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24 September 2012

Seven questions to Mike Hough, Professor at Birkbeck College, London

Mike, you are curently serving as a Professor at Birkbeck, University of London. Can you tell us a bit more about your current job?.
Birkbeck College is 150 years old, and has played a historic pioneering role in bring higher education to women and working people. It specialises in part-time courses at degree and postgraduate level. It also has a strong research record, and is recognised internationally as a centre of research excellence. The Institute for Criminal Policy Research, which I co-direct, joined the college 2 years ago. We carry out policy research for the EC, for government, for trusts and research councils, and we have an annual research income approaching €1m. As our name suggests, we carry out policy research, with the aim of improving understanding about crime and its control, and thus improving criminal policy. Between 2008 and 2011 I was the coordinator of the EURO-JUSTIS project, which designed new and improved indicators for public confidence in justice.

What was the ESC event about in Bilbao last week?
This was the annual reunion of the European Society of Criminology. It is an important event in the criminological calendar, attracting several hundred of Europe’s best criminologists. With the Society’s agreement, the FIDUCIA team organised a ‘project conference within the annual reunion’. We ran a series of linked panel sessions about FIDUCIA. There was a great deal of interest from participants, and it was very rewarding to find that all our panels were well attended.

Can you explain a bit more about the FIDUCIA project? What are its aims, and how is it organised?
It is a large project funded under the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme for research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Its full title is “New European Crimes and Trust-based Policy” Its aim is to see whether new ways can be found of regulating the sorts of crime that are becoming more common as we move towards a more integrated Europe, with improved communication and movements of populations between member states. There are 13 different research partners in 11 countries.

What does the FIDUCIA team mean by “trust-based policy”?
This is an important idea, but it takes a bit of explaining. Most people think that police and criminal justice systems control crime through systems of deterrent threat. They suppose that people obey the law because they want to avoid the costs of conviction and punishment in the courts. Well this is true, but it is only part of the story. Most of us obey the law most of the time because we think it is the right thing to do. The police and the courts play an important role in maintaining this “normative commitment to the law”, and they can do it best when they command legitimate authority. People are more likely to obey the law and to cooperate with police and justice officials when they regard them as legitimate. And public trust is crucial to legitimacy. Our research has shown that the surest way of building the legitimacy of the police and courts is for justice officials to treat people fairly and respectful, and to listen to what they have to say. This creates public trust in justice, which builds system legitimacy, and improves public commitment to the law and cooperation with justice.

I think I understand. Can you give me an example?
Well, one of the things that we are looking at is the policing of highly mobile minority groups. These often have difficult relations with the police; they tend to have histories of conflict with the law, and feel “over-policed”, with antagonistic relations with the police. In their eyes, the police often lack legitimacy. We hope that our project will provide practical insights for the police about ways of regaining trust through fair treatment, rebuilding legitimacy and breaking these cycles of antagonism.

It sounds to me like you are talking about Roma groups. Are you?
In some countries, yes. But both in my own country, the UK, and elsewhere, this dynamic of mutual antagonism applies to completely different ethnic groups. It is the relationships between marginalised groups and the justice system that we want to investigate in this part of the project.

What other sorts of trust-based policies do you plan to develop?
First we need to carry out detailed case studies of new and growing offences like human trafficking and drug trafficking. We suspect that a lot of the people involved in trafficking – whether as suppliers or consumers of services – may see their activities as illegal, but not as wrong. We think it may be possible to police such offences in a way that reconnects legal and moral values. Just one example: if cocaine users were to appreciate fully the human cost of cocaine production in Latin America and the chaos by the drug trade in transit countries and the problems experienced by crack users on the streets, the cocaine ‘brand’ might lose its seductive glamour: people might think that it is not just illegal, but actually wrong to support this trade. Another example of this sort of process can be found in the UK, where attitudes to drunk driving have shifted dramatically over the last thirty years. Regular hard-hitting advertising campaigns have managed to convince people – especially young people – that drunk driving is not simply risky in terms of punishment, but is actually socially irresponsible – or simply wrong. In other words, a normative lever has been effectively applied to the problem. But to persuade people to readjust their moral perspectives on cocaine or on drunk driving or on other forms of crime, the authorities really need to be trusted, and to command legitimacy.

Not an easy task, then.
No. What we are doing is experimental, and some of our work may lead not as far as we think. But some of it may lead to real breakthroughs in policing and crime control. We hope so.