CONVICT CRIMINOLOGY FOR THE FUTURE drops: Why should you care?

Earlier this month Criminologist Francesca Vianello’s (University of Padua) and my co-authored edited book Convict Criminology for the Future was published by Routledge. Tracing its origins to a conference that was held May 31/June 1 last year, the book, consists of sixteen chapters (and a foreword by Shadd Maruna) written by a team of international scholars on the subject of Convict Criminology.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Convict Criminology, it is basically a network of individuals who hold a Ph.D. or are on their way to earning a doctorate in Criminology/Criminal Justice or an allied field, and united around the idea that the convict voice is typically ignored in scholarly research and public policy debates. Additionally, scholars who are part of CC represent a diverse group, including those who have been formerly incarcerated, justice impacted, justice-free allies, and/or prison activists.

Since its origins in the 1990s the CC network has participated in public policy debates, taught and mentored scores of students behind bars and those who have been released, and published a considerable amount of scholarly and popular work. Part of this tragectory includes the establishment of the official Division of Convict Criminology (DCC) of the American Society of Criminology during the spring this year. And this new book is now part of development of this field and network.

Why is this book important? Francesca and I had numerous objectives when we held the conference and organized the book. One of them stemmed from our realization that very first book on the subject, Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards, 2003), was increasingly out of date, unnecessarily expensive, and there was a necessity for another edited book that reflected not only a stockkeeping of where CC has been, what it is currently doing, what the future may hold, but the increasing diversity of the people who make up Convict Criminology. Safe to say, Convict Criminology for the Future fulfills these complementary objectives.

In terms of content, what subjects does the book cover? Seven major areas are included:

• Historical underpinnings of Convict Criminology
• Adaptations to prison life
• Longstanding challenges for prisoners and formerly incarcerated people
• Post-secondary education behind bars
• The expansion of CC beyond North America
• Challenges to conducting research in correctional facilities
• Future directions in CC

The book is interdisciplinary in the sense that the contributors have training and experience working in different kinds of social sciencefields. Like the original edited book, many of the contributors who are formerly incarcerated or are justice impacted are presenting their work alongside supportive justice free colleagues who are allied with Convict Criminology. They bring this wealth of knowledge to the pages of this book and to the readers so they can make sense of the complicated world of corrections and to shed light on a viable way forward.

It’s always great to have a project that you and others worked so hard on come to fruition. It presents another opportunity to share what we know with others, address issues we have perhaps ignored, or failed to pay enough attention to, to gauge our progress, to make connections, and to assist others in the quest of making the field of corrections less brutal and more humane.

Doing edited books can be both rewarding and also an anxiety-ridden undertaking. This project had elements of both. More importantly it was a chance to work with people we always wanted to work with and to learn from them. It was also another opportunity to influence, to create, and to share.

The field of Convict Criminology has been all that to me. As the network has grown and matured it has provided fresh opportunities for more experienced members to share what they know, and to attract new people, with new and different ideas and energy, willing to tackle subjects of import to people behind bars, and those who have been recently released, those who study the subject of corrections, and those who want to reform the carceral enterprise. Things that we once thought were impossible and not attainable are all now part of the CC ethos.

Democracy blindness: On being misinformed about democracy or ignoring its principles when the outcome does not go your way

The recent election demonstrated that many Americans either don’t understand how elections work, or don’t really care.

Shortly after the polls closed, many Americans either unhappy with the projected outcome of the electoral race protested, and contrary to their state’s laws suggested that the vote counting be stopped or continued.

Some, despite the evidence of state chief election officers and certifications of elections to the contrary, but echoing conspiracy theories advocated by President Donald Trump’s and supportive news media pundits, claimed that the vote was rigged.

This is a scary situation. Why did this occur? Although there are multiple reasons, one that sticks out is that many Americans are poorly informed about how American democracy operates. I would even go further and argue that some really don’t care.

Clearly, I’m not the first person to identify this problem. As recent as 2019, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania found that about three in five Americans don’t know the three branches of government and an equal number don’t know a single branch.

Why does this occur and what can be done to remedy this situation?

Sure we can blame the influence of a focus on STEM education, and the mass media like the internet, including increased distractions presented by the rise of social media, especially Facebook, TikTok, etc., but I believe that the basic cause of this democracy blindness, is the erosion and elimination of both classes that teach students how to think critically, and civics classes in the typical middle and high school curriculum of the United States.

What are the solutions? Again, there are many, however I believe that there needs to be mandatory teaching of critical thinking skills and civics in middle and high school. The exact curriculum can be decided upon by a committee of nationally recognized experts. Regardless, this education should be funded by the federal government. Moreover if student’s don’t pass this test, administered in a SAT like fashion, and I don’t mean squeak by with 51 percent or a C, they don’t graduate.

This is the way to go. We don’t want to slide into authoritarianism and enable kleptocracies, like the situation we are now in. We want an informed public, properly schooled in the basics of democracy, who knows and respects our history, laws and our constitution, not one that make their decisions simply based on superficial aspects of the candidates or what their family, friends, or religious leaders told them how to vote.

photo: “Million MAGA March” by Victoria Pickering

Forget tweaks to our political system, it’s time to implement proportional representation

If the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that there are major problems with our political system. I could list a dozen of them off the top of my head, but the one that sticks out is our winner take all electoral system.

In theory, in this type of political contest all a candidate needs is a simple majority of votes to win a political office. This is, after all, how it’s done at the state and local level. Sure, at the federal level we have the electoral college and it probably should be abolished, the bigger problem is that although the candidates with the most votes wins, it leaves everyone else who did not vote for the candidate disgruntled. This situation is referred to as the tyranny of the majority.

Although we might consider redistricting, taking on gerrymandering, reforming who is allowed to vote, and/or encouraging the expanded use of mail in voting, what we really need is some form of or complete adoption of proportional representation (PR).

In general, PR, works this way: when you vote, you cast your ballot not for a candidate, but for a political party that has a list of candidates. When the votes are tallied up, the seats in the representative body are allocated to the parties based on the percentage of the votes they earned among the electorate. Although there are several variations of PR and understanding the differences among them is important and complicated, this system was used in two dozen cities in the United States during the first half of last century, and has been adopted in about eight-five countries.

Here is a hypothetical example. Let’s say your party earned 20 percent of the votes and there are 10 seats in the representative body. That means, in general, your party is allocated 2 seats. Meanwhile each party has their own rules about determining who those people in their party will serve in the legislature. In general, this same model extends to committees and heads of the bureaucracy. Some heads of the bureaucracy are staffed by one party while other parts of the administration is headed by a representative of another party. Yes there is competition, but there is also cooperation.

It’s not a perfect system, (general criticisms are that they favor coalition governments that are slow to get new policies, practices and legislation pass), it also means that the legislative bodies are more deliberative and on the whole it generally leads to system stability and a mechanism for all voices to be heard. Politicians must make compromises if they want to stay in power. There is a tension between the party and the person who occupies the position in the formal legislative body.

But the bottom line is in general proportional representation enables all qualified voters to have an equal chance to get their voices heard and less people are disgruntled with the outcome.