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Saturday 25 March 2023 Dublin: 11°C
'We call it the CSI effect': How the study of criminology is misunderstood
No blood spatters. Just cutting-edge work where research meets real life.

PRISONERS COURT SCENES Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

IF THERE’S ONE THING criminology lecturer Dr Claire Hamilton wants to make crystal clear, it’s that criminology does not involve examining blood splatters, looking at misplaced eyelashes under the microscope, rapid-fire criminal profiling or anything you’ve ever witnessed on Criminal Minds.

Within criminology, we often jokingly refer to that as the ‘CSI effect’, where people mistakenly enter criminology courses thinking this is forensic psychology and so on when it’s not. It’s the scientific and empirical approach to crime. We’re not gathering evidence, we are looking at why people commit crime, the criminal justice system and how we can prevent crime.

During her years spent sitting in courtrooms as a barrister practicing criminal law, Dr Hamilton of Maynooth University became fascinated with the incredible similarities between the individuals she encountered there, and wondered about the sociological forces at play.

I was interested as to why the majority of people there were from certain classes, certain areas in Dublin, and I became interested in the link between deprivation and crime. I also noticed that policies were on the whole, becoming harsher.

The trend of ‘cracking down’ on crime is one of two significant trends within criminology that are fascinating.

Firstly, since the early to mid-1990s crime has been generally decreasing in all Western jurisdictions, regardless of how varied their policies are, from the Nordic countries of penal moderation and tolerance to the US attitude of excessive imprisonment.

Stateville_Correctional_Center Wikimedia The Stateville Correctional Center maximum security prison in Crest Hill, Illinois, United States Wikimedia

According to Dr Hamilton, the exact reasons behind this are one of the most interesting debates within criminology but they can be attributed in part to “situational crime prevention devices such as burglar alarms and locks that simply make crime more difficult”, but that is one of few causes that have been accepted academically.

What’s particularly notable about criminology in an Irish context is that while the US has taken to get-tough-on-crime solutions (mandatory sentencing, three strikes and you’re out rules, supermax prisons), Ireland has a low to mid-ranking imprisonment rate.

90291455_90291455 One of the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries

This is often referred to as Hibernian Exceptionalism. As Dr Hamilton explains,

Where other Western societies like the UK and US have gone down the route of high rates of imprisonment, Ireland has not done this. When you consider imprisonment more broadly, Ireland has been much more punitive in the past, if you take into account the high numbers of people kept in Magdalene Laundries. In this sense, Ireland has become more lenient and bucked the international trend of going down the route of excessive imprisonment.

In contrast, the US has become the lead incarcerator in the world. As Dr Hamilton says, “to overtake Russia is quite an achievement in thirty years.” Before Donald Trump was elected, ”they seemed to be looking at decarceration and how to undo what they considered to be a massive penal binge”.

In fact, it would appear that high imprisonment doesn’t really impact positively on decreasing crime rates. In Canada and the Nordic countries, “maintaining their imprisonment rates at a relatively low level appears to have had no significant detrimental effect on their crime rate.”

Frequently, the evidence around how we should respond to crime does not correspond with what Dr Hamilton refers to as ‘our gut instincts’:

Very often people would say deterrence works – you simply increase the penalty and people will be deterred. But there’s quite a body of criminological evidence that suggests deterrence does not work actually because offenders don’t think beyond being apprehended.

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivane has said there was no misuse of public funds in the managment of the Garda College in Templemore. Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, she was asked about an audit that uncovered financial irregularities, i Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

Similarly, the somewhat ‘obvious’ thought that increasing the number of police officers will bring down crime levels does not stand up in research. In fact, “there’s a large body of research to suggest that it’s quite irrelevant to the crime rate.”

Interestingly, criminology is still a relatively underdeveloped field in the Republic, according to Dr Hamilton, who with a colleague, developed the first ever postgraduate degree in criminology.

Because of Northern Ireland’s more complex recent history, criminology was given more focus there, according to Dr Hamilton:

North of the border because of The Troubles and the interesting issues that they have stimulated, there was much more of a focus on criminology at both postgraduate and undergraduate level.

90400093_90400093 Sam Boal Sam Boal

Political crime is actually becoming an expanding area in criminology, as many courses now consider elements of terrorism within the spectrum of criminology:

Criminology has traditionally focused on ‘ordinary crime’ rather than political violence which to a large degree had been left to human rights lawyers and academics. Only recently, since 9/11, has criminology properly engaged with terrorism and an important issue is how counter-terrorism measures impact our ordinary criminal justice system.

So, what are some of the current, most burning issues within Irish criminology?

I have students currently researching discrimination by the gardaí against Travellers, the rights of victims under EU law and why more white-collar crime doesn’t lead to prison sentences. A really interesting study looked at the overlap between victims and offenders in homicide cases. It was a pattern in homicide cases for the victim to be a previous offender who had gotten into a fight with another offender.

Maynooth University offers a Master’s Degree in Comparative Criminology and Criminal Justice, of which Dr Claire Hamilton is the course director. 

Maynooth University are also unveiling a brand new undergraduate criminology degree this September, with their first ever BCL in Law and Criminology.

Are you considering further study? Maynooth University will be holding its open evening for prospective postgraduate students on 21 February. For more information, and to browse the courses available, you can visit their website here.

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