What is restorative justice and does it work?

Restorative Justice encompasses victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, and sentencing circles, emphasizing core values and ethical principles. It promotes lay encounters, narrative expression, and ritual dynamics, empowering communities and promoting emotional restoration. The approach aligns with principles of fairness, accountability, and empowerment and has shown promise in reducing reoffending rates.

Restorative Justice includes activities such as victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, restorative conferences, sentencing circles and community reparation boards. 

Defining restorative justice

Restorative justice has been defined as both a set of values and practices, but also as a set of processes and even outcomes. There is no agreement on how to define the concept. 

The goal of restorative justice for those focusing on values is to ‘cement a common set of core values and ethics’ (Shapland 2014). 

Others prefer to define restorative justice in more concrete terms, as a set of practices, as this makes it easier to research. 

Home Office researcher Tony Marshall defines restorative justice as a process whereby all parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future. 

In this definition restorative justice is both a practice, as people come together, and it includes a forward looking element. It is also a process involving dialogue, and an outcome, people agreeing on what should be done to repair the harm done by the offence. 

Including an outcome as part of a definition is a problem because this means the definition may not be inclusive enough. For example in some restorative practices the victims may not consent to the outcomes. 

restorative justice

A more useful definition may thus be provided by Daly (2016)…

“Restorative justice is a contemporary justice mechanism to address crime, disputes, and bounded community conflict. The mechanism is a meeting (or several meetings) of affected individuals, facilitated by one or more impartial people. Meetings can take place at all phases of the criminal process, pre-arrest, diversion from court, pre-sentence, and post-sentence, as well as for offending or conflicts not reported to the police. Specific practices will vary, depending on context, but are guided by rules and procedures that align with what is appropriate in the context of the crime, dispute, or bounded conflict.”

This definition is a practice and a process but not a value or an outcome. The core elements in this definition are 

  • Lay encounters
  • Expresses narratives
  • Ritual dynamics 

Lay encounters 

Restorative Justice practices empower lay people – victims, families, friends and community members – to actively participate in the process. 

This stands in contrast to traditional justice mechanisms in industrial societies, Usually the State takes control of justice through professional bureaucracies, denying communities any say in the process. 

It is a bottom-up encounter where lay people interact to address the specific impacts of a particular criminal offence or conflict. The main forms this encounter can take include victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing and circle sentencing. 

Victim-offender mediation, found in North America and Europe, involves an encounter between victim and offender, convened by a neutral third party facilitator. 

Family group conferencing, mainly found in New Zealand and Australia,  involves a larger circle: victims, offenders and direct stakeholders such as family, friends and respected community members. 

Circle sentencing, usually found in North America, Australia and New Zealand is normally embedded within communities. It is especially common among First Nations peoples and includes the offender, victims, community elders, justices and other criminal justice officials. 

While community members are involved, so are professionals such as facilitators, social workers, the police and probation officers. 

Narrative Expression 

Restorative Justice allows victims and offenders to tell their stories in their own words. It involves the development of a narrative that articulates the voices of lay people. Most encounters involve a carefully designed and managed script. As a bare minimum this process of narrative expression should involve: 

  1. The facilitator asks the offender to describe the events leading up to the offence and the details of it. 
  2. Then the victim and other participants speak about they have been affected 
  3. The facilitator asks the offender how they have been affected and what they have heard. 

The expression of emotion is central to the restorative justice process and two narratives emerge: harm and accountability. 

The narrative of harm emerges that allows victims to articulate the impact of the offence in their own words.

The narrative of accountability allows the offender to accept responsibility and express remorse

This is very different to the ‘hegemonic tales’ that dominate in courtroom interactions (Ewick and Silbey, 1995). 

Victims may be allowed to speak in court, often through a victim statement, but this isn’t the same as a narrative that is co-produced and negotiated. 

Offenders and other people are usually excluded from speaking.  When they do they are obliged to speak in the alien formal language of the court. 

Ritual Dynamics 

It is widely acknowledged by sociologists and anthropologists that rituals play an important role in social life. (Durkheim 1995, Douglas 1984). As Durkheim pointed out over a century ago, rituals are important as they help people to make sense of a society’s collective values and give structure to otherwise shapeless social events. Rituals also provide social solidarity and help sustain a belief in a moral order. 

Criminologists have noted that most criminal justice systems have developed increasingly sophisticated ‘degradation rituals’ to mark the guilt and punishment of an offender (Garfkinkel 1956). However, unlike other social institutions, criminal justice fails to provide corresponding ‘reintegrative rituals’. Restorative Justice allows for the performance of these reintegrative rituals. 

The aspects of restorative justice rituals that make them unique are staging, choreography, casting, scripting and symbols. 

  1. There are clear physical boundaries: participants usually sit in a circle with no hierarchy. There is a clear delineation between who is part of the circle and who is an outsider. This sets it apart from the adversarial settings of a court. 
  2. Facilitators make an effort to design a seating arrangement that supports vulnerable parties and maximises interaction. 
  3. Effort goes into encouraging a ‘community of care.’ 

The process usually encourages some kind of agreement that reflects the consensus reached. The steps the offenders are to make to right the harms they have done are usually written down and signed by all present.  

There will be variation in restorative justice processes. They will vary depending on the nature of the offence and who is involved. 

Restorative values, principles and standards

Braithwate (2008) distinguished between procedural standards and outcome standards. 

Constraining standards

Constraining standards include empowerment, non-domination and accountability. These must be honoured as ‘fundamental procedural safeguards’. 

Maximising standards

Maximising standards include restoration of relationships, emotional restoration, and the prevention of future injustice, usually interpreted as a reduction in offending. Maximising standards are conditional on the desires and capabilities of the parties. 

Emergent standards

Emergent standards include remorse, apology, censure of act, forgiveness and mercy. These can only emerge organically, they can’t really be actively encouraged like maximising standards. For instance, a victim of crime should never be required to express forgiveness just an offender should never be compelled to show remorse, as this would violate the constraining standards of non-domination and empowerment. 

Visually, constraining standards would be at the basis of a pyramid, they form the basis on which any restorative justice encounter is built upon.. 

Restorative Justice mechanisms are ritual dynamics, lay encounters and expressive narratives. 

Depending on the dynamics in a session, maximising standards may be encouraged and emergent standards may emerge. 

Braithwaite (2022) has argued that both crime and justice can be experienced as forms of domination. He sets out a theory of justice that is based on freedom as foundational in the fight against domination. 

This concept of freedom here is located within a republican conception that is respectful, inclusive and intolerant to all forms of domination. 

Restorative Justice values also reflect a deeply relational way of doing justice. This reflects a long history of indigenous and feminist ways of seeing and knowing the world. This takes as a starting point that we live in relations with others, and transforming these, both on a micro and macro level is central. 

Explanatory theories of how restorative justice works

A number of criminological theories attempt to account for some of the claims made by restorative justice advocates. The three main theories are:

  • Shame theories
  • Procedural Justice Theory 
  • Ritual theories. 

Shame theories 

Shame is the central emotion around which restorative justice is built. Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory is the most well-known theoretical foundation for restorative justice. 

In his groundbreaking Crime, Shame and Reintegration (1989) Braithwaite makes the distinction between stigmatic and reintegrative shaming.  

Braithwaite demonstrates that most criminal justice processes shame both the act and the offender. This effectively ostracises the offender from the community making it difficult for them to reconnect. 

Reintegrative shaming however shames the act but allows the offender a chance to express remorse and be welcomed back into the community. 

Reintegrative shaming allows for a community to strengthen social bonds and allows remorse, apology, mercy and forgiveness to emerge. 

Scheff and Retzinger (1991) have suggested that shame is a repressed emotion in contemporary society. Thus we are often ashamed about feeling shame. If an offender is ashamed about committing a crime he will feel worse because of the shame about feeling ashamed. This can lead to further aggression, violence and general dysfunctional behaviour. 

Restorative Justice may work because it allows for both the offender and victims to express their shame, to openly feel it, and work through this, thus breaking the above negative cycle. 

Procedural justice theory 

Respect lies at the heart of procedural justice theory. If citizens feel that their treatment at the hands of authority figures is fair, inclusive and respectful, they are more likely to obey the law. 

Defiance can result in a rejection of the law and future offending when an offender views a sanction as illegitimate, has weak bonds to the sanctioning agent, or denies his or her shame in an offence. Deterrence, on the other hand, is more likely if the sanctions are regarded as legitimate, offenders express shame for their actions and they have strong bonds to mainstream society. 

The voluntary nature, deliberative structure and encouragement of stakeholder participation in restorative justice can lead to increased perceptions of fairness, legitimacy and social bonding (Tyler 2006). 

Ritual theories 

Ritual theories argue that one’s sense of morals, community bonds, and the self are a function of the rituals in which one partakes, both sacred and profane. 

The restorative justice ritual brings together victims and offenders, their emotions, and their stories to produce solidarity and other conciliatory emotions. (Rosner 2013). 

When bringing people together in a face-to-face encounter with clear barriers to outsiders and a shared focus of attention, a certain rhythm will build up between participants as they become more in sync with each other’s emotions and perspectives. This rhythm leads to entrainment – people are focused on and feel connected to each other akin to Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence. Solidarity and shared emotion may then be demonstrated through expression of apology and forgiveness and symbolic integration through handshakes, eye contact and hugs.

This is a particularly striking type of ritual when one considers the asymmetrical degradation rituals of Court.

Bolitho (2017) draws on the concept of memory reconsolidation to explore how restorative justice can help victims. Through the ritualised act of telling one’s story within the supportive and structured confines of restorative justice circles a victim may rewrite a harmful emotional memory substituting it with the positive emotions experienced during the restorative encounters. 

Empirical research on restorative justice

Restorative justice has been subjected to an enormous amount of empirical research, perhaps more than any other criminal justice innovation in recent history. More recent studies draw on randomised control trials.

Participant experiences with restorative justice

Research suggests that respect, accountability, empowerment, non-domination, apology and forgiveness are experienced on average in greater quantities by participants in restorative justice conferences compared to those whose cases end up in traditional  courts.

Both offenders and victims perceive restorative justice as a more satisfying and legitimate process than that which is offered in the courtroom. Offenders who participate in restorative justice have a better understanding of what is happening, are more actively involved with their case and are more likely to report that they are treated with respect and fairness. Restorative justice conferences can also result in a higher frequency and amount of restitution paid to victims.

In a comprehensive study of restorative justice for British offenders Chaplin and colleagues (2007) reported that the large majority of victims and offenders found the process to be useful, felt a sense of closure and were more satisfied with their procedures and those who went to court. Notably those whose offences were more serious were significantly more likely to find their conferences useful compared to those who committed less serious offences.

Research from Australia examining the role of shame in restorative justice reports that offenders who participate in conferences experienced both reintegrative and stigmatic shame in higher quantities than offenders who go to court.

Healing victims

Victims who meet their offender and receive an apology are more forgiving, feel more sympathetic towards the offender and are less likely to desire physical revenge. Paulsons (2003) early review of restorative justice illustrates a range of positive psychological outcomes for victims.

Randomised trials in Great Britain provide strong evidence of increased well-being for victims who meet with their offender compared to victims who do not.

A minority of victims and offenders feel worse after a conference specifically when they reported not being involved or  disrespected.

A minority of participants that were unhappy with their conference pointed to instances where they felt they were not being taken seriously or where they felt uninformed or not Included. When victims are unhappy with their experience it is often when they feel little attention has been paid to the process and most of the focus is on developing suitable outcomes for the offender. 

Reoffending 

The best research on restorative Justice and reoffending shows a modest but consistent positive effect on recidivism reduction. However much research on restorative justice and recidivism has been hindered by the lack of an adequate comparison groupS, little statistical power or other methodological issues.

Early reviews of the evidence on restorative justice resulted in cautiously optimistic conclusions about its effectiveness (Braithwaite 2002).

All studies conclude that restorative justice, compared to court, results in a modest reduction in offending. There is also a secondary benefit of a reduction in the desire for revenge by victims, possibly resulting in a reduction in revenge crimes. 

Strang et al (2013) report on a systematic review of the most rigorous randomised control trials. This analysis indicated restorative justice  may be more effective for violent crime than for property crime and for adults rather than for young offenders. 

There is also evidence that Restorative Justice is cost effective compared to court. 

Not all RJ conferences are the same. It is more likely to be successful when…

  • offenders are remorseful.
  • an outcome was agreed by consensus.
  • when offenders report it has been useful in helping them realise the harm their offences had done. 
  • Also high intensity emotional conferences result in a greater reduction in reoffending. 

One needs to be careful about generalising from the findings on restorative justice and realise it only works when done well, however such settings are difficult to replicate!

The Future of Restorative Justice 

The United Kingdom government has committed to invest millions of pounds in restorative justice processes. However a 2020 review found that only 5.5% of victims were offered the opportunity to meet their offender. 

Lack of government investment aside, there is ground-up expansion, Braithwaite (2021) refers to restorative justice as a street level meta strategy, with initiatives springing up in many areas:

  • Sexual violence
  • Hate crime
  • Environmental harm
  • Declaration and the movement for racial justice.

Potential barriers to the evolution of restorative justice 

Restorative justice needs support, it’s been ‘about to take off’ since the 1980s. 

We need to keep evaluating it as it expands. It doesn’t work all the time. Hurdles need to be overcome for it to be successful. 

There is a tension between institutionalising community justice which may undermine its spirit!

This material is mainly relevant to the crime and deviance module.

Restorative Justice is most closely associated with Left Realism.

This post was written using the Oxford Criminology Handbook (2015) Liebling et al.

Why is the clear up rate for crime in the UK so low…?

Only one in 20 offenders in the UK get charged. This is because of two main reasons: Tory funding cuts leading to declining police numbers and the increasingly complex nature of crime.

Only one in 20 offenders now get charged, according to a recent BBC Panorama documentary: Will my Crime get Solved…? For burglaries, only 4% of home burglars are charged.

And in 39% of crimes police fail altogether to identify a suspect. 

The documentary does the ususual job of combining case studies and interviews with experts who drill down into the statistics. 

The case studies are with three victims who haven’t had their crimes cleared up. In two of the cases the victims have even done their own work identifying the criminals. However the police haven’t pursued prosecutions in either case, despite having clear evidence. 

Why is there such a low clear up rate for crimes in the UK?

It isn’t due to rising crime rates overall. Most crimes have decreased over the last few decades according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Despite the low prosecution rates, burglary is falling, for example. 

However, two crimes in particular have increased: cybercrime and sexual related violence, mainly against women. 

Both of these crimes are very difficult to get prosecutions for, which goes some way to explain the very low clear up rates for crime. 

Cyber crime has increased dramatically in recent years, and is very difficult to solve because the perpetrators are often unknown, and quite possibly based abroad in the case of organised cybercrime. 

Sexual violence has seen an increase in reporting but it can be difficult to get prosecutions and victims are unwilling to to pursue the peretators in the courts because of fear of retribution, shame, and the historically low chances of getting a successful prosecution 

A second reason for the low clear up rates for crime is that the police are overstretched and increasingly inexperienced. Tory cuts to police funding saw 20 000 police officers leave the force after 2010. These have now been replaced but with younger and less experienced officers. 

And this now less experienced cohort of officers have to deal with increasingly complex crimes compared to a decade ago. This means more time is being spent on cyber crime, sex crimes, but not only that, more police time is being spent on dealing with global crimes too. 

This means that crimes such as burglary have been pushed to the back of the priority list. The police today are under increased pressure given their numbers and lack of experience. 

Public confidence in the police in the UK is at an all-time low.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This is very relevant to left-realist criminology which argues victims should be put first when it comes to policing strategies. This evidence suggests such an approach is not working and victims are being let down. With such very low clear up rates, public trust in the police is at an all time low, and left-realist approaches rely on the public trusting and working with the police. 

It also shows us how the police are struggling to cope with the changing nature of crime. 

It is also possibly evidence of how neither left nor right realist approaches to tackling crime control are relevant today. Crime is increasingly global and complex and maybe new and innovative crime control measures are required. 

Sources…

Declining Trust in the Police

From fear of crime to a general concern about safety and security

The British public today are not so much concerned about crime in the classic sense of the word. They aren’t so worried about being victims of burglary, or theft, or street violence for example. 

People today are less concerned about their chances of being a victim of formally defined crimes. People are more concerned about a broader and more general range of social problems which more subtly undermine their feelings of safety and security. 

For example, people today are more likely to be worried about:

  • Low level bullying such as with children at school. 
  • Gender based harassment, violence and abuse, including grooming. 
  • Hate crimes such as racism.
  • The effects of climate change, so environmental harms. 
  • Immigration and the effects this has on local social cohesion. 
  • People trafficking and human slavery. 

With the possible exception of climate change, not everyone is going to be immediately affected by the above harms. However people are more aware that they exist and that such things are going on in their neighbourhoods. None of these harms are as public or obvious as ‘classic’ crimes such as vandalism, street violence, or thefts. 

The increased awareness that these social harms are part of everyday social life has created a growing sense of unease among many people. 

From fear of crime  in the 1990s to a general concern about safety and security in the 2020s. 

Back in the late 1990s in Britain people were more concerned about ‘classic crimes’ such as burglary and car theft. The crime discourse at that time was largely shaped by mainstream television and newspapers as well as face to face contact. One Ipsos-Mori poll from the mid 1990s showed that 41% of people listed crime (and reducing crime) as one of the three biggest problems facing Britain at that time. 

These findings were largely backed up by a study conducted by Girling et al (2000): Crime and Social Change in Middle England. This was a two year qualitative study of people’s feelings about crime and policing in Macclesfield. (Selected because it was a reasonably affluent, small town where crime wasn’t an immediate day to day problem.) People naturally talked about being concerned about being victims of car theft and feeling threatened by groups of young people hanging out on the street. 

The researchers revisited Macclesfield more recently and found that people were no longer concerned about classic crimes. What they expressed was a complex and varied sense of unease about the issues mentioned in the previous section. 

Why are people more concerned about safety and security today?

People’s increasing sense of unease and susceptibility to feeling insecure is related to the following social changes:

  • Economic growth and then collapse in 2008 has made us feel more vulnerable in general. There is more of a sense that what we have gained can also be lost. 
  • The rise of digital media. The previous 2000 study was done before the age of digital media. Today people access the social world online, meaning a very different, varied, and risk-on public landscape.  
  • Climate change has become much more of a visible issue. 
  • Brexit brought the issue of migration to public attention. 
  • The Pandemic made us more aware of domestic abuse. 

The way the State responds to more global threats such as global terrorism, through increasing surveillance of certain types of people, can also affect how some people experience security issues today. 

Implications 

The idea of fear of crime seems to have had its day. We need to focus on people’s more general sense of danger and difficulty in their daily lives and how they seek safety and security. 

Traditional victim surveys such as the Crime Survey of England and Wales have tended to measure people’s fear of specific crimes in public spaces, such as fear of being assaulted in public or fear of social disorder. These are possibly no longer fit for purpose! 

We shouldn’t make any presumptions about what people are concerned about. What people are worried about varies. It might be anything from how going online opens them up to potential harm in the form of scams, or risk of flooding due to climate change. 

In this sense security can be conceptualised as ‘a set of political practices, governmental speech acts mobilised to justify decisive, speedy, exceptional measures in the face of what is presented as a conceptual threat’. 

Radical Criminology, aka New or Critical Criminology

Emerging in the late 1960s and 70s, Radical Criminology, aka New Criminology combined Marxist and Interactionist approaches, emphasizing capitalism’s role in producing crime, and the subsequent societal reactions. It called for understanding crime through several factors such as wealth distribution and societal response to deviance. Critics argue it offers no practical solution to crime and romanticizes criminals, while ignoring crime victimization of women.

Radical, new or critical criminologies of the late 1960s and 1970s had their basis in Marxism, Libertarianism, anarchism or American populism. 

They sought to understand crime control by referring to power, politics and inequalities and emphasised the need for political activism or praxis. 

Chambliss (1976, Box 1983) saw crime control as an oppressive and mystifying force. Legislation and law enforcement and ideological stereotyping preserved unequal class relations. 

The radical political economy of crime sought to expose the hegemonic ideologies that masked the real nature of crime and repression in capitalist societies. 

Most mundane offending was less harmful than exploitation, alienation, racism and pollution. 

Much proletarian crime could be redefined as a form of rebellion or redistributive class justice. Or the possessive individualism endemic to capitalist society. 

Criminal justice itself created visible crowds of working-class black scapegoats to deflect attention away from a capitalist system in terminal crisis. 

If the working classes did turn to crime they were themselves victims of false consciousness which inflated the nature of petit problems while hiding harms the bourgeoisie did. 

Black prisoners were the victims of race wars, prison the ultimate form of state repression. 

Most people were unaware of how power worked and it was the job of the radical criminologist to demystify. 

Socialism was the answer to the problem of crime.  

The New Criminology

In 1973 Taylor, Walton and Young published The New Criminology which combined Marxist and Interactionist approaches to crime.  They argued criminologists should examine all the different aspects surrounding why a crime takes place – the immediate and wider political reasons as well the societal reaction.   

They argued criminologists should examine how capitalism generates the circumstances of crime, the responses of the police, media, criminal justice system, offender and victim, and how all of these factors interact to influence how the situation develops. 

New Criminologists argued that criminals were lashing out against capitalism, in fact they say that they were mistakenly expressing their anger at capitalism through crime, rather than politics.  They also argued the media created moral panics and scapegoats about particular crimes to divert attention away from issues which may potentially be damaging to the ruling classes.

Book cover: the New Criminology
The New Criminology, published 1973.

The New Criminology was similar to Marxism….

  1. It accepted that the key to understanding crime is the material basis of society – the economy is the most important part.
  2. Believed that capitalist societies are unequal and these inequalities are the root of crime.
  3. Supported a radical change of society – theories of crime are useless unless they offer hope to liberate people from oppression. 

The New Criminology also criticised previous criminological theorising…

  • Marx was too economically deterministic. Taylor et al insist that criminals choose to break the law. External forces do not determine human behaviour.  
  • They dismissed most causal theories of crime and saw control, labelling, and biological theories as too determinist. They believed crimes were deliberate and conscious acts with political motives. 
  • Deviants were not just the passive victims of capitalism, they were engaged in active political struggle. 
  • They wanted socialism not communism. They envisaged a society where hippies, LGBTQ people, and maybe even drug users would be accepted and not turned into criminals. 

The Fully Social Theory of Deviance 

Taylor, Walton and Young developed the Fully Social Theory of Deviance to emphasise seven factors we need to look at to fully understand crime. 

To understand Crime fully we need to look at..

  1. The way in which wealth and power is distributed in society. Here we need to look at the Crimogenic Capitalist system and cyclical economic crises within Capitalism. Also the role of the state in oppressing and marginalising certain groups.
  2. The particular circumstances surrounding the decision of an individual to commit an act of deviance
  3. The deviant act itself and the meaning the individual deviant attaches to it. 
  4. How and why other people in society react to deviance – how do family members, friends and the police react? We also need to look at the media’s power to create ‘folk devils’ 
  5. The reaction needs to be explained in terms of the social structure. How do the public and the police respond to the creation of folk devils ? (the societal reaction)? More broadly, who has the power to make the rules? Why do agents of social control punish some deviant acts more severely than others?
  6. The effect labelling has on the people being labelled. How do  the ‘criminalised’ respond to being labelled?
  7. All of the above together. 

Stuart Hall applied this approach to his study of mugging in the 1970s.  He found that the Government wanted to divert attention away from the economic crisis of the time, so a moral panic was created about black youths in London.  

Criticisms of Radical Criminology. 

Critical Criminology offers us no realistic solution to the problem of crime – if it is Capitalism and the state that are the problems – then a revolution is the only answer. Radical criminology did not receive government funded ‘soft money’ for empiricist research. Some departments closed down. 

It was too idealistic. It is based on some idealised vision of a free future. All capitalist societies are not the same an socialism can be repressive. 

The New Criminology romanticised criminals. In reality most criminals are not struggling against their oppressors in the name of political change, they are just thugs. 

Victim surveys of the 1970s and 80s showed the extent of working class victimisation. They showed us that crime was intra-class, not inter-class. In other words the working classes victimised other working class people, hardly a class struggle against the elite! They ignored the impact street crimes can have on Victims – Left Realism in particular gets back to a ‘victim centred’ approach to crime

They also ignored the victimisation of women. 

The legacy of New Criminology 

Reflecting back on Radical Criminology in the late 1990s, new criminologists accepted some of the criticisms, especially from Feminism. 

In defence of New Criminology they pointed out that it stood up against correctionalism. It encouraged agents of social control to not eradicating deviant behaviour, and encouraged more tolerance!

New Criminology does have a critical legacy. Feminism, Left Realism and Postmodernism are all rooted in the New Criminology . 

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This content is relevant to the crime and deviance aspect of A-level sociology.

How do we explain the increase in retail crime?

Official crime statistics show that there were 33 000 shoplifting offences recorded in March, 31% more than last year.

This is in line with crime data reported by the Co-op, which reported a 35% increase year on year. In the six months to June, the group recorded 1000 incidents of crime every day across all its outlets.

The seriousness of these retail offences also seem to be getting worse. A higher proportion of crimes involve violence and some have involved gangs entering shops and looting.

This is reflective of an increase in retail crime more broadly. The 2022 crime report by the British Retail Consortium reported a more than doubling of violent crimes and abusive behaviour towards staff in 2020-21 compared to 2019-22.

Explaining the increase in retail crime

There are three possible explanations for the above crime trends:

Firstly the cost of living crisis will explain some of the increase in shoplifting. With more people dropping below the poverty line, some will turn to shoplifting. There are more people facing a choice of heating or eating, after all.

Secondly the police have been putting less focus on less serious offences. They have been screening out low-level offences so they can focus on more serious crimes.

When criminals know they are less likely to get caught, they are more likely to commit crime.

Finally, the increase in violent and anti-social offences during lockdown may be explained through increased stress when shopping. It is likely that many of these cases were caused by people getting upset by shortages and lockdown measures in shops.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This material seems to support rational choice theory and right realism which are part of the crime and deviance module.

The UK’s illegal plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

The criminals in the house of commons passed the UK government’s illegal migration bill last week.

The bill will prevent most migrants who enter the UK by small boats from claiming asylum in the UK. Instead they will be detained and some of them deported to Rwanda to claim asylum there instead. Rwanda agreed to a five year trial of this plan recently.

British courts ruled the Rwanda Plan illegal because it breaches article three of the European Convention on Human Rights (1).

UK migration bill in breach of EU convention of human rights, article 3.

Rwanda’s asylum policy is not as strict as the UKs. There is a higher chance some genuine claims for asylum will result in deportations back to countries of origin.

This means more people will be returned to countries where they risk death, imprisonment or other inhumane treatment.

The UK has not deported any migrants to date because the bill is currently not legal. However the government is appealing this decision.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This material is relevant to the crime and deviance module. It is an example of a state crime, by virtue of the British state going against international human rights.

It is also an example of the limits of globalisation. Here we have a nation state restricting the free movement of people. This is globalisation in reverse.

It is also possible to apply critical victimology to this case study. Asylum seekers are the most vulnerable people on the planet. The government is targeting them by putting in place this barrier.

Note that the government isn’t worried about 150 000 wealthy Chinese students studying in the UK. It is only poor migrants it is seeking to stop.

It is also an example of a government responding to a moral panic generated by the media.

The bill is nominally in response to the thousands of migrants entering the UK in small boats in recent years. Britain actually needs migrants, it is just the media who demonizes them, and here the government responds.

This is also going against public opinion. According to one poll conducted in 2023 56% of people think migration is good for Britain.

Sources

(1) Ruling against the Secretary of State’s Rwanda Plan.

Bullying and Sexual Harassment at McDonald’s

The BBC recently uncovered over 100 cases of sexual and racial harassment and bullying in McDonald’s Restaurants in the UK. (1)

Examples included older men groping younger women, aged as young as 16 and talking to them inappropriately sexual ways. Some workers were also the victims of racial and homophobic language.

In one case a manager simply told the victim to ignore the man harassing with her and get on with her job. In other other cases McDonald’s moved managers accused of harassing people to other restaurants.

In some cases it was the victims who felt their harassment claims had not been dealt with quit their jobs.

Personally I thought sacking the people doing the harassing would be the most effective way to make a victim feel comfortable at work again. It would also send out a strong message to other workers NOT to engage in such behaviour.

The law obliges McDonald’s to protect workers from such harassment in the workplace. However the law protecting victims of work based harassment is rather weaker than you might think!

Weak protections for victims of workplace harassment?

If you look at legal advice sites for employers it is clear that sacking the people doing the harassing is a last resort. In fact I get the impression that even in severe cases the harassers will be encouraged to quit rather than sacked.

Most of the advice focuses on suggesting employers provided adequate training for staff in equality and providing a clear code of conduct.

I guess there are so many sexist, racist and homophobic employees that if employees took every case of harassment seriously they’d be sacking a lot of people.

I imagine companies are also reluctant to sack harassers because of the investment they have made in them and the costs of rehiring.

This might also explain why there is so much focus on covering the employers’ in case a victim claims compensation against them.

It seems the legal advice surrounding dealing with harassment is more about saving companies money rather than protecting victims.

Signposting

This material is relevant to the Crime and Deviance module in the second year of A-level sociology.

Sources

(1) McDonald’s Workers Speak out Over Sexual Abuse Claims.

Two ways the media may contribute to an increase in crime

The media can portray role models with glamorous lifestyles and exaggerate the reporting of events, according to the item in the AQA’s Crime and Deviance SCLY2/3 exam paper from November 2021 (1)

In these 10 mark ‘applying material from the item questions you need to use the two ways (in this case) as hooks and elaborate how these may contribute to an increase in crime, applying sociological concepts and theories.

According to the mark scheme you also get some marks for evaluation.

A key hint here is to remember that this is a Crime and Deviance paper, not a media paper, so don’t get too carried away with media concepts, although you should be credited for them, it’s always safer to use core crime and deviance material.

Another thing to be careful of is to include theories and concepts rather than relying on popular examples from the media. You can use examples, and you should do, but make sure you link them to theory.

The rest of this post considers how you might go about expanding on the two points mentioned in item A:

  • The media portraying glamorous lifestyles
  • The media exaggerating events.

How glamorous lifestyles in the media might contribute to an increase in crime

Examples of the media portraying glamorous lifestyles include cribs, many music videos and also lifestyle vloggers on YouTube, which tend to celebrate wealth, conspicuous consumption and people generally having a good time.

Such portrayals give the impression that being wealthy is the norm in a society, and, following Robert Merton’s strain theory this might increase the level of anomie, which can lead to different types of crime depending on how people respond.

Merton theorised that if people don’t have the opportunties to reach what they perceive to be the ordinary success goals in society some of them will turn to utilitarian crime to get what they think they should have, which means economic crimes such as burglary, robbery and theft.

This might explain the prevalence of crimes such as moped snatch-thefts in London recently, and also drug related crimes: those who can’t get jobs might believe the only way they can earn enough money to achieve ‘glamourous lifestyles’ is to deal drugs, maybe as part of a gang, which is something Venkatesh found in Gang Leader for a day.

The media, at least some aspects of it also glamorises gang, gun and drug culture: with many films showing crime as glamorous itself, which might encourage people into gangs and crime more generally.

Other people may look at glamorous western lifestyles in the media and react against it, seeing it as shallow and anti-religious and this might inspire anti-western sentiment and increase conflict in the form of fundamentalist terrorist attacks, this would be a rebellious response in Merton’s theory.

However most people don’t turn to crime because of media portrayals, they just give up on achieving and settle for ordinary jobs and average lifestyles or develop retreatist subcultures, which aren’t necessarily criminal, so it isn’t as simple as the media causing criminal behaviour, people aren’t that passive.

Finally, the portrayal of glamorous lifestyles might themselves be criminal – such as with people on social media boasting about their sports cars and wealth in order to encourage people into investing into get rich quick schemes, such as dodgy crypto DEFI schemes, whereas in reality these are just rug pull scams.

How media exaggeration might contribute to an increase in crime

You could apply moral panic theory here: when the media exaggerate the deviance of youth subcultures , according to Stan Cohen, this attracts more violent people to the subculture so the subculture becomes more violent in reality.

The problem with this is that it relies on the passive audience theory, but audiences are more active today.

There are theories which suggest violence in the media can cause people to be violent, such as Bandura’s Copy Cat theory, but there are many flaws with his original experiment which tried to prove a direct link between media violence and real life violence, and little evidence that there is a link.

Violence in the media may, however, desensitise people to violence in real life and make them less likely to react when they see violent acts.

Similarly with increasing fear causes by the exaggeration of violence. Ordinary people are less likely to go out in public meaning there are less people around to informally police the streets if crime is happening.

The news often exaggerates the extent of violent street crime compared to property crime, and working class street crime compared to middle class white collar crime, and both of these might cause an increase in particular types of crime.

One thing the media exaggerates is the extent of stranger sexual assault and child abduction by strangers, which keeps domestic abuse cases hidden, and may make it easier for partners and friends to keep on abusing because no-one is looking out for these criminals, who are the usual perpetrators.

Similarly with focusing on violent street crime: the lack of focus in the media agenda on high level fraud allows governments and corporations to carry on their criminal operations as usual, according to a Marxist perspective.

Signposting and sources

The main material to draw on to answer the above questions comes from the Crime and Deviance module.

For more examples of how to answer all sorts of A-level sociology exam questions please see my exams page.

The question above can be found in the the AQA’s November 2021 A-level sociology crime and deviance paper, SCLY2/3.

Sociological Perspectives on Donald Trump’s Arrest

Donald Trump was finally arrested and charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records, one of which will include the ‘hush money’ he allegedly paid to the Porn Star Stormy Daniels to cover up an alleged affair during his last Presidential campaign.

On the surface this seems to criticise the Marxist Perspective’s theory of selective law enforcement: where the system mainly focuses on prosecuting the marginalised and the poor, and ignores the crimes of the elite. This is very much a case of a member of the global elite being prosecuted.

Although given the amount of time it has taken for this all to get to the prosecution phase, and given that this is happening AFTER Donald Trump has been president, it does seem like an injustice is being done. Can you imagine a working class crack-dealer or burglar getting half a decade of freedom before their case gets processed? (No!)

And probably what will happen next is that Donald Trump’s team of lawyers will pick holes in every sentence of the evidence and find technicalities on which they can delay proceedings until eventually this never comes to trial, which is one of the tactics the elite use to avoid being found guilty of financial crimes, which are notoriously difficult to prosecute because of their complexity.

A porn star claiming she was paid hush money is one thing, finding the paper trail that proves it is quite another, after all!

Beyond Marxism, this is also a very Postmodern media event. This is as much about entertainment and spectacle as it is about justice, and TBH it seems like the justice issue has already got lost in the media spectacle.

I mean this is a serious issue of corruption at the highest level of the American government, but all the public is focused on is the procession of Donald Trump to and from the court room. The visible appearance of the man is someone that is unchanged in many years, and still wealthy, respected, belligerent, and well, entertaining.

I can’t imagine that justice is going to be served here, and I similarly can’t imagine that the public is going to care, this event is already on the level of Love Island!

Something else that is COMPLETELY lost in the media narrative is the gender dimension in all of this. Here we have a powerful man paying off a woman he (allegedly) had an affair with. The misogyny at the heart of this is hardly mentioned while the mainly male prosecutors and defence go about their business!

But then again, one knows not to expect any level of depth from the mainstream media!

Sources

BBC – Donald Trumps’s Arrest.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Reoffending Rates are Misleading

The reoffending rates probably aren’t going down at all!

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab recently tweeted that reoffending rates had fallen two percentage points compared to the same period in the previous year to 23.1% and down since above 30% in 2009-10.

He even went as far to suggest that this shows how investment in policies such as drug rehabilitation and employment for offenders programmes are working.

However, these claims are misleading because if you dig a little deeper into the reoffending statistics you find it isn’t necessarily the case that ex offenders aren’t reoffending, it could just be that they aren’t getting prosecuted and thus not reappearing on the statistics.

This was the main point that Danny Shaw, previous Home Affairs correspondent for the BBC, made on a recent Radio 4 Analysis show which explored this issue (1).

What is the reoffending rate?

The reoffending rate is the proportion of people who have been released from prison or who have been given community sentence or a fine who within 12 months of that event commit another offence for which they are convicted or given a caution.

So it’s really more accurate to call it the reconviction or recautioning rate rather than the reoffending rate because some people may offend again but just not get caught and processed again.

So the decline in the reoffending rate above could be because the police and courts are getting less effective at getting convictions and giving cautions.

And we have to ask this because the government hasn’t presented any cause and effect evidence which shows that offending rates are going down because of any of their social policies.

A second set of data from the Home Office which shows the outcomes of offences (what happens to a crime after it is reported and recorded by the police in England and Wales) show that charge rates have plummeted, down by 10% from 2014-15 to the 12 months ending September 2022 to 5.5%, and the caution rate has gone from 4.6% to 1%.

Just to emphasis this: the trend in the charge rate for crimes is:

  • 2014/15: 15.5% of crimes were formally charged, or 1/7 crimes resulted in a charge.
  • 2022: 5.5% of crimes were formally charged. Or 1/20 crimes resulted in a charge.

That is a drastic change in just seven years suggesting there is something going very wrong with the Criminal Justice System: the numbers of known offences which are dealt with by the prosecution services has fallen by two thirds in seven years. Surely this must be having an impact on the numbers of ex offenders

Why are the charging and cautioning rates falling?

According to Shaw a combination of two factors explain this:

  1. There has been a changing in the mix of offences, with an increase in the number of sexual offences which tend to be more complex and more difficult to process so less likely to result in a charge or caution.
  2. Police officer numbers fell from almost 144 000 in 2010 to 123 000 in to 2019, a drop of around 21 000

This combination of increasingly complex offences and fewer police officers means that fewer crimes are getting processed and such low rates of charging and cautioning suggest that criminals have got a license to get away with crime.

Statistical analysis paints quite a different picture to Dominic Raab’s spin!

Signposting and sources

This material should be a useful update for anyone studying the Crime and Deviance topic as part of their A-level sociology course, or criminology more generally!

(1) More or Less: Behind the Stats, February 2023