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Autism: Police discretion and decision making in an uncertain environment

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A question that always strikes when discussing my dissertation topic is why did I chose that particular area to research – is it a topic that I was passionate about, or was it my personal life experience that lead me into that field? The answer to these questions is quite simply, no. In fact, it was a topic I accidentally fell into after reading existing research on the area for one of my other modules in second year. Intellectual disabilities within the Criminal Justice System are quite often misunderstood, and as with all academics, the more I read the more questions I had. Taking this topic at face value, the field is extremely vast, therefore after taking some time to digest many angles of research I narrowed my topic down into two areas. Firstly, an institution that I have always been interested in, policing, and one intellectual disability in particular, autism (ASD).

To give you a brief background; the examination of the relationship between criminal offending and intellectual impairments is proved as complex and problematic. This is due to the issues associated with the definition of intellectual disability, as well as the contribution of unreported crime which means researchers can only examine individuals who are currently involved in the criminal justice process (Talbot, 2007). From a policing perspective, these complexities and concerns increase in terms of conflicting procedures and relevant training which can later impact levels of service and effective results (Mercier, 2011). Amongst academic literature, it is evident that contemporary policing institutions are subject to increasing budget cuts which means that police staff must exercise discretion in processing large amounts of work with inadequate resources, in which shortcuts and simplifications are made (Lipsky 2010; Loftus 2012). This is highly problematic as policies have a tendency to occupy a one size fits all approach. In effect, this becomes increasingly difficult when dealing with individuals with autism, as increased support and time is needed to sufficiently deal with vulnerable groups.

In terms of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this is a common form of learning impairment which can affect patterns of behaviour within a social setting. Autism is characterised by a triad of impairments, which includes difficulties in social interactions, communication and repetitiveness in daily activities (Roth, 2010, p.6). The varying expression and severity of these characteristics means that autism is recognised into sub-types, and therefore, is also considered as a spectrum disorder (King and Murphy, 2014).

On the occasions that an individual with ASD comes into contact with the police and wider criminal justice services, it is normally a result of their social and communication skills being misunderstood which means that they are not given the appropriate support (Cockram, 2005; Tucker et al, 2008). Research suggests that autistic individuals are likely to become extremely distressed in unfamiliar, confusing and loud situations whereby their actions and behaviour can be easily misinterpreted and subsequent actions could escalate the situation (Hayes, 2007). Complimented by the current implications previously discussed that are faced by the police and wider services, it is no surprise that there are issues and concerns surrounding police responses and decision-making processes towards the ASD community. After personally interviewing police constables and custody officers from Northamptonshire Police to investigate the initial responses when dealing with such individuals; the realities of such dilemmas were highlighted.

After now completing my studies with First Class Honours, I am now fortunate enough to work for The Appropriate Adult Service (TAAS) where such theoretical standpoints are often presented to me in a practical environment. From a personal judgement, Appropriate Adults can be easily dismissed, but just being a friendly face who can help and support a vulnerable person within a custody setting is far more rewarding than meets the eye. In fact, it is my dissertation itself that has lead me into this career and has now also given me a thirst for further study in my chosen research area.

References

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street- Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.  

Loftus, B. (2012) Police culture in a changing world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercier, C. (2011) The first critical steps through the criminal justice system for persons with intellectual disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 39(2), pp.130-138.

Roth, L. (2010) Autism: an evolving concept. In: Roth, L. (ed.) The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century: Exploring Psychology, Biology and Practice. 1st ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp.1-29.

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Graduation: the end of the beginning?

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Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.

I joined the University of Northampton as an associate lecturer in 2009, teaching at first on the Offender Management foundation degree and then joining the Criminology team, although I had been a visiting lecturer in Criminology for a number of years prior to that. I am sorry that a prior commitment means that I am unable to join you for the Big Criminology Reunion, although the occasion has inspired me to reflect on the professional journey that starts with graduation.

Last week I received an e-mail from a former student in the 2010 Offender Management cohort. She is just about to qualify as a probation officer and she was asking for advice about giving evidence at Parole Board hearings. It was great to think back, to remember what a vibrant and enthusiastic student she was, and to project forwards; perhaps I’ll see her at an oral hearing soon. She will probably make an excellent probation officer, and the fact that she is asking for advice before she even starts is evidence of that. She will possibly be the first of our offender management students to become an offender manager!

A couple of years ago I was at a Parole Hearing at HMYOI Aylesbury where I was very impressed by the evidence of the trainee psychologist. She had prepared a clear, concise but thorough and analytical report on the prisoner and she gave her oral evidence confidently and thoughtfully. After the end of the hearing, she popped back in to tell me that she had been initially inspired to take up prison psychology after hearing my guest lecture on Manos’ Forensic Psychology module. I saw her again earlier this year and she’s still doing a great job!

For undergraduates, completing a degree, submitting a dissertation, putting the pen down at the end of the last exam and then graduating with friends, seems like the end of a long and arduous process. And of course it is! But as the stories above show, it is also just the beginning. Just the beginning of a professional journey which may or may not involve direct application of the subjects covered on the course. Not all our students become probation officers or prison psychologists or academic criminologists, but they will take something of what they learn out into the world with them. It may be a more critical way of digesting the news, a wider appreciation of the social forces that shape our world, a readiness to reflect and question and see the world from different perspectives. All of that will help them on their journey. I hope that you all have a great time at the reunion and that as you compare each other’s journeys you have fond memories of the degree course that seemed a marathon at the time but was really only the first step!

Welcome Week

 

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Every year in late autumn, all universities prepare to welcome new students onto their campuses.  In the media, we know this as “Freshers week”, a period when new students become familiar with university life.  Throughout the years this particular week has grown in importance for the students’ social life, activities and other out of classroom activities.  Students can taste the nightlife of the campus and that of the nearby town, engage in group activities, join a society and of course have, in many cases, their first taste of independence away from home.  For the University, it is the first opportunity to engage students and get them involved in societies, volunteering and other after hours activities.  

Year by year, this week is becoming increasingly important for the student calendar.  

Returning students participate and graduating students remember when they were involved.  A clear watershed moment in the student diary, so much so that special wristbands are produced and different special events are organised, only for this week.  There is clearly some attraction, into being part of “freshers” so strong, that is now recorded into our collective vernacular.  Finally, the freshers apart from the commercial, cultural attractions, is even connected with health, the infamous “freshers flu” is presented as the scourge for many students who will suffer some ill-health in their first term at Uni/life.      

For an academic welcome week is interpreted differently.  It is definitely an important week because it signifies the start to another form of education.  It is transitional in terms of age for those who just crossed the 18 year old threshold marking the first part of adult education.  It is a declaration of independence for many students and the time to make one of the many transitions into the world of academia.  

This is why, instead of wristbands, I was frantically preparing my plenary lecture last week.  Every year, I dig deep inside to find something that will signal to our newest cohort why I feel so passionate about criminology.  This year, using the 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, I considered the importance of criminology, as a discipline.  The main points focused on the multidisciplinary nature of criminology, the ability of criminology to holistically explore complex phenomena and the immense service, criminology offers to understanding crime from a dynamic/ever changing standpoint.  The reason for going through the “pains” of delivering a plenary is clear to me: welcome week is the first week of the next three years of academic study.  The start of a wider conversation that allows lay people to embrace those skills that will allow them to understand, evaluate, critique and argue with evidence and knowledge.  Unfortunately there is no wristband for that, only a certificate at the end of the road, that will just about quell the thirst for knowledge.  For many, this thirst will grow further and whilst the wristband may fade and the band attended may break-up, the knowledge that our students will acquire will be with them forever.  This is the tool we offer and this is the beginning of how we do it.  

To all of our new students, Welcome!

Back to school (again)!

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve revisited my life as a student. That’s not to say I haven’t been studying on a regular basis, but the last fortnight or so has seen a return to more “intensive” times. Having c. 20,000 words to prepare for Ph.D transfer, plus a rationale to tie it all together has led to some very late nights, not to mention days in the library.  With the presentation still to prepare, not to mention the thesis, this looks likely to continue for some time. As an undergraduate student I was fortunate enough to study full-time and work part-time; this time the roles are reversed.

As an undergraduate, you get into the flow gradually; at the beginning the dissertation appears impossible; how can anyone write 10-12,000 words on just one subject when you’re struggling to write 1,000? By the time you get to that point, the question changes; how can I be expected to get everything I want to say into just 10-12,000 words? The process and progress is gradual and at times, haphazard; when you are in the throes of studying, success can be almost imperceptible. It is only at the end when you can really begin to consider how far you have come, from that early timorous foray into academic life. By the time you get to graduation you have forgotten the anxieties which often go hand-in-hand with academia.

Although I have studied more or less constantly, since taking my first hesitant steps back into education via an Access course, it’s been some time since I have been confronted by word counts and deadlines. For almost a decade, I’ve been setting them for other people rather than be subject to them myself. It’s come as quite a shock!

I’d forgotten how painful writing can be, especially to deadlines, reliving all the old anxieties and noticing the feelings of inadequacy flooding back. Not only trying to satisfy curiosity, develop understanding and construct arguments, there is also the knowledge that this is not private, your output is designed for an audience, albeit small. When I start writing, it is if I am back in primary school, trying to make sentences which not only make sense, but say what you want them to say. Trying to ensure that the words you choose are not going to bore your audience into submission and yet still get your message across. The perpetual internal competition, between wanting to give up and wanting to succeed, seems to grow ever more insistent the more you write.

So why do it? Why not just walk away, do something less painful, less challenging, less meaningful? Why bother with education when you don’t have to? The answer for me, as with all of us, is intensely personal and largely integral to my own sense of being. Even to put my rationale/motivation into words is extremely difficult; I’m not sure I have the words to do justice to the experience. Fortunately, some years ago my daughter did find the words; replace Philosophical/Philosophy with Criminological/Criminology and you’ll get the gist….

 

The Philosophical Orgasm

 

Philosophy is difficult. You can read the same piece over and over, making little progress each time, losing faith and on the verge of giving up and then… something happens. The fog clears, everything slots into place, the philosophy offers itself up to you, the tension subsides and your whole being is filled with warmth and understanding; new clarity dawns. This moment is something many of you will be familiar with. It comes on quickly, and strong. And it changes the way you understand forever. You’ve taken it, conquered it, made it yours. Borges sums it up perfectly; in that moment of clarity we become part of something larger than ourselves – we access that shared knowledge (shared, that is, by all those who have gone before, who have walked the same path) and can speak the words as our own. Some people call this the ‘Eureka!’ moment, but I am inclined to say there is even more to it than that. The Ancient Greek εὕρηκα translates roughly as ‘I have found it!’, hence its association with scientific discovery. We can all recall the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath and running naked through the street exclaiming ‘eureka!’ upon his discovery that the volume of water displaced in his bath was equal to the volume of the part of his body that was submerged. In the case of philosophical understanding, something more personal is going on. It is not merely a case of seeing how concepts operate within arguments – the understanding goes deeper than that, is internalised, changes you. It’s like an orgasm in your mind, that permeates your whole being. The more difficult the philosophy you are trying to grasp, the more intense the orgasm. It isn’t about finding a solution to a problem, it’s about augmenting your ideas in preparation for the next exploration. On each subsequent journey, you’ll take those new ideas along with you. (Saffron Garside).

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