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“Prisons Disrupt People’s Attempts To Improve Their Lives”: Honorary Doctor Richard Sparks On Crime And Punishment

The work of professor Richard Sparks is both timeless and timely. On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of criminology at KU Leuven, the Faculty of Law presented him with an honorary doctorate for his contributions to how we think about imprisonment, feelings of unsafety, and the role of criminology.

Professor Sparks’s approach stems from his sociological background. “What ties my research together, is that I have always aimed to find out how we speak about crime and punishment in the public sphere.” His research spans three decades and includes the perspective of offenders, their families and neighbours, prison staff, politicians, and the media, among others.

To incorporate these different contexts, Sparks and his colleagues sometimes use a journalistic approach. “Journalists have written some of the more interesting things about criminological issues because they have the intuition to go and talk to people when they want to find out something about them.” Professor Sparks does the same: he maps out how people navigate their daily lives, how they perceive their surroundings, which networks they are part of, and how they experience crime and the fear of crime.

Who is Richard Sparks?

Richard Sparks is Professor of Criminology at the University of Edinburgh. He is a member of the editorial board of several international journals and wrote numerous books and articles. His recent publications include: Democratic Theory and Mass Incarceration (with Albert Dzur and Ian Loader, 2016) and four volumes on Punishment (with Richard Jones, 2015).

  • 2014-2017: Head of the Edinburgh School of Law
  • 2006-2016: founding Co-Director of the Scottisch Centre for Crime and Justice Research
  • 2000-2004: editor-in-chief of Punishment & Society

For one study, his team went to live in Macclesfield, a town south of Manchester. “We chose this town because it is so normal. If we want to know how crime features in everyday life, it is important to also study those places that would not typically be studied, like inner cities.” Another study had Sparks spend a number of years visiting two maximum security prisons in England.

The harm of imprisonment

His work on criminal punishment sparks the question: do prisons help offenders and contribute to society? “There may be some benefits to imprisonment, but rarely for the inmates themselves,” says Sparks. “Prison staff often do their very best to provide opportunities for people to develop themselves. However, these are often attempts to reduce the harm that imprisonment itself causes.”

To evaluate the role of prisons, we have to look beyond their financial cost and take into account the cost to individuals. “If there are any benefits, they are usually only (possible) for people who can expect to be in prison for a long time because of the nature of their offences. From society’s point of view, imprisonment prevents offenders from committing further crimes in the community for as long as that might be deemed necessary. For the prisoner, a longer sentence may sometimes provide opportunities for education or personal growth.” But not everyone goes through this process of personal development. “Imprisonment is an extremely hard penalty. You should use it very carefully and as rarely as possible.”

When we use prisons to get a short-term solution for an immediate problem, punishing the convict might give us some satisfaction. However, for us to gain those satisfactions, the offender may have to lose their house, their job, their relationship, and all the things that could anchor them into a life of greater possibilities.

Prison sentences do not only harm the prisoner. Many prisoners, especially women, have young children, and they are all part of an extensive social network. “Taking them out of this situation can sometimes be beneficial, but is usually greatly disruptive.”

This is especially the case for prisoners serving a short sentence. “When we use prisons to get a short-term solution for an immediate problem, punishing the convict might give us some satisfaction. However, for us to gain those satisfactions, the offender may have to lose their house, their job, their relationship, and all the things that could anchor them into a life of greater possibilities. The disruptiveness of prisons to people’s motivation to improve their lives is huge.”

In Scotland, England, and Wales, there has been a trend to limit prison sentences under a year. In Belgium, the situation is somewhat different. Until recently, a prison sentence of under three years was almost always converted into a temporary restriction in movement using an ankle monitor. Last month, however, the national government decided that all prison sentences must be carried out, arguing that this will scare off potential offenders. “That is quite a weak argument,” Professor Sparks notes, and it is not based on scientific evidence. “You would need to show that there is a systematic difference between places that do and do not use imprisonment in that way.”

We are prepared to spend large amounts of money imprisoning people because it feels like a proper punishment. If we spend comparable amounts helping to address somebody’s problems in the community, that means we’re doing something that is clearly advantageous to the convict. We resist this, because we want them to be punished.

Arguments in favour of imprisonment usually centre around individuals. The problem is that decision-makers often cannot empathise with the context that offenders find themselves in and the challenges they face. “It’s not about whether you or I would be scared off, which we probably would be. It is about another person, with a different set of pressures and incentives. People tend to assume that other people would behave similarly, while very often they don’t.”

Mental shift

Richard Sparks and his copromotors Tom Daems and Stefaan Pleysier © KU Leuven – Filip Van Loock

If the reason for committing a crime can be traced back to someone’s alcohol abuse, for example, sending that person to prison might not be the best solution if they don’t sober up, because the minute they get out, the first thing they might do is find a drink. To address the problem at its core, you could allow those convicts to stay in their own environment without allowing them to visit places that sell alcohol.

This reasoning requires a change in thinking. “We could choose to spend the tens of thousands of euros that prisoners cost per year on community centres that help people with drug, alcohol or self-control issues. We are prepared to spend large amounts of money imprisoning people because it feels like a proper punishment. If we spend comparable amounts helping to address somebody’s problems in the community, that means we’re doing something that is clearly advantageous to the convict. We resist this. We resist it because we want them to be punished.”

“When people stop and think about it, when they challenge themselves to imagine the real individuals and real circumstances, then sometimes they can make a mental shift.”

Changing the discourse

Complex research like Sparks’s doesn’t result in clear-cut findings that can easily be translated into policies. However, slowly and subtly, criminologists are changing the narrative. “When a politician now uses terms like ‘social inclusion’ or ‘moral panic’, for example, they are unwittingly using an expression that originated from academic discourse. That happens all the time.”

Ideally, Sparks continues, political decisions should always be informed by academic insights, but this rarely is the case. “The problem with crime and punishment is that it is moral and conceptual, as well as practical. There is room for disagreement, which should be addressed through debate.” Doing so can be a challenge, as people seem to desire quicker and more certain answers.

It is his love for the field that keeps Sparks going, despite the many challenges. “I chose this field because it opens out to philosophical, moral, and ethical problems, and to questions about the nature of political decision-making. Criminology is infinitely interesting.”

The honorary doctorate from KU Leuven is one of the milestones in his career so far. “Receiving an honorary doctorate invites you to reflect on everything you’ve done. The fact that the Faculty of Law nominated me on the occasion of 90 years of criminology made me feel very privileged. I’ve been lucky.”

Source: KU Leuven

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