Green Templeton College (GTC) opened its doors to the first Graduate Conference in Criminology and Criminal Justice on Wednesday, 6 May. GTC boasts a vibrant criminology community, comprising forty-seven alumni and thirteen current masters and doctoral students. The Conference was an opportunity for students to discuss their research and receive fresh perspectives and comments on their work from the audience. It also marked the launch of the recently established GTC Criminology Group, a working body open to both GTC and non-GTC social science graduates, which seeks to encourage fruitful academic discussion and debate.

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Sylvia Rich presenting in Panel 1 (Photo: I. Rossoni)

The Conference, organised and chaired my MPhil candidate Jasmina Arnez, had four main panels. DPhil candidate Sylvia Rich kicked off the event with her talk, ‘Sentencing Theory and Corporate Entity.’ She began by outlining the main theories justifying punishment―deterrence, desert theory and rehabilitation―and their applicability to corporate entities. She argued that although desert theory is hardly mentioned in relation to corporations, it ought to be integrated into corporate sentencing. In fact, retributivism’s focus on blameworthiness can help move beyond a vision of corporate criminal liability as a mere extension of regulatory liability. Although it’s important to bring retributivism into the mix, Sylvia pointed out that it should be balanced with rehabilitation and deterrence. She went on to consider the relationship between punishment and suffering, arguing that corporations cannot suffer as humans do, because they eschew direct suffering by deflecting it to third parties.

Drawing on Christine Koorsgard’s research on animals and their rights, Sylvia claimed that respect towards corporations should be somewhat attenuated, as corporations need not be respected in the same way as humans. For this reason, we should strive towards corporate sentencing outcomes that strike a different balance between deterrence and proportionalism. Arguably, as corporations cannot suffer like human beings, one could advocate harsher punishment, tipping the balance in favour of deterrence.

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Marion Vannier and Mia Harris presenting in Panel 2 (Photo: J. Viebach)

Following Sylvia, DPhil candidates Marion Vannier and Mia Harris turned to the topic of sex, sexuality, and imprisonment. They began by highlighting the tensions underlying sex and sexuality in today’s society. While people are generally more overt about sex and sexuality than in the past, homosexuals, lesbians, trans, bisexuals, or queers are still considered by many as sexual non-conformists who’ve strayed away from the heterosexual norm. As Mia noted, the 2012 British Attitudes Survey saw 22% of interviewees deprecating same sex relationships between consenting adults.

Although sex and sexuality are extremely important in the carceral context, they have thus far been under-researched. Mia’s DPhil project seeks to attend to this shortcoming by exploring the experiences of LGBTQ prisoners and prison officers and unpacking constructions of sexuality in official documents and prison practices. Marion, who is conducting research on life without parole, was alerted to the pivotal role of sex and sexuality in prison through her written correspondence with inmates serving life sentences.

Both Mia and Marion emphasised that socially accepted readings of sex and sexuality seep through the prison walls. Marion discussed how the embodied experience of sexuality in prison is imbued with norms from the outside. References to motherhood feature in many letters from incarcerated women, who share their concerns and anxieties about not being able to have kids and look after them. At the same time, imprisonment influences and moulds individual understandings of sexuality. Marion mentioned that many male inmates write about forced homosexuality behind bars, and transgender women―who’ve become transgender in prison―express their fears of being transferred to a male institution. Further, Mia stressed that understandings of sexuality in prison also impact broader society. The relationship between sexuality inside prison and out is thus complex and multifaceted. Finally, the two speakers addressed the methodological issues of doing research on sex and sexuality in prison.

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Alice Gerlach and Rachel Wechsler presenting in Panel 3 (Photo: J. Viebach)

The third panel saw DPhil candidates Alice Gerlach and Rachel Wechsler discuss the methodological challenges of interviewing vulnerable women. Alice is conducting fieldwork with detainees held in British immigration removal centres, as well as with former detainees in Kingston, Jamaica, while Rachel is undertaking research with victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation in a Dutch shelter.

Alice and Rachel began their presentation by addressing the issue of gaining access and recruiting participants through gatekeepers. Since gatekeepers fear researchers may subject vulnerable women to secondary victimisation, they stressed the importance of obtaining and maintaining their trust. Rachel claimed that her experiences in the not-for-profit sector tend to bolster her credibility and reliability as a researcher. Alice stated that she generally interviews gatekeepers first, so as to familiarise them with her style of interviewing and reassure them about her professionalism. Another concern highlighted by the speakers relates to compensation to participants. Alice, who is the beneficiary of a research grant, offers detainees a £5 voucher in exchange for their participation. Although she has had detainees approach her inquiring about vouchers, in her experience compensation doesn’t affect the reliability of interviews. Rachel, who doesn’t have such funding, recruits participants by explaining the goals of her study and sharing with them her personal motivations for embarking on research in the field.

Both Alice and Rachel underscored that it’s vital to manage expectations. Researchers should be clear about their role and be sensitive to PTSD and re-traumatisation issues. In regards to interview techniques, they stressed the need to provide a safe and comfortable environment. Alice mentioned that she prefers to interview detainees in their own rooms to make them feel at ease. Rachel, who used to conduct interviews in an activity room near the staff office, is now interviewing women in their rooms to guarantee more privacy. Building trust and giving participants a sense of control are also crucial aspects of doing research in the field. When addressing sensitive topics, one should be wary of word choices, have a box of tissues at hand, and remind interviewees that they are in control.

Alice and Rachel concluded their presentation by discussing ethical challenges and reflexivity. Both agreed on the importance of prioritising women’s wellbeing and balancing confidentiality with a duty of care. Nonetheless, their opinions diverged on the issue of ‘giving back.’ Alice prefers to safeguard her independence as a researcher, while Rachel is happy to step in if she feels that she can help, even in a small way. Finally, they recommended keeping a fieldwork diary and stressed that researchers shouldn’t disregard their psychological health and wellbeing.

The Conference came to a brilliant close with Jasmina Arnez and Robert Blakey’s panel, ‘Young People at Risk of Offending: Exploring their Pathways to and through Institutional Responses.’ Jasmina’s MPhil research explores the perceptions of experts who work with families on the possible variations in adolescents’ troubles and their parents’ childrearing styles. In particular, she’s looking into the varying experiences of stigma among family members with different social backgrounds.

Jasmina has conducted 15 semi-structured interviews with practitioners and specialists. Her research shows that contrary to common narratives of adolescent crime, deviation appears to be widespread among advantaged children. Moreover, there seems to be a lot of hidden suffering―for example, anorexia, self-harming, and eating disorders―among children belonging to wealthy families. Nonetheless, public sector and youth justice practitioners continue to work primarily with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Jasmina argued that programmes appear to be too individualised, responsibilising, and often neglect to take into account broader structural issues, such as socio-economic background and hardship. Although most of the parents who are referred to parenting courses are working-class parents, the content of these courses is shaped by a typically middle-class understanding of parenting. Finally, Jasmina highlighted the stigmatising effects of institutional responses to youth crime and the importance of revisiting accepted practices and procedures.

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(Photo: J. Viebach)

Robert, an MSc candidate, discussed the benefits and caveats of incorporating neurocriminology in youth justice policy and practice. Neurocriminology, he argued, is seen by many as a tool to resolve the tension between diversion and early intervention. Robert contended that brain scans, combined with traditional risk-assessment tools, can assist in distinguishing offenders who are likely to grow out of crime from riskier subjects. He explained that in the event that early intervention is deemed suitable, brain scans can also help tailor interventions to the needs of the child. For instance, brain predictors of treatment success can help identify whether a potential offender should be referred to psychological or biological treatments. Perhaps more controversially, neurocriminology has the potential to intervene on parts of the human brain to reduce offending. Although the promises of scientific innovation may seem palatable to many, Robert was quick to mention the risks of both politicians and the public misinterpreting neurocriminology’s findings and goals. Neurocriminology could be used to help buttress an image of offenders as intrinsically and biologically ‘evil,’ implicitly warranting more punitive youth justice responses targeted at ‘hopeless’ cases. It could also entail parent blaming, with children being removed from their homes before parents can demonstrate their ability to raise their offspring. On top of this, neurocriminology can threaten the right to privacy and liberty and produce stigmatization and labeling. In an attempt to rid human beings of traits that are usually correlated to offending, neurocriminologists also risk incurring unforeseen effects. Research shows that people who exhibit certain psychopathic traits, such as low empathy, are likely to succeed in certain domains. By unintentionally preventing people from embarking on certain career paths, neurocriminology may adversely impact both individuals and society. Despite these dangers, Robert ended on a positive note, reminding the audience of neurocriminology’s potential to identify factors that may minimise or even wipe out labeling effects. He’s optimistic about the potential to educate the public about the contributions of neurocriminological research to rehabilitation. Public awareness of these matters could help counter a fatalistic vision of offenders as ‘unredeemable’ villains.

The GTC Graduate Conference in Criminology and Criminal Justice was a well-organised and -attended event, providing an excellent venue to showcase current research by Centre for Criminology students. It’s hoped that this Conference is the first among many events to come.