mitie to provide marshals, who “will report antisocial behaviour and breaches of social distancing to the relevant authorities“. Marshals, university security services and police have been involved in monitoring student halls and accommodation as hundreds of students up and down the country are now subject to quarantine due to COVID outbreaks.

As I wrote back in April 2020 for this blog, the pandemic has enabled new surveillance measures which, while legitimate now, may quite easily become re-purposed and normalised. Supplementing this technological, scientific and increasingly privatised armoury are the physical presence of public police and army (if needed), private security guards and now also marshals. In principle, these resources could be harnessed productively to support us through COVID. But the nagging question remains – while they are all busy watching over us: who is watching over them?

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

11-Sept-20 Prisoners on Remand

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

While media and public attention has understandably been focused on the NHS and education, the already strained criminal justice system is now struggling to address the backlog of court cases delayed by the pandemic. As a result, the number of prisoners on remand has increased 25% since this time last year to around 11,500, around 15% of the total prison population.

Being ‘on remand’ means being in custody pending a court hearing. Typically, an individual has been arrested and charged and is awaiting trial, or they may have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing. According to http://www.gov.uk, you will probably be put on remand if:

  • you have been charged with a serious crime, for example armed robbery
  • you have been convicted of a serious crime in the past
  • the police think you may not go to your court hearing
  • the police think you may commit another crime while on bail
  • you have been given bail before and not stuck to the terms

Given the principle of ‘presumption of innocence’, pre-trial detention is subject to safeguards, to protect the individual. In the UK, these are known as Custody Time Limits:

Custody Time Limits (CTL) safeguard unconvicted defendants by preventing them from being held in pre-trial custody for an excessive period of time. The Act and Regulations governing CTL require the prosecution to progress cases to trial diligently and expeditiously. The legal burden of monitoring and complying with CTLs rests on the prosecution. (CPS Guidance, 2020)

In broad terms (with the precise limit governed by the circumstances of the case):

  • for ‘summary only‘ offences (offences heard at the magistrates court), the time limit is 56 days
  • for ‘either way offences‘ (offences which can be heard at the magistrates or Crown court, depending on whether magistrates feel their sentencing powers are sufficient to deal with the offence), the time limit is also 56 days
  • for ‘indictable‘ offences (a serious criminal offence that is triable only on indictment (trial by jury) in the Crown court), the time limit is 182 days

During the lockdown, around half of court buildings were closed for a period. Some criminal and civil hearings were conducted using BT MeetMe for telephone hearings and Skype for Business for video hearings. In June 2020, the Independent reported that the number of cases waiting to be heard at the magistrates court was nearing half a million. The backlog of Crown court cases was around 40,500. However, it is worth noting that it was 37,400 pre-COVID in December 2019, due, among other factors, to austerity-induced cuts to the number of days that Crown courts can sit.

A coronavirus protocol, agreed between  between the Senior Presiding Judge (SPJ), HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, has allowed for temporary extensions to remand periods. However, some judges are increasingly unhappy with this situation. On 11 September, the BBC reported that:

Judge Keith Raynor refused to extend the time a teenager charged with drugs offences could be held in custody before his trial. Woolwich Crown Court heard Tesfa Young-Williams was charged with serious drug offences last October and had been in custody for 321 days because of delays. That is 139 days beyond the custody time limit (CTL), the judge said.

In July 2020, ten ‘Nightingale’ courts were set up to help clear the backlog. These new venues were meant to deal with non-custodial hearings, to enable existing courts, equipped with cells and secure dock facilities, to run cases involving defendants in custody. However, although a start, the Criminal Bar Association called for a far higher number of venues to be opened. In August 2020, Private Eye (No. 1528) reported that one barrister told a custody time limit hearing:

“When… a man of good character faces an indefinite period of time in custody because there has been a deliberate lack of investment, that cannot in my submission be said to be justice.”

You might think that individuals on remand are going to be convicted anyway and that they must represent a danger to the public, otherwise bail would have been granted. The Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefings report than more than half of people entering prison on remand awaiting trial are accused of non-violent offences; that two-thirds are awaiting trial (rather than awaiting sentencing) and that around 25% of those remanded into custody by magistrates courts are either subsequently acquitted or receive a non-custodial sentence.

If you are on remand for a number of weeks, there is a real possibility you could lose your job, lose your income, lose your home. Remand prisoners receive no financial help from the prison service at the point of release: you are not compensated if you are acquitted.

You are also 25% more likely to be remanded in custody if you are a Black or mixed ethnicity male, than if you are White male. What is more, compared to the general prison population, a remand prisoner is around 30% more likely to commit suicide.

So the power of the state to imprison the innocent must be used carefully. It is not just to hold someone in prison without any prospect of a timely trial; neither is it just to release individuals who present a likely but unproven risk to their victims and to the public.

The Chancellor has ever increasing demands on the public purse. Prisoners on remand are likely low on public visibility and sympathy in good times, never mind during a pandemic. But for the individuals involved and their families, and for the victims seeking justice, these delays can be devastating. This is a problem that is not going to be resolved quickly.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

10-Sept-20 Stepford Wives

Photo by David McBee from Pexels

This week I read for the first time ‘The Stepford Wives’ by Ira Levin (1972, my edition is 2011, published by Corsair).

In just 139 pages, Levin weaves a gripping story about Joanna Eberhart who moves with her husband and two children to the perfect suburb of Stepford, full of beautiful home-loving wives and successful husbands. Joanna is a feminist, committed to the goals of the National Organisation of Women, and an amateur photographer. She looks for like-minded women to establish a NOW chapter or to develop a women’s group, but they are all too busy waxing floors or attending to laundry.

At the centre of town life is the Men’s Association, run by ex-Disneyland employee Dale Coba and attended most nights by the town’s menfolk. The Stepford husbands are employed in the tech and chemical businesses on the nearby Route Nine. The Association building is imposing and highly secure: no women permitted.

Joanna’s husband Walter initially agrees with Joanna that the Association is outdated, but argues change can best be achieved from within. He therefore starts to attend, occasionally at first, but becomes increasingly active.

Meanwhile Joanna finds two women who, like her, do not buy into the domestic perfection of Stepford: Bobbie Markowe and Charmaine Wimperis. Like Joanna, both are recent arrivals at Stepford. The women get together for tennis at Charmaine’s – she is rich and bored and dislikes her husband. Later in the book, Charmaine confides that she and Ed are having a ‘weekend together’, which she is dreading as it will involve sex. But Ed is due at a conference the following week – ‘Thank God’ she says – so they agree to catch up then. Yet, Charmaine does not call.

When Joanna, concerned, turns up at her house, her friend has changed dramatically. The house is spotless, Charmaine is relaxed, apron-clad and smiling. She leads Joanna outside to show her beloved tennis court being turned into a putting green for her husband, Ed:

‘My God,’ Joanna said, looking at the men working on the cutter handles. ‘That’s crazy, Charmaine!’

‘Ed plays golf, he doesn’t play tennis,’ Charmaine said.

Joanna looked at her. ‘What did he do to you?’ she said. ‘Hypnotize you?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Charmaine said, smiling. ‘He’s a wonderful guy and I’m a lucky woman who ought to be grateful to him’. (Levin, 2011, p.61)

The story ratchets up to an inevitable but horrifying conclusion. Joanna is positioned as the hysterical woman, a charge so often made at women who seek to find out the truth (I was reminded of this watching an interview with environmental campaigner Erin Brokovich on Channel 4 News).

The truth of what is happening at Stepford remains elusive and I discovered through some internet searching afterwards that it is considered part of the science fiction genre.

While I had been waiting for explanation of those curious cartons that Gary Claybrook is seen unloading outside the Men’s Association near the start of the book, ultimately, I felt the more terrifying conclusion than water pollution, drugs or animatronics was that the women were simply acquiescing in patriarchy. In other words, Joanna (and Bobbie and Charmaine) is the outlier and for many of the readers of this book – published in 1972 – Stepford is more mirror than horror. The book could be read as a straight commentary on women’s struggle for liberation and the nature of backlash.

The book reminded me too of a recent Unreported World episode ‘Trump’s Housewives‘. Reporter Karishma Vyas meets her first interviewee in Modesto, California, who shows her around her family-photo and US memorabilia-filled house:

“My heart’s desire was to get married, to start a family and be at home and I took my job as a wife and as a homemaker super-serious.”

The women in the documentary are proud-homemakers, take a strongly heteronormative view of gender and sexuality and charge feminism with many of society’s ills. The irony that these women are actually living out the very feminist choice of combining motherhood and political and social activism, is not lost on the viewer.

Feminism is about enabling women to flourish in every way they wish, unobstructed by structural and cultural barriers. (It goes without saying that men should experience the same: generally through history, they have. Thus the need for feminism). Feminists can stay home raising a merry brood of children; they can fight in a boxing ring; or they can be a tree or a cardiac surgeon – or at some point choose to do all of the above. But they do so with critical awareness and with deliberate autonomy.

The real poison of patriarchy is how it turns women against each other: judging each other by different yardsticks of feminism or anti-feminism. This creates distraction and weakens focus on the collective prize: freedom, fulfilment and safety for all.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

25-Aug-20 Privilege

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

How do we decide when the actions of the privileged are harmful? When do they also become criminal?

On Friday 21 August 2020, US actress Lori Loughlin was handed a two-month jail sentence, fine and community service for her part in a college admissions scandal. Around 50 individuals have been charged following Operation Varsity Blues, including over 30 parents and a number of sports coaches and college administrators in the United States. At the centre of the operation, college admissions counsellor Ricky Singer was paid over $25m by his clients to arrange entrance for their children into the most prestigious schools. The fraud is thought to date back to 2008.

There were two routes in: either a college administrator was paid to correct SATS (admissions test) papers to ensure candidates got the requisite score or coaches were bribed to label applicants as recruited athletes. In Lori Loughlin’s case, for example, she and her husband paid $500,000 in bribes to have their two daughters admitted into the University of Southern California (USC) as fake rowing-team recruits. Elite schools including Georgetown, Stanford and Yale were targeted.

The former head of Pacific Investment Management Company (Pimco), Douglas Hodge, paid nearly $1m in bribes to get three of his children into top US colleges. He was in the process of securing access for a fourth child. His sentence was reduced given his history of philanthropy to children’s causes globally (around $30m in total, it was alleged by his defence team). The BBC reported that:

A tearful Hodge said in a prepared apology following the sentencing that “ego” or “status” did not drive his decision. “Rather, I was driven by my own transformative educational experiences and my deep parental love.”

It is not clear how transformational education at an Ivy League university can be when your parents are multi-millionaires. Intellectually yes, but the earnings potential and social networks are already a given.

Parents from all backgrounds will go to many lengths for their children’s health, happiness and success. This is natural. And privileged children in the US, when faced with the option of relying only on their own ability and graft to secure a college place, or to use their parents’ legacy connections to inch ahead, for example, may well take the latter path. Many will recognise and nurture their good fortune with grace and hard work.

However, it is ironic that affirmative action for Black, Asian and Hispanic, or other under-represented or deprived young people, is considered by some as favouritism or unequal, yet the use of wealth or alumni ties (which, at this point in history, is often connected to White privilege), is not considered a helping hand. It is normalised and therefore invisibilised.

We might think of the applicants who over the years failed to secure a place at their chosen institution, not because they did not have the academic or athletic achievement, but because their space was bought. These are the indirect and unknown victims.

In Operation Varsity Blues, the bribery was overt and criminalised. Yet many young people have secured university places through their wealth and connections. Current US President Donald Trump got into private college Wharton in Pennsylvania in part, it is alleged, because his brother Fred was childhood friends with the then admissions officer, James A. Nolan. It is said that Fred asked James to help the application through.  In those days too, the successful application rate was far higher – 40% – compared to a more competitive 7% now.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney from 2006-2018, wrote to Trump’s high school and colleges threatening them with legal action if they released any details about his academic performance. While Trump claims to have got the highest marks possible at Wharton, no record of such achievements can be found in the 1968 class archive.

Closer to home, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent appointments to the House of Lords make interesting reading. Private Eye (No 1528, p.14) reports that peerages were given to:

  • His own brother, Jo Johnson
  • Two former colleagues from his days as London Mayor – Ed Lister and Daniel Moylan
  • Former Tory MP James Wharton, who managed Boris’ successful leadership campaign in 2019
  • Fundraisers and donors Aamer Sarfraz and Michael Spencer; the latter, according to Eye, has donated £4.6m to the Conservative party either individually or through his companies over the years
  • Evgeny Lebedev, who owns the London Evening Standard and whom, the Eye says, allows Boris to holiday in his Palazzo Terranova near Perugia, in Italy

The Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 was introduced after a cash for honours scandal involving the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Maundy Gregory, who brokered Lloyd George’s honours, is the only person ever to be convicted under the 1925 Act.

In 2006, several individuals were nominated for life peerages by Prime Minister Tony Blair but were rejected by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It turned out that they had loaned significant amounts of money to the Labour Party, potentially exploiting a loophole in electoral law, which required the public declaration of donations to political parties, but not loaning money at commercial rates of interest. An investigation ensued, involving arrests and police questioning of a number of Labour grandees, but no charges were brought.

In 2015, researchers at the University of Oxford found a positive correlation between party political funding and peerage nominations over the period 2005-2014. They argue that the undue influence of large donors on the political process deepens public mistrust in politicians and undermines democracy.

What is the line between paying for a peerage or being awarded a peerage following significant political donations? What is the line between your parents financially bribing college admissions and your parents drawing on their legacy connections or on family and friendship networks and donating capital funds to the college, to smooth the admissions path? Both have similar motives and outcome. But while straight corruption is criminalised, nepotism and leveraging wealth tend to be ‘regulated’ by institutions themselves, sometimes rather loosely.

It is not clear that we need more criminal law. Rather, institutions need to be far more transparent around financing, publish more data, and ensure that processes (such as college admissions or honours nominations) are robustly scrutinised by professional teams or independent bodies, who are themselves subject to regular corruption audits.

We should also examine the purpose and values of our institutions. In the UK, what is the role (if any?) of the second chamber and how should it be constituted? Should membership of the second chamber be a political reward or should it be a role reserved for our brightest and best? In the US, how has the marketisation and commercialisation of higher education impacted the sector and student intake, for good and for ill? How do universities ensure that they attract both income and those with the greatest intellectual and social potential?

Privilege should not always be castigated: we do not choose our birth. Privilege is relative and may be earned. Entitlement is the issue. Entitlement practices may not be criminal, but are socially corrosive. They suggest that money and ties should grant access: “I pay, therefore I can”.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

12-Aug-20 Nordic Noir

Photo by Jonathan Petersson from Pexels

In recent years, many of us will have enjoyed TV series such as The Killing, The Bridge or Borgen or read Larrson’s Millennium series or Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books. They form part of cultural genre known as ‘Nordic noir’, a term believed to have been coined by Guardian critic Sam Wollaston in 2012.

In July 2020, Keith J Hayward and Steve Hall published an article in the British Journal of Criminology entitled Through Scandinavia, Darkly: A Criminological Critique of Nordic Noir. They identify three elements, popularly associated with this genre.

First, the melancholy aesthetic of ‘landscape, atmosphere and Scandinavian imagery’ (p.4), which is often heightened with colour tinting and sombre music through production. Further the Scandi interior style depicted is associated with a natural, stripped-backness, signifiying purity and simplicity.

Second, is the use of both male and female ’emotionally complex or psychologically troubled lead characters’ (p.5). Interestingly, it is suggested that male leads in this genre tend to be more emotive and female leads more tough. This perhaps links to the idea that Scandinavian societies are less stratified by gender.

Third, this genre is deemed ‘realist’ and ‘gritty’ because it is said to offer a trenchant critique of the Scandinavian welfare model. Often viewed by Western democracies as an exemplary society, Nordic noir appears to point to a darker underbelly and indeed the substitution of welfarism with neoliberalism.

So to summarise, Nordic noir is a genre which represents a nostalgic longing for the social democracy and homogeneity that is believed to have characterised Scandinavian countries and, at the same time, a critique of this supposed golden age (p. 9). Drawing on both ultra realism and cultural criminology (which are not obvious bedfellows), Hayward and Hall suggests that this orthodox reading of Nordic noir is missing something.

Ultra realism problematises identitarian ‘social movements’ approach to criminology (preoccupied, for example with gender, ethnicity or penal abolitionism) and return to Criminology’s fundamental question, which it claims is, “why do some individuals and groups risk harm to others as they pursue their instrumental and expressive interests?” Ultra realists call for criminologists to move beyond sociological and constructionist ways of understanding the world and look to cognate disciplines such as “history, economics, politics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis”, as well as pursuing more ethnographic approaches to make sense of lived reality.

An interview with Steve Hall (Injustice, 2018)

Cultural criminology “views crime and the agencies and institutions of crime control as cultural products or as creative constructs”, which carry meaning. It is particularly focused on late modern culture and how contemporary forms of capitalism, anomie, state activity, power, resistance, crime and crime control play out in cultural artefacts, practices and ideas. Cultural criminology is inter-disciplinary and action-focused.

Cultural Criminology by Keith Hayward (Oxford Bibliographies, 2018)

Hayward and Hall argue that, rather than gritty realism, Nordic noir has lost its grip on reality. It has done this in two ways. First, there is an increasing retreatist element to the genre, with action set in rural communities, seemingly insulated from the globalised world. Second, the storylines are increasingly sensationalist, with macabre and unlikely plot lines (p.10). The authors attribute this shift to a recognition by Scandinavians that they are unable to recover a romanticised past, yet also unable to adapt in a progressive way to the reality of the neo-liberal globalised order. Drawing on Lacan’s work, Hayward and Hall suggest that the Symbolic Order – that is the shared set of understandings and relations (language, law, culture, religion etc.) that define a society – is malfunctioning. Scandinavia has lost its binding story and purpose. They argue that the escape route from this impasse is expressed culturally through sensationalism, fantasy and retreatism. These sentiments are reflected in “modernity’s vigilant and powerful engines of mythology—TV, film and popular fiction” (p.14).

The article is theoretically complex and I hope I have simplified it, while retaining its essence. The central argument is internally coherent and fascinating. At the same time, I think a malfunctioning Symbolic Order characterises most neo-liberal economies – that is the late modern predicament. From that perspective, Scandinavia and Nordic noir is but one case study.

The key takeaway for those interested in crime and its representation is how it is possible to relate socioeconomic shifts at the global level with specific cultural artefacts and practices at the regional and local level. It is not necessary to ‘prove’ these relationships in a scientific sense: rather the intellectual exercise of tracing the ‘loops and spirals’ (Ferrell, Hayward and Young, 2015, p.155) between art and life opens up new ways of understanding crime and crime control.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

10-Aug-20 Abuse in Religious Organisations

Source: British Museum, cited in BBC

On 5 August 2020, the BBC reported leaked excerpts from a forthcoming report by independent investigator Vicky Lawson-Brown into abuse of women and children within the ‘Jesus Army’ or ‘Jesus Fellowship’.

Established in 1969 at a chapel in Northamptonshire, the Jesus Army grew quickly, drawing in the homeless and substance misusers, among others, to live in tight-knit households and communities.

Members worked in the church’s many businesses and farms, often unpaid. Many recount an atmosphere of bullying, humiliation, severe physical and sexual abuse, particularly of women and children, who were seen as subservient to men in the group. Forty-three people who were active in the Church have been named as alleged perpetrators, including the founder, Noel Stanton.

Allegations of abuse were reported on a number of occasions to the group’s leadership. The report names five male leaders who failed to act on these allegations, and therefore, it is argued, were complicit in the abuse continuing.

Although the Jesus Army has now closed, the Jesus Fellowship Church Trust (JFCT) continues to manage a portfolio of properties and assets totalling tens of millions, many of which it has been seeking to divest in recent months. It is hoped that much of this money can be used to compensate victims financially: the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association represents around 800 individuals.

Since the allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church started to garner media attention in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of theories, notably focused on sexuality emerged: under scrutiny was the institution of a male celibate priesthood and an alleged disproportionate representation of gay priests and male victims. Yet these theories reflected widespread homophobia by inferring a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. (Tracing the emergence of the ‘paedophile’ as currently understood in Western discourse, Angelides (2009) argues that the category of the ‘paedophile’ was homosexualised in order to demarcate ‘normal’ from ‘pathological’ masculinities). Research in 2010 from Harvard Medical School states that, “it is generally agreed that pedophilia is a distinct sexual orientation, not something that develops in someone who is homosexual or heterosexual”. Symmetry or asymmetry between the gender of the perpetrator and the victim is separate to adult sexual orientation (if the perpetrator is attracted also to adults).

Moreover, since these early scandals, we have come to realise that sexual abuse can be found in state and non-state institutions across society: in the family, religious organisations, schools, hospitals, youth offender institutions, sports, or in residential care, to name a few.

Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists will provide detailed analysis of the profile and characteristics of ‘paedophiles’, but as a criminologist, my interest is in the social factors. First, feminist scholars have for decades been telling us that sexual abuse and violence is about power. It is perpetrated largely by males because we live in a patriarchal society and because male sexuality (in normative terms, not necessarily embodied in every living male) is associated with dominance and objectification. Notwithstanding genetic factors, environmental and cultural factors must play a significant role in how male (and female) sexuality is enacted, for good and for ill. This in turn must be an explanatory factor for the disproportionate representation of males among child sex offenders, even accepting possible under-reporting of female perpetration.

Second, publications by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in the UK shows us how the nature of institutions – their structure, their values – can facilitate, or at least hinder the identification of, abuse. Projecting IICSA findings to the Jesus Army, for example, it is likely that perpetrators were outwardly devout Christians who offered refuge; who represented truth, certainty and authority to members; who were charismatic; who asserted traditional patriarchal ideas about female and child submission and sexual passivity; who manipulated loyalties and used emotional blackmail to silence victims. The institutional context meant that victims risked disbelief, ostracism or further punishment; non-perpetrating leaders may have felt reporting behaviour to external authorities risked the reputation of the church and the closed nature of these communities meant that allegations could be effectively contained.

Our sensitisation to institutional abuse is recent. Yet while we refer to cases as ‘historic’, we are actually talking about recent history and contemporary incidence. All the more reason why we pay attention to the research emerging from IICSA, to better safeguard children now and going forward.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

4-Aug-20 Changing Laws

Photo: Pixabay at Pexels

For those UK citizens who have not lived through conflict, authoritarianism, pandemic or social unrest, coronavirus has presented us with a novel legal context. Since March 2020, we have experienced multiple changes to our ability to meet with friends and family, to go to work and school, to buy and sell goods and move around our locality, within our country, or beyond.

What is particularly marked is the speed and detail of changes. While many of us paid attention to the initial easing of lockdown in May, subsequent shifts in numbers gathering and household contact, metres apart, if and when to wear face masks, the types of venues opening or not and how, are harder to track. Over time, the slogans have changed and the four nations of the United Kingdom have moved into different lanes within the recovery track. Localised spikes can also mean local tightening. We are like the animals in Animal Farm who wake to find the rules and principles of yesterday have been superseded.

Of course, the nature of the coronavirus challenge requires swift social action. But it does present a challenge in keeping the public informed and compliant, and thereby maintaining legitimacy.

A review in June of the first prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act revealed a number of problems. Charges had been withdrawn or overturned for 53 people and more cases were being reviewed. As I noted in a blog in March, the changing context has been difficult for policing, with some discrepancies in interpretation and enforcement vigour between local forces. This has had implications for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS):

When asked by The Independent why the CPS did not stop police using the Coronavirus Act, given the 100 per cent rate of unlawful prosecutions, [Greg McGill, the CPS director of legal services] replied: “We can’t tell people not to charge under the act but we’ve issued legal guidance to the lawyers so they understand the precise circumstances where it can be used. It’s not for the CPS to stop charging offences, it’s to make sure that it’s appropriate.” (Lizzie Dearden for The Independent, 28 June 2020)

The police and CPS cannot refuse to implement bad laws; although they might neglect to use them. Laws are proposed by Government and approved through Parliament. The reasons behind under-enforcement are complex and may include poorly written law; lack of police prioritisation or resources; under-reporting of offences; evidential reasons; and so on.

It is a well known saying that ‘ignorance is no defence’, when it comes to the law. This means that it is not an acceptable defence in court to say that you did not know that your activity or omission was illegal. However, the most effective laws must be those which have both public knowledge and broad public support. In this way, particular activities become unacceptable and citizens engage in social control through self-regulation.

This has risks too, for example where majority public opinion is oppressive to minority groups or where individuals engage in vigilante action. However, in terms of maintaining social order and social distance, which are the challenges presented by COVID-19, it is preferable that people willingly comply, encourage by example and are given some latitude to self-correct their behaviour. Rather than engaging the costly, time-consuming and often inequitable criminal justice system, we need simple and consistent public information: wear a mask in public; wash hands and surfaces regularly; meet those outside your household in public or open-air; always maintain personal space.

Laws are often drafted by civil servants who are good at turning policy ideas into detail; their capacity to produce reams of commentary and guidance is formidable (I used to be one). However, this can be at the expense of simplicity and thinking through practical translation. In addition, there is a tendency to focus on restrictions, rather than enablers. For example, instead of introducing laws which have effectively closed arts and performance activities (among others), it would have been better to fund these venues to alter their delivery model and consider how we can better use available space (physical disused, under-used, re-purposed; online) to try to continue activities in new ways. Some of these innovations or accelerations of change will continue post-corona.

COVID-19 has provided us with three lessons: first, to maintain legitimacy, governments should focus on simple and consistent messaging; second, the criminal justice system is not necessarily the best approach to maintaining social order; and finally, informing, investing in and enabling citizens positively to self regulate and to innovate through social challenges, is more likely to ensure public support, compliance and long-term resilience for the next systemic shock.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

24-July-20 Achebe and retributive justice

Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

My current read is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (first published by William Heinemann, 1958 though my copy is Penguin, 2001). Born in 1930 in Nigeria, Achebe studied in London and worked for the BBC, later becoming Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

The book has a great back story. In 1957, an advert was published in the Spectator, offering to type author manuscripts for a fee. Achebe, then 27, was working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos but aspired to be a writer, and had a handwritten manuscript ready. He sent it to England.

Months passed. Achebe sent follow-up letters to check the status of his manuscript, to no response. Can you imagine, first, the act of bravery in sending away the only copy of your creation to another country and, second, the rising panic when you hear nothing further?

A British colleague from the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, taking her annual leave in England, sought out the typists firm for Achebe and returned to Nigeria with the finished product. It was published by Heinemann the following year, to critical acclaim.

The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a famed wrestler and warrior in the village of Umuofia, who has made his name and wealth through personal graft, catalysed by shame at the indolent reputation of his father. Okonkwo has three wives and many children whom he governs harshly: his eldest son, Nwoye, concerns Okonkwo, since he seems to have inherited his grandfather’s sensitivity and indifference to work.

One day, a woman in Umuofia is murdered in a neighbouring village; Okonkwo is sent to threaten war unless the village give up a young man and a virgin in atonement. Okonkwo returns with both. The young man, Ikemefuna, is sent to live with Okonkwo until a decision is made on his fate.

He ends up living with Okonkwo and his extended family for three years, becoming inseparable with the younger Nwoye – who matures significantly in Ikemefuna’s company – and comes to be considered as a son by Okonkwo.

Yet one day, news is brought that the Oracle of the Hills and Caves says that Ikemefuna must be taken outside of Umuofia, as is the custom, and killed. The boy is told that he is being returned to his family – much to his sorrow, as he has learnt to love his new home – and is led out with a party of men from the village, up through the forest. Okonkwo is among them. In a dense part of the trail, Ikemefuna is hit by a villager:

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak. (Achebe, 2001, p. 44).

Okonkwo has taken five human heads in battle, yet in the days that follow the boy’s death, Okonkwo cannot eat. Instead, he sits drinking palm wine ‘from morning till night’: what modern readers would describe as ‘self-medicating’.

This passage made me think about justice systems, retribution and harm. He didn’t know it, but Ikemefuna’s time at Okonkwo’s house was a happy death row. He suffers through separation from his family and then, much later, death. In common with a few prisoners on death row, he is innocent and his interim sentence and execution are pronounced and managed by authoritative others.

It is common across indigenous (Cunneen and Tauri, 2016), restorative and Westernised justice systems to view harm committed against an individual as a harm borne by, or committed against, the whole community. This is why an apparatus is in place to bring together the offender, the victim (or victim’s family) and the community (represented in most contemporary states, by judges and legal professionals, but in other settings by elders, community leaders or mediators) to decide what action should follow. In principle, what separates restorative and some indigenous justice from Western practice, is that the sentence that follows should repair the harm done and restore victim and offender to their status prior to the offence.

Native American justice, for example, “is rooted in notions of relationship and dialogue rather than adversarial dispute, harmony and balance rather than proof and guilt, and renewal rather than punishment” (Peat, 1996). In Zulu culture, there is the concept of ubuntu which represents group solidarity, the collective, the importance of humanity one to another.  Retribution or punishment is not absent, but the goal is reconciliation. Given the difficult history of division in South Africa, there was a recognition that the future had to be founded on peaceful co-existence.  To that end the 1993 Constitution specifically recognises the need for ubuntu and it was this philosophy the underpinned the establishment and process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In Maori culture, two concepts in particular are important in understanding how justice is dispensed: whanau (the extended family group) and hapu (groups of families).  Responsibility is collective, rather than individual.  Offending may both be caused by, and produces, a disharmony within and between families and the community.  This means that the focus is on restoring the relationship between the offender (and their family) and the victim (and their family).

What is particularly interesting is that these justice systems and principles operated before colonising Western Europeans arrived, who took a fairly dim view of such practice, and who, over time imposed their own vertical, codified and ‘professionalised’ legal structures. Yet today, the discourse of restoration and reparation are de rigeur among justice policy-makers and have been appropriated and translated into systems around the world – with varying degrees of success. Indeed, Maori, Native Americans and others are recovering and re-interpreting their own justice heritage.

It is important to recognise the limitations of all systems, however.  As the story of Ikemefuna demonstrates, some indigenous or local justice forms have been discriminatory and punishments brutal.  Equally, contemporary state justice systems can be discriminatory, unduly retributive, convict the innocent, fail to restore or rehabilitate, or meet the needs of victims or communities.

The second issue that the story raised for me is the potential harm caused by retributive systems to the administrators of justice.

When Ikemefuna joins Okonkwo’s household, he has no real identity or value: he is the outcome of a justice barter. But as time progresses, the boy becomes someone worthy of affection and respect. Okonkwo is profoundly upset by the death sentence, yet participates even in the final act, because of his concern to maintain face.

Achebe describes Umuofia as a strongly patriarchal society. Men’s reputations are built and maintained through acts of power and force. There are a number of passages in the novel which refer to Okonkwo’s internal affection for some of his children, but he never shows it outwardly with kind words or touch. This is an example of the toxic aspects of masculinity and of social duty, which only harm those who feel obliged to embody them.

Through time, prison and punishment systems have been maintained through acts of power and force. Prisons are tough, disciplinarian spaces where collective order must be placed above individual need or subjectivity. In the UK, as in most countries, the public are distanced from the realities of prison life. Instead, prison and probation officers, governors, youth offending team and social workers, administrators, cleaners, chaplaincy, medical and counselling staff do this work on our behalf. And currently, our prisons and youth institutions are often violent and challenging places, with high levels of self-harm, dirty protest, drug-taking, untreated mental health conditions, histories of abuse, minimal rehabilitation and overcrowding. They are holding spaces for those who have offended, sometimes gravely, but they also often warehouses for the marginalised (Wacquant, 2011), the flailing and the harrowed. Unsurprisingly, prison officers report ‘considerably higher levels of psychological distress than other occupational groups, including ’emotionally demanding jobs’ such as policing and social work‘.

So retributive systems deliver on justice as punishment, but containment and violence exert a high price on those charged with its administration. High recidivism suggests the wider public are not protected longer term. Problem-solving approaches and restorative justice take us some way, but need further development in different contexts and need to gain victim and public confidence.

We have yet to grasp fully what makes justice just.


Cunneen, C. and Tauri, J., 2016. Indigenous Justice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Peat, D., 1996. Blackfoot physics, London, England: Fourth Estate Limited

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

17-July-20 COVID Politics

Photo by Aksonsat Uanthoeng from Pexels

Two interesting developments at the end of this week which relate to earlier posts here under COVID Criminology.

First, in my blog post 14-Jul-20 COVID-19 and Accountability, I talked about the role of a public inquiry in understanding the successes and failures of the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic.  On 15 July 2020, under pressure of questioning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded in the House of Commons that there would be a public inquiry, although not until the crisis is over.  His argument is that it would be a waste of public resources employing civil servants in evidence gathering and inquiry administration, when we are still in the middle of fighting the virus. 

In 19-May-20 Public Inquiries and Scandal, I reflected on the costly and time-consuming nature of public inquiries, the mushrooming of recommendations, the majority of which are not monitored or implemented.

Yet, this tells us more about the failings of the current public inquiry model and is a poor excuse, given that the crisis may not be ‘over’ for a long time and lessons need to be learnt now.  In their report for the Institute of Government, How Public Inquiries Can Lead to Change Norris and Shepheard (2017) argue that politicians need to learn from the aircraft industry and use interim reports:

Interim reports are an under-utilised approach that can help inquiries deliver more rapidly on the key aim of preventing recurrence.  There can be downsides to interim reports – not least that they usually base their conclusions on limited information, given the shorter timescales. But there are many inquiries where a range of issues can be satisfactorily addressed before the final conclusion of the investigation. For example, in cases of industrial accidents or regulatory failure, some necessary changes may be well understood early on in the process. In these cases, there is little value in holding back useful findings and recommendations until the culmination of all the other investigations; an interim report will allow for earlier, immediate action. (Norris and Shepheard, 2017. p.22)

They cite the case of the Shoreham Air Disaster in 2015, for example, where a first report was released just 13 days later, pending a fuller investigation.  In addition, elements of an inquiry can be split out and proceed at different speeds, termed ‘modularisation’ (Norris and Shepheard, 2017, p.23).  It was used in the Baha Mousa inquiry and to some extent in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which is running 15 separate investigations, which have published at different times. 

There is no reason therefore why a tightly defined and tightly staffed inquiry could not start now, to ready us for a potential second wave over winter 2020/2021.

The second issue that emerged yesterday, was news that Russian (allegedly state-backed) hackers had been involved in targeting Western research organisations developing a coronavirus vaccine.  In 5-May-20 Password Spraying, 21-Apr-20 Entanglements and 29-Apr-20 Counterfeiting, I talked about the cyber-attack methods used by organised criminal and state actors and how a potential vaccine would be a key target for counterfeiters.

Speaking on Channel 4 News, Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev explained how the organisation attributed with the attack, APT29 (also known as Cozy Bear), is known for stealing data and using it for commercial, technological and political purposes.  An affiliated organisation, APT28 (also known as Fancy Bear) is believed to be linked to the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, since individuals have been identified working for both.  APT28 has been associated with election tampering and institutional attacks.  Grozev describes how APT28 weaponises data, holding it till the right time to release, to destabilise and sew mistrust between countries.

The problem in Russia is that the central government does not always have full oversight of this activity, given the multitude of powerful players in the country, and there is a risk that in the wrong hands the data could be gravely misused.

Of course, all countries are involved in espionage and all countries will be interested in the vaccine development progress in other countries – and may indeed be monitoring it through official and unofficial agencies.  There may also be other reasons for the UK Foreign Office making this announcement on Russia yesterday.  This is COVID politics and ‘vaccine nationalism’ (MD, in Private Eye (1526) July 2020), where the prospect of profit, winning the vaccine race and protecting one’s own citizens first, have diminished multilateral approaches to finding a global and affordable cure.

These are difficult times for global citizens but undoubtedly interesting times for scientists, including social scientists. 

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

14-July-20 COVID-19 and Accountability

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Initially there was scepticism from the UK Chief Medical Officer and his colleagues about the value of wearing face masks.  People might not wear them correctly, may become complacent and forget to prioritise handwashing and social distancing.  In the US, Trump said in April 2020 that he would not wear a mask and mocked his rival for the presidential election, Joe Biden, for wearing one. The World Health Organisation (WHO) did not initially advocate mass wearing of face coverings, believing that it was needed only for health and care workers and for those showing symptoms. 

But emerging evidence on the transmission of COVID-19 suggested that asymptomatic individuals were passing the virus through droplets.  The WHO changed their guidance in June, encouraging the use of masks and homemade cloth face coverings where social distancing was not possible.  England accordingly moved to make coverings a requirement on public transport from 15 June 2020. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was out serving people food in Wagamamas on Thursday 9 July without a mask; UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wore one publicly on 10 July, at a photo opportunity in a shop in Uxbridge; then at the weekend, cabinet minister Michael Gove said relying on people’s common sense was preferable to legal enforcement. By this morning, it was confirmed that face coverings would be compulsory in indoor shops from 24 July 2020, backed by a £100 fine.  Trump too appears to have changed his tune: he wore a mask in public for the first time visiting the Walter Reed military hospital outside Washington on 12 July.

The prevarication on face masks is one of many policy stutters during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the US and UK.  As the July/August 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs explains clearly, while it is true that managing an issue of this scale is a challenge for any leader, there has been some catastrophic leadership in evidence. This includes nationalist posturing rather than multilateral responses; delayed decision-making; unclear messaging; a failure to adopt track and trace technology early; and neglected populations, including in Britain care home residents, BME communities and front-line health and care workers.  While geography, higher levels of social trust and compliance, individualist versus collectivist cultures, and luck are important factors, undoubtedly other countries (Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Greece and Argentina, for example) have shown what is possible with good governance.

The WHO has been slow to act at times, but it is under-resourced and dependent on its paymasters; powerful nation-states who, when they needed to work together and seek WHO expertise, have been reluctant to. 

The pandemic experience raises the question of governance, harm and accountability.  In studies of crime and harm, this area of work is termed ‘harms of the powerful’ (similar to crimes of the powerful, but looking beyond just those actions and omissions defined in a given jurisdiction as a ‘crime’).  A common mechanism in the UK to hold government to account is through a public inquiry, and undoubtedly there will be one into the Government handling of the pandemic and what lessons can be learnt for future such outbreaks.  The public may also vote out a government at a general election, although, with excellent timing, the current Government secured their 4-year term in December 2019.  Mass demonstrations and social unrest are another route, although the nature of the pandemic (which mitigates against gathering) and the current economic fragility (which instills fear and protectionism), appears to stymie such action for the time being.

The Government is likely to face a number of civil claims in relation to NHS staff over failure to provide adequate PPE provision; failure to protect precarious workers; the distribution of expired PPE and deaths in care homes, for example.  

An interesting and perhaps overlooked report was published in 2014 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) entitled ‘Scientific advice to government: legal liability’. The document was prepared in response to the conviction of six Italian geophysicists in 2012 who were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison, following the earthquake in L’Aquila in Italy in 2009.  In his written reasoning of the verdict, the Italian judge made it clear that the scientists were not convicted for failing to predict the earthquake, but rather, for their failure to analyse and explain the threat.  In other words, for their failure to communicate. The DBIS document goes on to explain the relatively high bar that has to be met in UK law to be convicted of negligence and explains how other measures such as ‘gross negligence manslaughter’ and ‘corporate manslaughter’ may be applied (albeit rarely) to select government departments or to scientists working for them. The Italian scientists were cleared by the Italian Supreme Court in 2015.

While there is perhaps room for such legal action if the negligence is egregious, convictions of public health officials over the pandemic handling, without similar censure of politicians, would be scandalous.  Although British politicians insisted in the early days that they were ‘following the science’, evidence will inevitably be contested. Scientists from around the world may offer different interpretations on the nature of, and appropriate responses to, COVID-19. So it is the job of politicians to come to a judgment on the available evidence and to translate it into practical policy.

At the same time, if politicians act in good faith, conscientiously and with care, they should not be unduly admonished by those who enjoy the benefit of hindsight.

What will be unforgivable, however, is if we do not the heed the lessons of COVID-19 and make ready now for the next pandemic.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

13-July-20 Capital Punishment and Victims

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

The BBC website reports this morning on the case of Daniel Lewis Lee who will be subject to the first federal execution in the United States in more than 17 years.  Lee and an accomplice were convicted of murdering three members of the same family.

Two details stand out in the report.  First, the murders occurred 24 years ago in 1996. Second, some of the victims’ relatives oppose his execution and have sought to have it delayed.  In a recent petition, they argued that attending the execution could expose them to coronavirus.  However, their appeal was rejected:

The appeal court overturned a decision by a lower court that put the execution of 47-year-old Lee on hold, saying no federal statute or regulation gave the victims the right to attend the execution.  In its ruling, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said the family’s claim “lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous”. (BBC, 13 July 2020)

Taking first the issue of timing, it is certainly arguable that justice should have no time limit.  We have seen this in the prosecution of historical abuse, murder and rape cases and of war criminals, for example.  The difference here is that Lee was originally sentenced to death in 1998, but has been waiting 22 years for that sentence to be carried out. Death-row prisoners in the U.S. typically spend more than a decade awaiting execution and some prisoners, such as Lee, have been on death-row for well over 20 years.  The time is taken through legal appeals, many of which do lead to exoneration or non-capital re-sentencing (which itself underlines the importance of the appeal process but also the risk of imposing capital punishment on the innocent).  Some argue that those on death-row are subject to double punishment: waiting at least a decade in effective solitary confinement (a punishment used only for limited periods in the general prison population) and then being executed. 

The second issue is the role of victims in the justice process.  In this case, some (though not all) of the victims’ families are against the death penalty being used.  Earlene Branch Peterson, whose daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law were killed by Lee and his accomplice Chevie Kehoe, explains her view in a six-minute video to President Trump, asking for him to grant clemency to Lee:

“I believe you have to pay for what you do,” she said. “But that don’t mean death.”

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judgment, that no federal statute or regulation gives the victims the right to attend the execution, makes clear that sentencing is a matter for justice agencies, acting on behalf of the state.  Politically, we talk about justice ‘for victims’ – but in truth, victims have a minor role in the court process as witnesses and observers.  In the US, UK and other countries, victims can explain the impact of the crime through Victim Impact Statements, but this does not generally affect the sentencing tariff (Finland is an exception: here, the victim has a right to recommend a punishment different from the one recommended by the prosecution).  Indeed, we might agree this is a good thing: victim-led justice would lead to disparities of sentencing as different victims of similar crimes may respond differently.  Of course, state justice agencies also perpetuate disparities due to prejudice, politics and error.  Returning to Mrs Peterson, for example:

[She] explains in the video that everyone in the courtroom, including herself, was prejudiced against Daniel Lee — who is missing one eye and has Nazi tattoos on his neck — from the moment they saw him.  In contrast, co-defendant Chevie Kehoe was clean-cut and dressed “like a young businessman,” Mrs. Peterson recalls. The judge described Mr. Kehoe as “the ringleader” in the crime and evidence showed he killed Sarah after Daniel Lee refused to do it, but the jury sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole.

A justice system should also avoid the brutalisation of society and prevent cruel and degrading treatment. It should be guided by human rights, proportionality and justice.  However, some argue that capital punishment meets none of these values: Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that, ‘To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice’.  Others argue that execution is not punishment enough: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a tougher sentence.  There is also a moral question of applying execution to those who have had profoundly abusive childhoods, including being indoctrinated as young people into violent extremism, have a diagnosed mental health condition or committed acts while still in their teens.   

From 2015-2018, I worked with colleagues at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol on what justice means to victims of gender violence and how it is sought and experienced.  Our work showed that there are many routes to justice, not all of them through the criminal justice system.  Indeed, the lack of control over the process and outcomes of the criminal justice system was a deterrent for some in reporting to the police. Returning also to the issue of timing, the long wait for cases to come to court and the weeks and months spent in trial and possibly later in appeals, is problematic both for victims, their families and defendants.

A justice system must have broad support from the public and victims to maintain legitimacy.  The case of Daniel Lewis Lee raises questions about the appropriate role of victims and who holds authorities accountable for the fair and humane administration of justice.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

26-June-20 Lady Macbeth and Double Deviance

Pixabay at Pexels

Lady Macbeth. […] Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!

(Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 5)

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and particularly this soliloquy from Lady Macbeth. I have just dug out my old school copy and am reading my scrawled margin notes about her seeking to reject her ‘maternal’ and ‘feminine’ instincts to urge her husband to murder his rival to the throne, Banquo. Later in Act One, Scene Seven, when Macbeth is prevaricating about carrying out the fatal deed, Lady Macbeth taunts him that even she, a woman, could do it:

Lady Macbeth. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Macbeth. If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth. We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.

(Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7)

These visceral images of the tainted breastmilk and pulling the vulnerable baby from the breast to murder it are both powerful and shocking.

Carol Smart (1976) argued that the gender expectations that women should be peaceable, maternal and home-loving mean that women who break these conventions by engaging in offending, particularly violent or sexual offending, are seen by the public and the criminal justice system as ‘doubly deviant’. Double because they offend by their crime, but also against their gender. We associate violent and sexual crime with masculinity, meaning that such offending by females appears to be an ‘exception’ or ‘aberration’ against nature.

Indeed, women who do offend or are associated with such offending – often with male perpetrators – are household names: Myra Hindley, Rose West, Joanna Dennehy, Beverly Allitt, Mary Ann Cotton, Vanessa George or Maxine Carr.

Women do commit violent and sexual offences, but on nowhere near the scale and impact of men – in terms of recorded offences, at least. In England and Wales, around 15% of those arrested are female and females represent around a quarter of prosecutions, convictions and sentences. However, a greater proportion of female offending comprises ‘summary’ offences which are dealt with at the magistrates’ court. These might include non-payment of TV license or shoplifting, for example. The campaigning charity Women in Prison report that most women entering prison serve sentences of less than 12 months: these accounted for 82% of all sentenced first receptions of women in the year ending September 2019. Ministry of Justice data also suggests that most women entering prison to serve a sentence (80%) have committed a non-violent offence. Only around 5% of the current adult prison population are female: there are no female young offenders institutions. Females under 18 who commit serious offences are usually placed in secure training centres.

While double deviance may be an important factor in media coverage, of more concern perhaps to campaigners is the potential for double punishment. There are 12 women’s prisons in England (none in Wales): this means that women may be imprisoned far from home, potentially reducing the number of visits by friends and family. Women are more likely to be carers, often sole parent for children, and may lose children to care if they go into prison. Male prisoners are more likely to know their children continue to be looked after by female partners while they are inside. A significant proportion of women in prison have histories of familial and intimate partner abuse and will engage disproportionately in self-harm while inside. Men and trans men and women face similar and different challenges.

Does it matter if we still assume violent and sexual criminals are male and feel additionally disturbed when the perpetrator turns out to be female? As Lady Macbeth waits tensely outside the chamber for Macbeth to commit the deed, worried that he may not have gone through with it,

Lady Macbeth. Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And ’tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em.

She claims:

Lady Macbeth. Had he [Banquo] not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.

(Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 2)

Later in the play, when the guilt drives her to madness and constant handwashing to wash away the imagined blood, her lady-in-waiting calls a doctor and asks him to observe this strange repeated performance:

Doctor. What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.

Gentlewoman. It is an accustom’d action with her, to seem thus
washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of
an hour.

Lady Macbeth: Yet here’s a spot.

Doctor: Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to
satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.

Lady Macbeth: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow’r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?

(Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1)

The greatness – and modernity – of this play is that while it plays on gender stereotypes in its opening imagery, as the story progresses we see that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are complex, fragile and human characters, beyond their gender. They commit vile acts but also struggle to carry the horror of what they have done. Lady Macbeth is a deviant woman, but it is not clear her deviance is double Macbeth’s.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

22-June-20 Alfred Fagon, Policing and Race

Alfred Fagon was a Jamaican-born playwright who came to England in 1955 at the age of 18.  He worked on the railways and joined the army, where he became a boxing champion.  Leaving the army in 1962 to travel and sing calypso, Alfred settled in Bristol, learning the welding trade and starting to act part-time for HTV.  He auditioned and starred in Mustapha Matura’s play Black Pieces in London in 1970 and would go on to become a playwright and a central figure of Black theatre. 

Fagon’s play ‘Lonely Cowboy’ tells the story of English second-generation Jamaicans Flight and Gina, who open a new café in Brixton, London.  The setting is the early 1980s: police sirens pass regularly.  Flight wants to block out ‘music and back to Africa politics’, ‘ganja’ and ‘the front line’ and run a legitimate business, a place of sanctuary and a good life for him and his partner Gina.

One character in the play is of particular interest here: their friend Jack, who has joined the police.  This is hard news to take for some who know him:

Wally: So Jack get posted back to Brixton.  Still I have no business with no policeman whether I know him or not and on top of it Jack never throw a brick in the riot.  The place [new café] look nice man.  I could have been a successful business man myself if I did not get caught up in the riot.  And now Jack is a policeman.  One of our own blood.

Thelma: Stop worrying yourself about Jack.

Wally: No, I can’t.  In days gone by, we used to sleep and eat in the same house.  Our parents was friends when they were alive. 

(Lonely Cowboy, Act 1, Scene 1)

Later, Jack comes into the café for a drink: another character, Stanley enters.  He is taken aback to see Jack standing there in uniform. Café owner Gina tells him to pull himself together:

Gina: Man, grow up, is only Jack, born and bred Brixton black man.

Stanley: No, well listen to me.  I don’t know what to say.  I mean one love to the brothers and sisters, but a black policeman is no rejoicement.

(Lonely Cowboy, Act 1, Scene 1)

The play captures how individuals negotiate second-generation identity in the ‘mother country’.  For some characters, Jack is a ‘traitor’ for joining the police and has essentially allowed himself to be co-opted by the British state.  The audience can see how colonial experience continues to divide and rule.

Stanley: Every policeman is the same, whether they are black or white.  You sell your birthright to the Englishman. 

Jack: I am an Englishman.  Boy oh boy you have chips, mountains and pressure on your shoulders.

Stanley: Yes, I know, why you is free as a bird.

(Lonely Cowboy, Act 1, Scene 1)

Reading this play reminded me of a Guardian video I have used in teaching.  In this 2013 clip, Metropolitan Police Constable Wallace discusses his experiences of being a Black officer.  He presents a broadly positive picture but, if you pay close attention to this video, there are spoken excerpts and frame shots which demonstrate the challenges he faces, within and outside the force.  Wallace says, “People ask me, ‘Why [as a Black man] am I a police officer?’, [well] why shouldn’t I be?” On 15 June 2020, a female police officer at the Metropolitan Police published a piece in the Guardian on her experience in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests.  She writes:

As a black police officer, this has made my job difficult. Due to the complex political history between the police service and black Britain, officers of colour representing the Met are regularly targeted by these communities when out on patrol. I have seen and experienced slurs of “Here comes the black one”, “Coconut” (a racial slur meaning black on the outside yet white on the inside), “Trust them to roll out the black one for us” and jeers of “Uncle Tom”. I’ve been told repeatedly that I am “working for the white man”.

It is painful to acknowledge that this continues to be the experience of policing in 2020: it does not sound so far from the challenges and conflicted feelings facing Jack and his acquaintances in the Lonely Cowboy

Co-incidentally, my current bed-time read is The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (1990, Faber and Faber).  The book recounts the experiences of Karim, a mixed-heritage Indian and English teenager in the 1970s, who seeks to escape suburbia and ends up acting in theatre in London.  On page 1, Karim introduces himself: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost”.  Kureishi himself joined the Royal Court at 18 and wrote a number of plays (as well as novels and screenplays).  Likely, Hanif Kureishi and Alfred Fagon never met, but together they provide social histories of everyday racism and the challenges of being Black and Asian males in England; women face the compounding intersections of race and gender.

While the roots of the difficult relationship between police and Black and Asian communities in England stretch back before Peel established his bobbies in 1829, the post-war era is also critical in understanding contemporary tensions. For some commentators in the 1970s and 1980s, British policing of minority ethnic communities was an inversion of decades of colonial policing overseas to policing the ‘domestic colonies’ (Sivanandan, 1982; Fryer, 1984; Howe, 1988, cited in in Bowling, Parmar and Phillips, 2008, p.530).  The Immigration Act 1971 extended such powers considerably and “began to shift the control of immigration from external border controls to internal controls, or ‘pass laws’ for people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent resident in Britain” (Sivanandan, 1982, p. 135, in Bowling, Parmar and Phillips, 2008, p.531). The Institute of Race Relations in 1979 published evidence that Black and Asian people were subject to persistent foot and vehicle stops, racially abusive questioning, arbitrary arrest, forced entry and violence, and provocative and unnecessary armed raids. (The IRR Black History Collection is an excellent resource for those interested in that period). In 1978, Stuart Hall and others published a seminal work entitled Policing the Crisis demonstrating how the media, politicians and criminal justice system engendered a moral panic about mugging, rooted in prejudiced associations between Black people and criminality.  This meant that the Black community were subject to a hugely disproportionate level of policing. Public disorder in St Pauls in Bristol in 1980 and Brixton in 1981, followed the implementation of so-called ‘sus laws‘ and against a backdrop of recession and unemployment. This is the context of Fagon’s play. Injustices have continued over the following four decades, though some progress too has been made.

Media commentators talk about this being a potentially defining moment for race, but of course there is no single ‘moment’.  In June 2020, Fagon’s statue in St Paul’s, Bristol, was defaced with acid following the Black Lives Matter protests.  In any social movement, backlash is always lurking to counter and deplete the hopeful statements of today.  Achieving real change requires constant vigilance. It is more and radical action that is needed: not extended reviews into the problem.  The problems are long known. 

As the female officer in the Guardian piece writes:

I love my job and always have. I joined the Met because I wanted to lead the way for children from my own community. These goals have been tainted by my experience so far. Here is an opportunity for the Met to self reflect. How does it treat its BAME staff? Why does the institutional racism identified in the Macpherson report continue to exist in 2020? And how will the Met better serve and mend its broken relationship with the black community in the months and years to come?

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 


Fagon, A., 1999. Plays [11 Josephine Place; The Death of a Black Man; Lonely Cowboy]. London: Oberon Books.

17-June-20 Interview with a Crown Court Judge

Photo by Sam Jean from Pexels

Today’s blog is an interview with a ‘Circuit Judge’ who acts as a Crown Court Judge in England and Wales.  The interview explores a typical day; route into the job; enabling justice for victims and defendants; and the impact of the COVID-lockdown.  My sincere thanks to the contributor for their time in preparing this.

  1. What does a typical day look like for you?

Ordinarily (before Covid-19 lockdown) I would attend the Court building towards 9am, with the Court sitting itself starting at 10am.  I have tried to prepare most cases before the day, since we are provided with lists in advance and have access to all the case documents and materials on a digital case system, but the first hour is spent dealing with any outstanding preparation and reading additional documents / reports etc which may have been uploaded at late notice.  The listing of the Court will vary between trials, which may be in progress for a few days – sometimes weeks, or other general business, such as dealing with procedural hearings and sentencing cases.  More defendants plead guilty than not guilty, since generally cases do not reach the Crown Court without there being a significant amount of evidence, so there are usually quite a number of sentencing hearings each day and throughout the week.

By about 4pm it is generally the case that the Court sitting day will have finished and this provides some time later in the afternoon to prepare cases for the following day.  Although I do have to complete some paperwork and can deal with certain matters administratively, the main focus of the work is physically being in Court and making decisions in a variety of different cases – as I have said above, these range from initial hearings where pleas are entered, through to conducting trials with a jury and numerous sentencing hearings.

  1. What was your route into this role and is the job what you expected?

I am a “Circuit Judge”, which in my case means being a Crown Court judge dealing exclusively with criminal prosecutions.   There are Circuit Judges in other jurisdictions, dealing with a variety of civil and family law matters.  My route into the role arose from a long prior history of working as a criminal law defence solicitor over a period of more than 30 years.  Judges are appointed from the ranks of existing practitioners.  Generally speaking, in relation to the Crown Court, barristers are more likely to apply and to be appointed than solicitors.  However, I was a solicitor for all of those years, so this makes my appointment one of the less common ones.  People can apply to become a part-time Judge (either in the Crown Court or the Magistrates’ Court) after at least seven years of practice, which would normally be expected to have taken place in the relevant jurisdiction.  You do not have to wait as long as 30 years!

In my case, I made various applications over the years since I knew that the work would interest me and I saw it as a career progression.  At first I was not successful, but in 2006 I was appointed as a part-time judge in the Magistrates’ Court – so my professional life was split between my day job working in a criminal defence firm and then fulfilling bookings to do judging work away from the area in which I was normally based.  About 10 years later I was appointed as a part-time judge in the Crown Court and two years after that managed to obtain a full-time appointment, which I started in 2018.  All judicial appointments are made through a long and detailed process of application which is administered by the “Judicial Appointments Commission”.  Anyone interested in researching what would be involved could find out more information from their website.

As to whether it is what I expected, I would say the answer is simply “yes”.  This is partly because as a practitioner in criminal law I knew what judges have to do and had a pretty clear insight into their work – but also because I had been doing the job part-time for a number of years before obtaining the full-time appointment.

  1. How well do you think the justice system in England and Wales operates, including in terms of (a) ensuring the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted? and (b) delivering what victims want?

I think that this is a mixed picture.  As I mentioned above, cases tend not to reach a Court without there being a reasonable amount of evidence.  Sometimes that evidence is just obvious and overwhelming – such as somebody being caught in the act, or leaving their fingerprints and DNA at the scene of a burglary.  Sometimes the evidence comes down to dispute between individuals as to who did what to whom, such as in a fight or other personal dispute.  It has to be remembered that most people in the system overall will plead guilty, because they are often faced with clear and obvious evidence.  So to that extent, many of the guilty are convicted by their own admission.

Where cases are disputed and reach trial, the inherent issue in the trial process is that those making the decision as to what happened (whether say Magistrates in the Magistrates’ Court, or juries in the Crown Court) were not there at the time of the event in question!  So they have to interpret as best they can what happened from such evidence as there is and how that is presented.  Further, the “standard of proof” in a criminal trial is that the Court must be “sure” of guilt before they can convict.  This is a high standard on the basis that people should not be convicted of criminal offences and potentially sent to prison on the basis that they might have done something, or even that they probably did something.  By definition, this will mean that a certain number of guilty people will be acquitted.  From my experience it is more likely that a guilty person will be acquitted than that a innocent person will be convicted.  One would like to think that if the accused person is innocent then it should not be possible for the evidence to demonstrate that they are guilty.  However, of course this is not always the case and there are many examples over the years of miscarriages of justice, both publicly well-known and otherwise.  Nonetheless, whilst it is not possible to access to reliable data, I would suggest from my experience that convictions of the innocent are comparatively rare.

It is difficult to be confident as to how far the system “delivers what victims want”.  In many cases, this will be achieved but inevitably, in view of that high standard of proof, many victims will know that their assailant or perpetrator simply “got away with it”.  Indeed, many cases do not even reach the Courts if it is felt that the evidence just is not there to support a prosecution.  Generally, as a society, we have been guided by the view that it is better that a guilty person goes free rather than that an innocent person should be convicted.  When defendants are convicted (or plead guilty) I appreciate that victims may feel that the sentences of the Court are inadequate.  We have a problematically overcrowded prison population and the Courts very much try to use prison as a last resort and then only for the minimum time that can be properly justified.  This will lead to victims being disappointed on occasions when they see the perpetrator keep their liberty or not be sent to prison for as long as they might have hoped.  The Courts do take into account the views of victims, particularly in terms of the impact of the offence by way of “personal statements” that victims are encouraged to make, but the victim cannot as such direct the sentence.

  1. What challenges has the justice system in England and Wales faced since the COVID-19 lockdown?

The simple answer to this is that the Covid-19 lockdown has fundamentally affected the running of the Courts, particularly in relation to jury trials in the Crown Court.  It is impossible to keep people 2 metres apart from each other in most Courts up and down the country.  Some trials have recently (June 2020) resumed tentatively in a few Court centres where special arrangements have been possible to use multiple Court rooms on a single case, but most Courts cannot facilitate that.  As a result, all trials were stopped for over two months and the backlog in the system now is very severe.  For some time to come, the Courts will (eventually) be trying to catch up and this will result in matters being dealt with many months and years after the event in question.  It is a very serious problem.  The Court where I am based has not conducted any jury trials since mid-March, which at the time of writing is now three months, and there is no clear indication as to when we will be able to start again.

In terms of other cases, those not involving trials, there are still many delays and adjournments.  The Court has tried to minimise the number of individuals attending Court by using video-link technology, so most lawyers now appear “remotely” rather than in person.  Various defendants have had issues attending Court as a result of lockdown – so delays are in existence across the board at the present time.  The Court simply cannot hear as many cases per day as it used to, since all hearings now have to be timetabled for video-link appointments and everything simply takes longer.  Before Covid-19, if I had a busy list, all the defendants and lawyers would be milling around Court at the same time, and it would be possible to call cases on quickly as soon as they were ready and without the need for specific timetabling on the day.

  1. How far do you think the lockdown experience will have longer-term implications for how justice is delivered going forward?

The main issue here is delay.  Courts will be ending up sentencing people many months, and indeed years, after their offence was committed.  In many cases, this will benefit the defendant – a Court may well have sent someone to prison if they had been dealt with reasonably close to the time of their offence, but may find it much more problematic to do so after such a long delay.  Equally, there are certain defendants remanded in custody because of the nature and seriousness of the alleged offence or because of their record, who will be held on remand and without a conclusion to their case for far longer than would otherwise ever have been the case.

So, the delay in itself can affect the outcome one way or the other.  I do however think that the increased use of technology and video communications will be an advantage in some respects.  Looking ahead, even when the crisis is over, it will be helpful to have more matters dealt with remotely where possible – cutting down on excessive travel and expense for lawyers in particular.  I am sure that there will be solicitors and barristers hoping that they will be able to continue to take advantage of these arrangements in the future where possible.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

12-June-20 Solving Crimes

Photo by Pixabay at Pexels

I have been reading Martha Gever’s chapter (reproduced in McLaughlin and Muncie, 2013) on the ‘spectacle of crime’ in relation to the American TV series CSI: Crime Series Investigation.  One phrase in particular set me thinking.  Gever talks of “…the flux of visual imagery that harnesses the quest for scientific truths to scenes of very dramatic and always successful crime detection in CSI…” (2013, p.449, my italics).  The requirements of a good story include characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution – in this case, successful detection.

Crime narratives rarely leave the crime unsolved – unless a sequel is planned.  It is part of the enjoyment of watching and reading crime drama that, Holmes-like, we anticipate the perpetration, motive and apprehension of the suspect.  And where the central premise is an unsolved incident, the same story elements are transferred to victim, alleged perpetrator or community experience – as in the Netflix drama The Staircase, which follows the journey of Michael Peterson, convicted for the murder of his partner, Kathleen.  In this way, fiction and screen writers impose resolution and quasi-detection.

But how far does successful crime detection reflect policing reality?  Before April 2013 in the UK, solved crimes were measured using ‘detection rates’ (Home Office, 2019, p.6). These were the number of cases resolved with a formal or informal criminal justice outcome.  Formal justice outcomes (or ‘sanction detections’) include a criminal charge, a penalty notice for disorder, or a caution; informal justice outcomes (or ‘non-sanction detections’) are those where no further action is taken. 

From April 2014, and as at March 2019, detection has been subsumed under a broader outcomes framework (Home Office, 2019, p.8). 

  • Charged/Summonsed
  • Taken into consideration
  • Out-of-court (formal
  • Out-of-court (informal)
  • Prosecution prevented or not in the public interest
  • Evidential difficulties (suspect identified; victim supports action)
  • Evidential difficulties (victim does not support action) 
  • Investigation complete – no suspect identified
  • Action undertaken by another body/agency (from April 2015)
  • Further investigation to support formal action not in the public interest (police decision) (from January 2016)

The 2019 Home Office release (p.6) shows that in 44% of offences, no suspect was identified.  However, this varies across crime type and is particularly high for example among theft cases (74%), and far lower in rape (9%) and homicide cases.  So perhaps the high detection rates represented on screen and in fiction, which focus disproportionately on serious crimes, are not so far off reality.  In a significant proportion of cases, the victim does not (or does not continue to) support police action: this applied in 39% of rape cases and 43% of violence against the person cases.  In 32% of cases in the year to March 2019, offences were closed as a result of evidential difficulties.

So while there may be detection, there may not be justice.

Gever (2013, p.461) says that in CSI, investigators are shown “at work searching a database, peering through an electron microscope, or skilfully operating all sorts of elaborate equipment”.  She argues that this spectacle “constitutes arguments for the advantages of digital computing and communication systems as the most efficient, most effective surrogate police” (2013, p.461).  Again, the daily reality for UK policing is rather different.  Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick acknowledged in 2019 that inquiries now were more complex, involving a large amount of digital evidence.  Despite (very legitimate) concerns about the surveillance and technical capacity of police, it is not clear that forces are yet adopting emergent technologies and forensic innovations CSI-style.  Austerity and organisational culture have mitigated against this and lead to the more troubling scenario of functions being increasingly outsourced to the private sector.

This raises the question of what we are willing to trade for more successful crime detection.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

8-June-20 The Impact of COVID-19 on Sex Workers

Photo by Herbert III Willkomm from Pexels

This was first published by the author on 8 June 2020 in LSE COVID-19 Social Policy, a blog by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In 2019, I co-authored a Home Office-commissioned report with colleagues at the University of Bristol on the nature and prevalence of prostitution and sex work in England and Wales. As part of that research, we heard from over 500 individuals involved in selling sex, and followed up with more than 40 within that group to learn more about their experiences. Since the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, I have been thinking about our participants in that research and how they are managing.

The challenges facing those who sell sex both in the UK and around the world during the pandemic have been articulated in academic journals, by organisations working with and representing sex workers (including NUM, ECP, Changing Lives, Beyond the Streets, SWARM and One25) and on news and social media. Of course, many of those selling sex are unaffiliated to any group or support organisation: they work alone in privacy or remain outside the public and media gaze, through choice or otherwise.

There is stark commonality, but also diversity across the sex industry. Most are working in-person, providing sexual services, including full sex either at home, outdoors or in another venue such as a brothel, parlour or hotel; others are working through phonelines or online, webcamming or making clips to order, for example. Given the lockdown, there has been some movement to online, but many will have continued to work in-person. Most sellers are women, including trans women. There are also a significant number of male sex workers, as well as those who identify with other genders or none.

Some are successful entrepreneurs, running their own websites, operating from dedicated premises, registered as self-employed and paying tax. A proportion of these may therefore have met the criteria to apply for the UK Self-Employment Income Support Scheme set up in response to the lockdown. However, the Home Office research suggested that the majority of those selling sex are either doing so temporarily, intermittently or long term to make ends meet, including as a supplement to other paid work. Many are caring (often solo) for others, including children, partners or parents; some are managing long-term physical illness or mental health issues; many are migrants, some with insecure status; some are students; some involved are victims of partner abuse, or are misusing drugs or alcohol. Some may register their earnings formally; most will not. I would term this majority as ‘sex workers’ or ‘individuals engaged in survival sex’ (see Mulvihill, 2019), and it these groups that are the focus of this commentary. There are also a significant number of mainly women and girls who are coerced into, and abused by others through, ‘prostitution’ – which, while recognising the overlap and movement between categories, I would rather term ‘sexual exploitation’.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus two issues for those engaged in sex work and survival sex in the UK: the inadequacy of the legal environment, and the inadequacy of the welfare safety net and public provision.

In England and Wales, it is legal to sell and to buy sex. However, myriad activities around the sale of sex are illegal, such as pimping, kerb-crawling, soliciting on the street or working with one or more other people from a premises, as this constitutes a ‘brothel’. These laws have been layered piecemeal over decades and are unevenly enforced, more so given tightening police resources. They are ostensibly aimed at preventing exploitation, but stem as much from a concern to keep such activity out of public view.

Whether you understand selling sex as a job like any other or as an outcome of patriarchy and other inequalities – or both – most can agree that sex workers should not be criminalised. Governments should seek to allow sellers to work together in a small-scale and self-managed way. Such brothels already exist up and down the country, but sex workers risk inconsistent policing, depending on where they are located. The illegal status of brothels places barriers to reporting violence or other crimes against sellers. Those selling sex on the street should not be criminalised. Equally, the concerns of communities in relation to both indoor and outdoor sex work need to be recognised and negotiated. Rather than seeking to manage outdoor sellers, far more resource should be invested in tackling the drivers for street sex, which are well documented (see for example, Matthews et al., 2014; Sanders, 2007).

The legal status of sex workers links to the second issue of access to welfare and collective provision. The UK, like other liberalising economies, has seen a steady erosion of the welfare safety net. The threshold for eligibility is ever higher and the benefit received ever lower. State dependence is stigmatised and personal responsibility prized (though inheritances and other financial support from one’s family are encouraged). Sex workers, like the majority of society, are vulnerable. Not vulnerable in the sense of helpless or lacking resourcefulness, ability or graft, but rather vulnerable through exposure to changing individual circumstances and unforgiving welfare and legal contexts. Many of us can face this sudden exposure when we find ourselves caring for others, made unemployed, discriminated against, migrate or become ill. Surveys in the US and UK suggest that at least a third of millennials, for example, have no savings put by; and another third would only have three months pay if their income stopped. So a safety net, whether that is short or longer term, is crucial both to uphold human dignity but also to avoid the future multiplier costs to the state of economic and social exclusion.

Yet austerity and the difficulties in accessing Universal Credit have pushed many into exchanging sex for money. How ironic that now the COVID-19 crisis is affecting mainstream workers, the government has adopted a ‘pay now, verify later’ approach to Universal Credit – and that borrowing, minimised for a decade in favour of austerity, has reached unprecedented levels in order to stave off a depression. Had we prioritised spending after the 2008 financial crisis to invest in a fairer safety net and more robust public provision, we might have been better equipped to meet the challenge of the pandemic.

Around the world, those who sell sex (including those who add significantly to national income through the tourism and leisure industries) have found that they either have no access to government income support (France, Thailand, Japan or Kenya) or minimal access (Brazil or Mexico). In New Zealand, by contrast, where sex work is decriminalised, applying for help has been more straightforward.

The pandemic has temporarily allowed us to see alternatives to the current order. It is possible to hold quite divergent views on prostitution and sex work, yet at the same time agree that punitive criminal justice or welfare measures appear only to harm those who sell sex – indeed, harm all those exposed by social inequity or a change in circumstances. By lifting those selling sex out of social, economic and legal grey zones and giving them the resources to stand in equality with others, they can determine their own futures.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.