Interview

Steven Kemp

Criminologist

Figting against FRAUD

What is criminology?
There’s a common misconception that criminology is related to crime scene investigation or serial killers, but it’s a social science rather than a forensic science or TV drama. It studies the causes, consequences and reactions to crime. This means there are criminologists analysing how a diversity of factors such as urban design, economic inequality or technological developments affect crime rates. This not only involves street crime, but all types of offences, from cybercrime to corruption to gender violence. In terms of the consequences, there’s research, such as on fear of crime or victim support services, while many criminologists evaluate reactions to crime in the sense of policing strategies, sentencing practices, offender rehabilitation or criminal policy in general.
What is your speciality?
My PhD thesis focuses on fraud in the internet era by analysing data on crime trends, the financial and non-financial impact of fraud, why many frauds go unreported, and best practices for prevention and victim support.
Criminology in Catalonia?
One of the main aims of many criminologists in Catalonia recently has been to try to bridge the gap between public policy and scientific knowledge. Using my area of interest as an example, fraud against both individuals and organisations has grown exponentially in the internet era and public institutions and businesses in Catalonia spend millions on awareness-raising campaigns or prevention strategies. However, relatively few resources have been dedicated to actually evaluating what strategies or methods work best. So, I’m currently working on improving the evidence base and identifying best practices in this sense. Similarly, in 2017, the Catalan Professional College of Criminologists was created. One of their main aims is raising awareness about what criminologists can offer to public institutions, the third sector and private businesses.
What about crime, public opinion and the media?
Crime’s a very political topic and many political parties and their associated media outlets perpetuate misleading or simplistic ideas about crime with the aim of emotionally appealing to the electorate. In my opinion, criminologists need to try to ensure the public and political representatives are sufficiently informed so they can make better decisions. Unfortunately, this is something we haven’t been particularly successful with in the past. For example, it’s common to hear calls for longer, harsher prison sentences, but lots of research shows there are many reasons that increasing punishment is unlikely to be related to increased deterrence and decreased crime. To begin with, this idea is based on pretty tenuous assumptions about rationality and potential offenders making cost vs. benefits calculations, this idea of ’criminals will think twice’. How many of the people who commit horrendous crimes sit down beforehand and think: ’am I going to get 25 years, 35 years or permanent revisable life imprisonment?’ Or how many pickpockets living in social exclusion will be aware of relatively small changes in the Spanish criminal code and adjust their behaviour according to these small changes? Research shows the probability of being caught is more relevant for the deterrence of crime than increased prison time. But even so, imagine, for example, more recidivist pickpockets are caught and put in prison for a short time. Is this strategy coupled with social measures to reduce social exclusion and economic inequality in the first place? If you simply lock up individuals who are already excluded from many resources, this is simply going to increase the barriers to inclusion. It’s likely that issues will just be exasperated.
What about Barcelona?
A lot of these ideas tie in with the media frenzy we saw regarding crime in Barcelona this summer. Barcelona is a big city, with lots of tourism, a significant transient population, acute inequality, considerable social exclusion and high population density. These are characteristics you can find in most big European cities and, obviously, cities with these characteristics tend to have higher crime rates in comparison to smaller places. But it’s worth noting that the homicide rate in Barcelona is still considerably lower than in London, Paris, Amsterdam or Milan. Barcelona has a problem with certain types of crime but it’s important not to exaggerate issues, or to simplify ’security’ to a homogenous concept that is the same for everyone, or to reduce the proposed responses to simplistic soundbites. For example, much has been made about increasing police numbers. That can be part of the solution, but what about other issues such as access to housing or the labour market? The causes of crime are multifactorial and sothe responses have to be too. It’s also important to remember that subjective feelings of ’insecurity’ are not necessarily directly correlated with crime levels. Between July 15 and September 5 last year, one Barcelona-based newspaper published 15 front pages on the ’security crisis’, while many Madrid-based papers carried out a similar summer strategy. The media bubble plus the political point-scoring worsens subjective fear of crime. That’s not to say that there aren’t areas where crime is an issue in Barcelona, but sharing videos of every event to generate clicks or politicians using terms such as ’security crisis’ or ’crime wave’ doesn’t seem very responsible.
And crime and immigration?
We’ve recently seen the creation of the MENA ’folk devil’, to use Stanley Cohen’s famous concept. Non-accompanied foreign minors (MENA) are not a homogenous group and it seems naive and counterproductive to treat them as such. How can you generalise criminal activity to a whole collective? Think about corruption in Spain or Catalonia, how many immigrants are involved? Probably very few. So that means almost all corruption in Spain and Catalonia is carried out by people of Spanish nationality. Does that mean all Spanish people are corrupt or when the number of Spanish people increases, so do corruption rates? Obviously not, to generalise like this would be absurd. And this ties into the negative effects. The majority of unaccompanied minors don’t carry out criminal activities, the same as the vast majority of Spanish people, yet by criminalising individuals, you increase their social exclusion and possibly create self-fulfilling prophecies. By labelling and stigmatising people and exasperating existing social exclusion, you push them to act in that way. You put up barriers to inclusion, while demanding integration.
What about the crime of sedition?
I’m not a criminal lawyer but there are issues I have seen highlighted by prominent Spanish criminal lawyers regarding the crime of sedition and the recent sentence passed down to Catalan politicians and activists. One of the main legal debates has focused on the interpretation of what exactly is meant by a “tumultuous public uprising” which can lead to such long prison sentences? Sedition is the most serious of all public order offences and can involve sentences of up to 15 years, yet according to the Spanish Supreme Court, it doesn’t require significant violence. The incoherence appears pretty salient. Also, as result of the sentence, could this interpretation be applied to other coordinated, non-violent, mass demonstrations? In my non-expert opinion, it’s hard to see how this is not, at least theoretically, possible. At a given moment, a coordinated large group of non-violent people could constitute a physical impediment to the normal functioning of some agents of the judicial system and, thus, the coordinators would be guilty of sedition.
Criminologists need to ensure the public and political representatives are sufficiently informed so they can make better decisions

interview

A life of ’crime’

Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, Steven Kemp has been living in Girona for over a decade. He now lectures on criminology at Girona University where he is currently doing his PhD, and also works as a collaborating lecturer in criminology and cybercrime at the Catalan Open University and collaborating lecturer in criminology at the Catalan Institute of Public Security.

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