Crime, class and social policy

chalk board hope (flickr PShanks)

In a blog I wrote for Leiden Law Blog, I raise the question whether social policy as crime control strategy is really a more social alternative to a law and order type of crime control:

While the political Right seems more inclined to promote a harsh ‘law and order’ strategy, the Left inclines towards social policies. That is, programmes aimed at education, work and social participation should keep people away from deviancy and criminal careers. The focus on welfare-like strategies is not surprising, perhaps, given that common crime is usually associated with deprived and marginalised groups (the unemployed and homeless, ethnic minority youths, and those living in deprived neighbourhoods). […]

But social policy is not necessarily a true alternative response to the exclusionary law and order policies when it leaves the alleged link between deprivation and criminal behaviour unchallenged. Arguing in favour of social policy may even reinforce the common sense and pernicious idea that there is something wrong with people living in poverty that leads them to ‘misbehave’ and commit crimes. […] That is, such policies may even reinforce the idea that working and consuming citizens are ‘better’ citizens because they would behave properly. Of course, we have plenty examples to the contrary and any criminology textbook will tell you that there are countless reasons to break the law. Advocating education and work as a type of general crime prevention strategy risks making a lack of education and poverty suspicious.

Class justice

This relates to one of the questions that I examine in my research on how ideas about social class differences shape crime control. My research theme thus is broader than what the term ‘class justice’ suggests. The term ‘class justice’ likely evokes images of unequal criminalization, prosecution and punishment. The disproportionate share of marginal and minority groups in prison comes to mind. Multi-billion companies that get away with tax evasion, while those who commit benefit fraud face punishment. Wealthy offenders who are offered deals with the public prosecution (e.g. payment in lieu of prosecution) while their poorer counterparts are sent to prison. The fact that street crimes have priority over white-collar crimes: the police spend more time and resources patrolling in public space than tracking financial transactions. Class justice usually is illustrated through examples of discrimination, selectivity, punitiveness and exclusion.

Benign forms

The starting point of my research is that ideas about class difference in crime control may also come in seemingly benign forms. Crime control strategies that focus on education, employment, parenting, skills and personal development more generally seem to be the opposite of law and order strategies: they aim not to exclude but to include. They often aim to improve the opportunities of individuals. Politicians and professionals may argue in favour of such social policies because they are thought to address the ‘root cause’ of crime: social deprivation or lack of participation in society. Thus it is believed that welfare-like programmes should be part and parcel of a general crime prevention strategy. Of course, the word crime here is used in a rather restricted way to mean street crime or common crime, crime that is in the common opinion linked to social deprivation.

Common logic

Is such an approach to crime more inclusive than the law and order approach? Superficially, perhaps, but not fundamentally, when it leaves unchallenged the idea that criminal behaviour is something of the ‘lower classes’. Arguing that crime prevention should be based on tackling poverty reinforces the link between poverty and criminal behaviour.

Therefore, in my view, examining how ideas about class differences work through in crime control cannot be restricted to law-and-order type of crime control. It cannot focus solely on imprisonment, banishment and anti-social behaviour orders. This is why I also examine social interventions that aim to prevent (repeated) deviant behaviour through, for example, education, mentorship, parenting classes and rehabilitation. That is not to say that inclusionary and exclusionary strategies of crime control all come down to the same logic, but they may have more common than we would initially suspect.

Photo by Patrick Shanks on Flickr

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