Crime, Sense and Sensibility…

Yesterday evening, I followed a link to an article tweeted by David Allen Green which just said ‘read this’. And so I did, even though it meant squinting and hurting my eyes trying to read it on my tiny blackberry screen. And so should you, although you should also beware that it might both move you to tears and frustrate you, and not just because of the squinting…

Move you to tears because it exposes the trauma of being raped, the incomprehension and moral questioning that goes with it, as well as the pain. Frustrating too because it opposes raw emotions to a seemingly obvious solution, that the crime should be reported, and hopefully prosecuted.

It seems so simple: of course one should report such acts, it can only lead to something better. Better for the victim who might get justice and hopefully closure, better for society at large as it sends a message that such actions are not tolerated and potentially protects other victims and maybe also better for the perpetrator who might become aware of the pain he’s caused and, hopefully, reform.

But is it so simple? We might find it hard to understand but it’s even harder to ignore the vehemence or violence with which this man refuses all police involvement in his ‘case’. What they see as help he sees as intrusion, and he just wants to “not think about it any more”.

It would be easy to dismiss this reaction as part of the psychological trauma of being raped and insist that justice must follow its course. But, as an academic interested in criminal justice and sexual violence in particular, I see at least two very important points to bear in mind:

  • No matter how you choose to analyse and classify crimes, acts of sexual violence and, a fortiori, rape, are in a class of their own. Whether you believe that they are about sexual desire or pure violence on the part of the perpetrator (another article well worth reading), the effect on the victim is the same: a violation of the most intimate aspect of your physical integrity. Sexual violence might not always be about sex for the person committing it but it always is for the victim, and brings with it particular trauma and psychological consequences. This will inevitably make it a challenge for the criminal justice system to deal with such crimes…
  • From a rational perspective, the only solution is, well, to find a solution to these crimes. And the solution is generally understood to be a criminal investigation, prosecution, trial and punishment if the accused is found guilty. Yet, and this may be hard to hear for people who believe in the criminal justice system, is it always the best way? Are we putting people through the further trauma of a trial in order to satisfy what we believe is best for them, sometimes against their instincts?

Discussions about crime and the criminal justice system are often drawn in black and white, as if it was all so clear and straightforward. Principles, rules, sanctions, but what about emotions? What place, if any, for feelings and emotions in the criminal justice system? Or should justice be necessarily calm and rational in the face of conflicting emotions?

I don’t have the answers and I guess I don’t expect to find some any time soon. One thing I do know though: while I keep looking for answers, I’ll make sure I keep this story that moved me to tears at the back, or even front, of my rational mind…


Higher what?

I was living abroad with poor internet access during the debate on tuition fees a few months ago and despite the lack of information, I felt incredibly frustrated by it. Without this present soapbox outlet blog, I didn’t really get an opportunity to vent how I felt (surprising how people in Sierra Leone don’t care much about UK university fees…) and so I just mumbled a bit to myself and let it drop. But now I’m back in the UK and onto the blogging scene, a couple of recent blog posts and articles have resurrected said frustration…

It isn’t so much with the fees themselves but, more importantly, with how the debate has unfolded… What frustrates me so is that it’s almost exclusively been about the price and market potential (is that a technical term?) of higher education. And while interesting and probing arguments have been made about whether or not university courses can indeed be treated as a commodity and students as rational consumers, I feel something’s been missing.

Buying things 101

Now, as you’ve probably figured out, I’m no economist (although apparently even a parrot can be trained to sound like one, so there’s still hope!). But my wide experience as a buyer of things tells me that how much you pay for something depends on how much you value it. And how you value an item is based on why you’re buying and what you are willing to pay for.

Most people would not pay more than £5 for a burger from McDonalds, but would be happy to pay more for a burger at my local pub and might even be inclined to fork out however much on a dinner at the Fat Duck! It’s all food but they get McDonalds for convenience, not quality, pub meal for atmosphere and quality of food and spending £250+ at the Fat Duck is (I assume) about extremely good food, pristine service and exclusivity…

So, how much you spend on something is dependent on what you get from it, be it the quality of the ingredients, the surroundings, the service or the overall experience.

Education, Education, … you get the idea.

How does this translate when it comes to higher education? Well, we’ve heard a lot about how much it should (or shouldn’t) cost but little about what that money will actually buy. Is it a piece of paper with a prestigious name on it, is it good quality teaching or a great location and interesting student life?

All these things are important and inform a student’s choice as to where to apply, and universities are becoming more aware of what they need to do to attract students. Hopefully they will up their game even more to justify the hefty price tag that now comes with the ‘university experience’. However, as many have argued, students are not ‘rational consumers’ and this is not a typical market.

At the end of the day the clue as to what matters is, as ever, in the name: education.

Lest we forget, going to university is about learning. Learning about your subject, about what you want to do with your life and about yourself. And if it is about learning then it means it should also be about teaching. Yet in a lot of universities, teaching is not being prioritised. Academics are often not trained in teaching methods and the pressure is on them to publish and be widely known as that’s how the departments will get more funding (without going into detail, the fact that the Higher Education funding body relies on a ‘Research Excellence Framework’ rather than, say, a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ to determine funding of universities is telling in itself)…

Face to face time with professors and lecturers at university is generally extremely low and tutorial teaching is often subcontracted to graduate students with varying degrees of qualification and/or interest (I know because I was, and still am, one of them, though on the more interested side). To teach at primary school, you need a PGCE qualification, to teach at university you need to effectively just have spent a lot of time in a library…

Which is why I feel the debate about tuition fees missed a trick. Tuition fees are now definitely going up, and for having been to university in France where tuition fees are around £200, I don’t think them going down would necessarily be a great thing either.

But there has been little talk about what the money will be for and what students will get from it.  Will students pay more money so that their uni can get a shiny new lab or a famous professor? Or will students pay more so that they get better courses and more small-group tuition?

Will it be over-priced food in an exclusive setting or a good meal in a great atmosphere?

Week-end reading list…

A few reading tips for the week-end, or to save for productive procrastination next week at work!

  • John Flood’s article about legal education reflects a view that is very close to my academic heart, that education shouldn’t be restricted to professional training, especially in the legal field…
  • On a darker note, another letter is published in the Guardian, from Bradley Manning, literally rotting away in prison in the US. Certainly puts to shame the “Dickensian […], Victorian conditions” Assange’s lawyer complained of a few weeks ago…
  • And finally on a more pleasant note, still enjoying the Magistrate’s Blog, with it interesting snippets of real judicial life. It’s generally short, often funny and always interesting!

Pervert Etiquette

The Duke of York’s unfortunate social agenda has hit the headlines recently, from the offspring of dictators, to Arab sheikhs and other unsavoury characters… One ‘friend’ in particular has excited much attention from the media: Jeffrey Epstein, american billionaire (or is it millionaire?) playboy.

The press has used many titles when referring to this gentleman, yet one must be meticulous when discussing royal relations. And so I’ve found myself wondering: what is the adequate etiquette and should Mr Epstein be referred to as a convicted sex offender, a paedophile or just a plain pervert?

What’s in a name?

The term preferred by the tabloids seems to be ‘paedophile’, although it should be pointed out that this is not a legal term, more of an honorific title I guess.

As a medical diagnosis, paedophilia is typically defined as a psychiatric disorder in adults or late adolescents (persons age 16 and older) characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children, which generally means 13 years or younger. So a paedophile would be someone who has been diagnosed with having these particular urges, although he or she might not have acted on it.

As a journalistic diagnosis (generally of the tabloidistic speciality), the definition of the term seems to be slightly different and a paedophile tends to be male, middle aged and sexually attracted to children or teenagers.

As a legal diagnosis, there is no such thing as a paedophile, although one can be convicted and sentenced for ‘child sex offences’ for certain sexual interactions with children. As it turns out, our distinguished subject has not been so far convicted of sexual abuse against a child, though he is a convicted sex offender.

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Prison, Blue Skies and a Desert Island…

Desert Island Discs is not where I expected my inspiration to come from for my next blog post. Yet, listening to the inspiring Dame Anne Owers on the show last friday, I was struck by something she said about why we put people in prison:

If we think about it more deeply, what kind of example do we want to model to people whose own behaviour have often been seriously deficient? Do we want them to come out of prison thinking that if you have power over people then you can use it to make them feel humiliated? Or do we want to put before them a different way of behaving? That’s not about being nice, it’s about making demands, it’s about challenging and it’s about trying to change people.

Listening to her reminded me of an idea that’s been at the back of my mind for a while: when it comes to crime and how it is being dealt with within society, no one seems to be thinking outside the box. Most of the ideas floating about in the debate on crime are just slightly different versions of the system that we have now: responsibility if you do something wrong, punishment for having done something wrong, prison as a form of punishment, and more punishment if necessary further down the line…

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To the Guillawtine!

After the Tunisian, the Egyptian and now the ongoing Lybian revolution, it seems David Cameron and the Tory government have been inspired to start their own revolution… against judges.

After the assault on the ECHR judges for the decision condemning the UK for not debating the issue of prisoners’ right to vote adequately, the UK Supreme Court has become the latest target of the government. As the Home Secretary put it, they are keen “to assert that it is Parliament that makes our laws, not the courts”.

Some have pointed out that the reaction seems more like a primitive chest-beating to reaffirm one’s authority, especially on a day where the government had effected a major policy u-turn… And what better way to cheer the country and unite them than by shining the spotlight on that old foe: the paedophile.

And so the turf for the fight was picked: a decision by the Supreme Court which “seemed to fly in the face of common sense” and made the already nauseous Mr Cameron even more ill at ease. This decision, which was actually published 10 months ago, states that it is disproportionate and unnecessary to deny a right to ask for review to sex offenders who are, for the moment, obliged to be on the sex offender register ‘indefinitely’.

Leaving aside the timing of the discussion for this decision which was taken and made public so long ago, it is worth going over the actual content of the decision and what the court said, to determine whether we should start sharpening our guillawtines just yet…

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If it’s good enough for the Lord Chief Justice

Find (and follow!) lexvulgaris on twitter for suggestions and timely (though restrained, I promise!) comments…

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