Academic journal article Social Justice

Assessing the Boundaries of Public Criminology: On What Does (Not) Count

Academic journal article Social Justice

Assessing the Boundaries of Public Criminology: On What Does (Not) Count

Article excerpt

AS A NEW PARENT I MUST BE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE, YET I CANNOT HELP but despair about the world my child will inherit. In Canada, the colonial settler state where we live, there have been several hundred documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in recent decades (Gilchrist 2010). The dire situation has prompted many, including Rinelle Harper--a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal teenager who was found clinging to life in Winnipeg's Assiniboine River following a brutal attack in November 2014--to call for a national inquiry to work toward resolving this long-standing crisis. When asked during a press scrum what "he would say to Rinelle Harper" and her request for an inquiry, the Canadian minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs at the time walked away in silence (see Global News 2014). We also live in a stale where in October 2007 Ashley Smith, a teenager, died alone inside a segregation cell with a ligature tied around her neck as guards watched. Her mom, Coralee Smith, called on the Government of Canada to issue a response to the 2013 coroner's inquest recommendations that ruled her death a homicide and proposed working toward ending solitary confinement (see Carlisle 2013).These requests were met with the following official response: "To be clear, the term solitary confinement is not accurate or applicable within the federal correctional system.... There is frequent interaction with others, including staff and visitors, as well as structured contact with peers" (PSC and CSC 2014). One has only to type Ashley Smith's name in a search engine to see images of the kinds of "frequent interactions" she had during her years of solitary confinement. Although a new federal government elected in October 2015 has promised to rectify these injustices (see Trudeau 2015), it is unlikely that the exclusionary structures that gave rise to these tragedies will be dismantled. Looking south towards the United States, we are learning that the rectal feeding CIA operatives subject their prisoners to is "not torture," but a "medical procedure" (CNN 2014). We also know that it is officially acceptable for police to shoot and kill unarmed black children and adults in the "land of the free" (AP 2014). These are just some examples of the material and symbolic violence that characterizes the present moment inside and beyond the penal field.

Of course, the fact that states are unaccountable for their repression and unrepentant in their disregard for human life is nothing new (see Platt 2014); one could say that the world has gone to shit, but that would be much too charitable to the 1960s and 1970s, when violence and exclusion were playing out in private (e.g., Griffin 1971) and in public (e.g., Takagi 1974) as many struggled for social change. If criminologists are concerned with trying to affect social change, how should they intervene at a time when there is notable resistance (e.g., people again taking to the streets in large numbers) to interpersonal and institutional violence, state impunity, and capitalism's excesses in Western democracies?

Similar to practitioners in other disciplines interested in affecting social change (see Nickel 2010), some criminologists believe that the answer to the questions above lies in "public criminology" (1) (see, for example, Chancer and McLaughlin 2007; Clear 2010; Loader and Sparks 2011a,b).The discussions concerning public engagement (2) or "doing politics" in criminology (Carien 2011, 17) generally revolve around one or more of the following themes: (a) engagement with extra-academic publics; (b) reflections on practice, including its possibilities and limitations; and (c) critiques of public criminology itself.

This article interrogates the objectives, publics, and practices associated with doing public criminology. In particular, this article highlights the following limitations of most current iterations of public criminology: (a) the pursuit of a reformist agenda using language that reifies and reproduces dominant constructions of "crime" and justice; (b) the frequent failure of public criminologists to work with the individuals and groups who are most harmed by interpersonal and state violence; (3) and (c) the use of approaches that often limit the participation of extra-academic publics to audiences of scholarly work. …

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