Sociology and Criminology – An Uneasy Relationship

Scott Jaschik was at the ASA meeting (I had breakfast next to him on Saturday morning) and he has an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed regarding the relationship between sociology, criminology and criminal justice. These disciplines are usually considered to be "cousins". Sociology broadly provides most of the background that goes into criminology, understood as the study of the ins and out of the criminal justice system with a theoretical background. Criminal Justice often includes the more vocational aspects of the field, something often nicknamed the "cop shop" aspect of teaching. So what are the issues here?

"The tensions described by these professors were seen by task force members as typical of many campuses, where interest in criminal justice is taking off. At an increasing number of colleges, criminal justice has broken off from sociology into separate departments. But at many campuses where that has not happened, departments are facing what Steven E. Barkan, a professor at the University of Maine, called “structural tensions” of the sort he noted that sociologists realize have the potential to be unhealthy.

Many departments have reported to the task force, of which Barkan is a member, that two-thirds of their enrollments are now in criminal justice while one-third of faculty slots are there. Elite universities appear to be less affected by the trend, but elsewhere it is increasingly visible. Between 2001 and 2006, criminal justice overtook sociology in the number of bachelor’s degrees completed. Sociology increased by 14.5 percent during that period, to 31,406. Criminology increased by 35.7 percent, to 34,209. During the same period of time, sociology master’s degrees declined by 15 percent while criminology degrees (of which there aren’t as many) increased by 135.5 percent, and criminal justice master’s degrees were up 56.5 percent. (…)

According to results that task force members stressed were “very preliminary,” many sociology chairs are reporting that they are being pressured to add criminal justice programs or to expand concentrations into full-fledged majors. The pressure, according to the chairs, comes from admissions offices, who report that criminal justice majors are hot, and will attract more applicants. Adding to the tension, the survey found, many chairs believe that their professors, especially older ones, hold their criminal justice colleagues in “low esteem.” (…)

Some sociologists at the meeting Sunday talked about concerns over a “cop shop” mentality in criminal justice programs. In some programs, sociologists said, retired police officers are hired to “tell war stories,” and the result is a loss of focus on the kinds of issues sociologists care about: the impact of poverty, race, gender and inequity on society."

There are several issues embedded into this:

First, the pressure that academic programs are facing more and more, that is, to show employability as viability of the program. In this logic, investments and resources are expended on vocational programs with a direct connection to the labor market. In this sense, we are no longer talking about higher education but rather about job training (something conservative education "reformers" love because it cuts out the part about critical thinking and questioning social arrangements).

There is only a problem though, these vocational programs are non-profitable and expensive and capital-intensive. They require installations and equipments that can be quite costly and they can enroll limited numbers of people, precisely because of these constraints. So, for instance, at my college, I literally pay for the vocational programs: I teach 5 sections of sociology (no special equipment required, not capital-intensive) with 35 students each, every semester… the college makes money off of me. That money goes to fund non-profitable vocational programs that enroll 25 students (for the whole program).

The trend is then to use highly profitable academic programs to use as cash cows for job training, while disparaging their value since they might not lead to direct employment.

Second, there is absolutely no question that the field of criminal justice is exploding. There are more students enrolling there and the job prospects are very good. This is an economic sector that is still expanding and where demand is increasing. And no one asks why. Isn’t this interesting? And we know why, don’t we?

Of course we know why: because the American society has been turning into a surveillance and carceral society so, there is a need for a lot of people to make that surveillance and carceral machinery work, at the local, state and federal levels. And with the rise of information and communication AND surveillance technology, AND the war on terror, there has been a diversification of employment within the criminal justice field.

So, a student majoring in CJ might not necessarily become a police officer, state trooper or parole / probation officer, or correction officer (although these specific fields are still very hot) but there are jobs now in cybersurveillance, computer forensics, air marshalls, in homeland security, etc..

And in times of economic insecurity, these are jobs that seem very secure since there are no real signs of change in terms of societal trend when it comes to surveillance, policing and incarceration.

Third, as to the tension between sociology and criminal justice. It seems amazing to me that any criminal justice program would not focus on issues of gender, race and sexual orientation both within the criminal justice system (gay cops, women correction officers, for instance) and in dealing with the public.

Considering the never-ending series of stories of cops tasering people who are not suspects of crime but just not compliant enough is also telling of a lack of skills in dealing with conflict situations, how to defuse them, not let them escalate rather than just go for force. But how many programs teach conflict resolution classes? Or dealing with cultural differences? Or not letting one’s prejudice get in the way of professionalism?

This seems indicative of another trend: the militarization of police forces, as opposed to seeing policing as service to the public.

This again reveals the deep tensions and battles fought in the higher education world between people like me who want higher education to be education first, critical thinking, objective examination of social forces and the impact of socio-economic inequalities. And then, the "reformers" who want higher education to be job training so we can beat Indian engineers on programming and not have to import Philippina nurses. Again, education as job training. And of course, if these evil commie pinko professors can be disposed of in the process, so much the better.

It is idiotic, obviously, because the so-called non-employable academic disciplines generate much of the knowledge used in other fields without the proper recognition or the credit for it, which is also another traditional function of academia.

What’s at stake here is not whether sociology and criminal justice stay together or split. That is largely a context-dependent issue. What is at stake is the function of higher education in the 21st century.

Sociology in the News – The Beginning of the End of Mass Incarceration?

Bruce Western

Another post as part of my social justice series.

Bruce Western – of Punishment and Inequality in America fame – hopes so (via Chris Uggen ) in this article in the Boston Review.

"The British sociologist T.H. Marshall described citizenship as the “basic human equality associated with full membership in a community.” By this measure, thirty years of prison growth concentrated among the poorest in society has diminished American citizenship. But as the prison boom attains new heights, the conversation about criminal punishment may finally be shifting.

For the first time in decades, political leaders seem willing to consider the toll of rising incarceration rates. In October last year, Senator Jim Webb convened hearings of the Joint Economic Committee on the social costs of mass incarceration. In opening the hearings, Senator Webb made a remarkable observation, “With the world’s largest prison population,” he said, “our prisons test the limits of our democracy and push the boundaries of our moral identity.”

[Emphasis mine] One should never have a discussion of mass incarceration without connecting it systematically to social inequality. We know the statistics: 2.3 million people in US prisons and jails, largest prison population in the world with a fourfold increase since the 1980s (thank you, War on Drugs). And this increase has as much to do with class and racial inequalities as it has to do with reducing levels of criminality. So, when we talk about mass incarceration, we should actually specify: mass incarceration of young black men with limited education.

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Nathalie Menigon, of Action Directe, Gets Paroled

Nathalie Menigon Via Le Monde, Nathalie Menigon, member of the French terrorist group Action Directe, has been paroled. She was serving two life sentences since 1989 with a minimum of 18 years without parole. She actually was already under the statute of "semi-liberte" since 2007 (where an inmate is allowed out during the day to go to work, but has to report to the prison or a halfway house at night and on weekends). The conditions of her parole also include limitations on where and when and for how long she is allowed to travel.

She is also not allowed to discuss her case outside of her legal representation. But she is not allowed to give interviews to the media or to write a book about the events that led to her conviction.

At this point, then, the only member of Action Directe still incarcerated is George Cipriani (his case is to be reviewed in September). Jean-Marc Rouillan (Menigon’s husband and co-founder with her of Action Directe) has been in semi-liberte since 2007 (he has published books and works now at the company that published them). Joelle Aubron was released in 2004 as part of a law that allows for the liberation of very sick inmates. She died in 2006.

Action Directe was the French version of the left-wing groups that engaged in armed actions against representatives of what they perceived to be a repressive state or figures of national capitalism. They parallel the history of groups such the German Baader-Meinhof (RAF) or the Italian Red Brigades. Action Directe is alleged to be responsible for the assassination of George Besse, ex-CEO of the french car manufacturer Renault and of Eurodif, a nuclear power company, as well as the assassination of Engineer General Rene Audran, who was in charge of the French arms sales.

The four members were all arrested in 1987.

Amnesty International had been calling since 2001 for the French government to apply standards of humane incarceration as the four members were detained under various forms of solitary confinement and were showing signs of physical and mental health deterioration. As the letter sent to the French government stated (again, that was seven years ago, things have not improved since, healthwise):

"The reported breakdown in the physical and mental health of at least two of them is widely attributed to the years of isolation to which they have been subjected.

Joëlle Aubron and Nathalie Ménigon were originally held under a specially restrictive high security category, but were transferred in 1999 to a prison where conditions were expected to be normalised. However, their means of social communication, correspondence and visits have reportedly remained subject to special restrictions and they are not able to visit the common areas of the prison.

Nathalie Ménigon married Jean-Marc Rouillan in 1999, but has been unable to see him. She is suffering from serious cardio-vascular problems and depression, and is reported to have recently had two heart attacks. She is also reported to be paralysed on her left side and to be suffering from speech problems. Georges Cipriani, held at Ensisheim (Haut-Rhin) and for a time at a psychiatric hospital, is reported to have gradually lost his sanity and to no longer be aware that he is being held in prison at all. Prison guards have expressed concern about his condition."

The French government never addressed these concerns. French prisons are hellholes from another age that should put any democracy to shame.