Better Politics of Crime

“When people are thinking about crime there is always more at stake than the questions how to prevent it, how to reduce it, and how to rehabilitate offenders”

“Imagine a series of encounters with other positions, which you personally may feel more or less an affinity or lack of affinity with but all of which you treat as being legitimate answers to a question – even the ones with which you might disagree. This method of ongoing dialogue itself prefigures an answer to the question in this case: what a better politics of crime would look like.” That, in a nutshell, is the significance of the most recent research project Professor Ian Loader (Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford) is undertaking in collaboration with Professor Richard Sparks (University of Edinburgh).

It all started several years ago when Professors Loader and Sparks published a book entitled Public Criminology? (Routledge, 2010), an analysis of what criminologists are trying to accomplish when they promote their ideas beyond the academy, in public debates and towards official policy. One of the main conclusions of the book was that criminologists are trying to construct a better politics of crime and its regulation.

Reviews at the time pointed out that the authors offered only a brief sketch of what they thought a better politics of crime and its regulation would actually look like. The result is the project that Professor Loader describes, to be published as a book, under the working title of Ideologies and Crime.

Originally, the authors wanted to approach the question from within a broadly social democratic tradition of thought – and this remains the eventual aim. But it soon became apparent that the project required a prior engagement with the plurality of political traditions. An answer rooted in the social democratic tradition would simply be one among many others informed by different political traditions. What emerged was an attempt to map out how perspectives rooted in political ideologies shape the ways people think about questions of crime control. The project is also an opportunity to think through how crime and related issues of security and terrorism have influenced political fortunes in recent decades, sometimes even changing the contours and substance of ideological positions.

The project involves a full-scale reconstruction and appraisal of how different political traditions – such as neoliberalism, liberalism, conservatism, feminism, and various new kinds of political movements around environmentalism and cosmopolitism – would approach and answer the question of good crime governance. This has been the main thrust of a recent paper on “Ideologies and Crime: Political Ideas and the Dynamics of Crime Control,” to be published in the journal Global Crime later in 2016. The paper serves as a kind of prospectus for the book, according to Professor Loader.

But Professors Loader and Sparks see their project as much more than compiling a compendium of diverse arguments. “It is not necessarily to tell the world what we think better politics of crime looks like. It is about trying to shift the conversation about crime onto a different terrain. When people are thinking about crime there is always more at stake than the questions how to prevent it, how to reduce it, and how to rehabilitate offenders. Crime generates passions, it invokes a whole emotional register of blame, censure, condemnation; it is about sympathy, empathy, solidary, mercy and remorse.”

Professor Loader’s recent visit to the Allard School of Law gave him an opportunity to present a paper that forms part of this research entitled “Populism and Technocracy in Crime Control” (to be published in the 6th edition of Oxford Handbook of Criminology in late 2016). Also envisioned as another chapter in their forthcoming book, it is an attempt to reconstruct what is distinctive about populism as a particular strand of political thought in relation to thinking about crime. Professors Loader and Sparks see populism as a force that denigrates expertise and what it sees as elitism in criminal justice, pressing instead the claims of the excluded, whether victims, or the ‘law-abiding majority’ – or simply public opinion. Yet what emerges is that populism and technocracy have more in common than it sometimes seems.

 “They arise out of the same anti-political context – from a lack of public faith and trust in democratic politics that is creating a vacuum populism and technocracies both try to fill. Another commonality is that both of them in different ways squeeze out democratic procedures. They neglect the importance of enabling people to participate actively and meaningfully in areas that affect their lives, including questions about crime and responses to it as the means to generate democratically legitimate forms of crime control.”

It becomes clear that, in working towards a way of thinking about crime control politically, Professors Loader and Sparks are in fact reflecting on the meaning and significance of a whole series of ideas in political thought, addressing such key concepts as authority, justice, rights, freedom and obligation – in other words, capturing in concrete form a broad discussion about the nature of political life.

For further information on the project please contact Professor Ian Loader directly.

Professor Ian Loader

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology in the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of All Souls College (since 2005). He previously worked as a Professor of Criminology at Keele University, and as a Lecturer in Criminology and Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include policing and security, penal culture and politics, public sensibilities towards crime, order, and justice, the relationship between crime control and political culture and ideologies, and criminology and social and political theory.

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