Crime prevention: the role of academics & interest groups

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Masud Khabeki

Political parties are not the only representative group to engage in debates about crime in a country with a deteriorating criminal justice system. A number of other bodies representing professional interests also have to contribute in discussions of crime policy. They may participate officially in national debates appear on current affairs programs or contribute newspaper articles. These bodies include the Police Federation which represents the ranks of police officers, the Association of Inspector Generals, the Bar Council, the Law Society and many voluntary groups involved in prisoners support and victim support etc.

Certainly, pressure groups also have a key role in shaping attitudes about penal policy in any country. For example, in UK, The Howard league for penal reform, the prison reform trust and the national association for the care and resettlement of offenders have played a key role in changing opinions. These pressure groups carry research on different issues of criminal justice and maintenance of law and order, sponsors projects, runs conferences and provides much useful information to its members, along with schools, colleges, journalists, policy makers, politicians and academics.

The pressure and professional interest groups are essential to provide help and insight into the running of the criminal justice system. They also have to be the first and foremost interest groups who aim to influence debates and policies regarding criminal justice system. Academics, media and policy makers also can contribute to public impressions about the nature and causes of crime. The commonly accepted theories of academician’s filter into the public domain through publications and reports of research offered to the government and reported in the media. Thus, the views of academicians could influence many journalists, politicians, officials and practitioners.

However, it is necessary to understand that the ways of looking at a problem such as crime alter over time according to changing assumptions about the causes and consequences of crime. This ‘way of looking’ is called a paradigm and the main shift in the penal paradigm in the 21st century need a serious exploration and research in a country especially like Pakistan, where the criminal justice system is still hanging on the old modules while the technological changes have altered the entire world including the people of all ages of our country. The criminal activity even by a petty criminal has brought technological sophistication in their methodology, while the entire criminal justice system is bent upon to operate in old fashioned administrative system.

During the early decades of 20th century the growing science of criminology promoted the view that crime resulted from genetic and environmental causes. Criminologists believed that crime could be cured by identifying the psychological and social determinants of crime, similar to the way medical practitioners diagnosed the causes of sickness, and they believed that criminals could be rehabilitated by the applications of correctional policies. By the 1970s this view fell out of favor and gave way to the idea that rehabilitation was not easy to achieve. Other theorists pointed out that this emphasis on the offender had been at the expense of other goals such as punishment. Even so it was felt by most theorists that criminals should be treated justly and fairly. This led to the justice approach to punishment. In recent times, the law enforcement agencies are keen to adopt the crime science which encourages to adopt crime prevention techniques at a particular crime hotspot rather than to find the social causes of crime.

Academics may not agree amongst themselves over what priority to accord to the many factors associated with crime and prevention methodologies. Their views changed over time in the light of new evidence, problems and changes in perspectives on crime. But the agenda of intellectual debate about crime, in part influenced by academics, has an impact beyond the walls of academia and helps to inform public debates on crime issues.

The above discussion would enable readers that what constitutes crime both in the narrow legal sense and in the broader views of the public. It is the task of the criminal justice system to respond to crime by following the procedures laid down by the law. However, as have seen earlier, there is no simple definition of crime, and law enforcement agencies need to take account of wider public perceptions as well. While, the public perception of the police is complex but still the perception of the police as an institution for crime control prevails till date. This perception depends on the citizens’ encounter with the police officers but largely on the media of mass communications. Firstly, the citizens are the source of information about the events important for controlling crime. Secondly, it is sometimes necessary to perform the controlling function through the effective care for citizens which cannot be accomplished if the citizens do not accept it. This seems like a vicious circle because if the citizens do not accept the police as the source of potential services and care they will not ask from the police to perform these tasks.

The media has a potential to influence the reality. For some people the reality as presented by the media is the only reality they know. The media do not present information in a neutral way. They do not depict the reality as it is, but they submit information and news to the process called gate-keeping. Gate-keeping is defined as “the process of the media control over the information which involves the selection of the news, their keeping, mediation, shaping, releasing and repeating” as well as “newsworthiness”.

The positive influence of the media in the mediation between the police and the public comes with the development of the society. The state has given great powers to the police whose abuse can be controlled by the public only through the media. In addition, the media have a positive social function of determining the limits of acceptable social behavior, the task of informing citizens about the safety situation and taboo subjects (domestic violence, sexual abuse, child/woman abuse, etc.). There should be communication with the public and not only giving them information. This conclusion also applies to the media as the mediator.

In recent years, the demand for the participation of academic researchers in crime prevention working groups has increased all over the world as practitioners of criminal justice system have recognized the importance of strategic information products in developing effective crime prevention strategies. Academics can be very helpful to criminal justice practitioners by conducting research on urban crime problems. Specifically, such research can better focus limited enforcement, intervention, and prevention resources on high-risk offenders, victims, and places.

According to a study in USA, strategic crime prevention initiatives based on research insights have been associated with a 60% reduction in youth homicide in Boston and a 40% reduction in total homicide in Indianapolis. These success stories have made academic researchers an important part of new crime prevention initiatives and a willingness of practitioners to accept the results gleaned through the studies. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative provide funds to hire academic research partners to help understand and address serious gun violence problems in local jurisdictions. In this new wave of collaborations, the academic researcher is a partner that works with the group towards an end. The academic functions not as a critic who focuses on past mistakes and ineffective practices. Rather, researchers become an integral ingredient in efficient crime prevention and the methods used to produce any information products are most effective if they are clearly described and explained to the working group.

The inclusion of academics helps to frame ideas, collect data, and conduct appropriate analyses in the criminal justice working group. Researchers essentially provide real-time social science that is aimed at refining the interagency working groups understanding of crime problems. They create information products for both strategic and tactical use, testing often in an elementary, but important, fashion prospective intervention ideas, and maintain a focus on outcomes and the evaluation of performance. Academics also bring the power of an outside eye armed with knowledge of crime prevention mechanisms.

While Interest groups/practitioners who deal with communities on a daily basis often have important experiential knowledge on the nature of offending, and they have innovative ideas on plausible interventions. Academic researchers need to structure this qualitative knowledge, incorporate associated hypotheses into their problem analysis research, and examine these ideas by using available quantitative evidence. Research on crime problems may also unveil important factors that were underestimated by or unknown to practitioners.

Furthermore, academics can shape law enforcement interventions in important ways, but should not be involved in selecting specific targets or investigating individuals. As a basic rule, none of the informational products produced by the academics should be specific enough to result in persons being arrested as a direct result of the data being presented. Practitioners should draw their own conclusions about specific actions from the data presented. It is proper for the researcher to comment that limited law enforcement resources would have the most efficient impact if they were focused on the gangs that are most central to conflict and currently engaged in violence. However, it is up to the practitioners to appraise the specific situation and make their own decision on which groups should receive focused attention.

 

Masud Khabeki is adjunct professor criminology at University of Arid Agriculture, Rawalpindi