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CJCCJ/Volume 63.1 (2021)

Criminology Today. A Critical Assessment

By Ezzat Fattah
Seattle, WA: Kindle Direct Publishing. 2020. 291 p.

Ezzat Fattah has lost none of his critical edge at the sundown of a long and productive career. Born in Egypt, he was trained in law and worked as a prosecutor before doing graduate work in Montreal. He was then invited to establish the Criminology Department at Simon Fraser in 1974. As a result, he has lots of experience on which to draw his opinions. His life and work have not gone unnoticed. Recipient of the SFU Sterling Prize in 1999 for ‘controversy’, he is known for being one of the early pioneers in victimology. He has long advocated the decriminalization of drugs, penal abolition, and criminal law modernization. He has also been recognized for his work by being inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 1990. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Liege, Belgium, in 1995. Most recently, he received the Hans von Hentig award from the International Society of Victimology in 2009. This is an academic quite used to the public spotlight.

Continuing to be no stranger to controversy, in the preface to his latest book, he says the academy has lost its edge, that tenure is no longer being used to criticize the system and defend its victims. He does not directly say why academics might no longer be the voice of social conscience, but the suspicion is that he thinks they are too comfortable. This perceived lack of edge in a time of global crisis, despotism, tyranny, economic and humanitarian migration is too much. He says that academics need to stand up, point fingers, and be counted more than ever before. Tenure is not a refuge for safety but a privilege to live up to.

And he goes further when he says that not only is silence not good enough but that criminology itself is especially prone to manipulation and exploitation. When criminology disregards abuse of power, such as extrajudicial executions, it aligns itself on the state’s side. When criminology employs a traits-based approach to street crime and ignores suite crime, it neglects far more extensive and harmful crimes. When criminology supports legislation such as mandatory minimums, or three-strikes laws, it supports a retributive system that does not work.

Fattah takes on issues such as criminology’s definition of crime and how it is overly legalistic, the persistent bias towards crimes of the powerless, the obsessive search for the causes of crime, the continued reliance on an antiquated system of punishment, and the reluctance to move forward from studying the interpersonal networks of crime to a better system. Is this your department?

He challenges criminology in the current global environment to be less concerned with victimless crimes, adopt a harm-based approach, and study corporate and state crime. He says that criminology should abandon the time-sanctioned focus on the weak and the powerless, the nuts and sluts, and the perverts and petty criminals.  He says that harmless activities like smoking dope and selling sex should not be studied or sanctioned. So, it is no accident that he returns to restorative justice as part of the solution, a solution he laments is not being embraced.

In his discussion of a ‘civilized justice paradigm in tune with the times’, he decries criminology’s reluctance to be progressive and focuses on law, policy and corrections. Fattah says that being silent in the societal preference for a punitive, retributive system criminology is neglecting an opportunity to be on the side of justice and be on the side of solutions that can heal communities and truly repair the harm between victim and offender. Instead, criminology continues to be on the side of the oppressor.

In his prognostication on a criminology of human rights and social justice, Fattah reiterates the abuses to criminal justice in the advent of the Persian Gulf Wars and 9/11. These civil rights abuses are well documented and have their adherents and critics on both sides of the debate. To claim criminology has been silent in these times, becoming a science of oppression is both overly general and yet true.

Fattah says we need to shift our focus from petty violations to horrible abuses of power, and this rings true, I have read it before. Almost fifty years ago, there were calls for new, critical criminology to do precisely that. Fifty years of research into corporate and environmental crime, abuses of power by the state, and how the disenfranchised and marginal are scapegoated by the system both vindicates Fattah and highlights that this is not a new message. We now have critical studies on policy that perpetuates poverty and marginalization, we have research on the ‘prison pipeline’, we have incorporated Black Lives Matter into our studies of policing. We study how victims are gendered, coloured, and classed.

Fattah does say there is hope, and whenever he thinks the future looks bleak, he investigates the past for solace. I would agree, given all the work over the last fifty years, both critical and decisive. For example, the study of wrongful convictions is about thirty years old and exposes institutional biases and how ordinary investigatory and prosecutorial processes put the weak and marginal at risk. More recently, work in cultural criminology branches off from earlier work in symbolic interactionism to show how the streets are sites of resistance and control. Or, in a queer marriage, how critical theory and media studies unite to show how ordinary ideology is, neither monolithic nor without its critics. There are so many ways criminology has already moved to embrace some of the criticisms Fattah so easily voices. I will not say Fattah is no longer controversial, but perhaps we have caught up to his starting point.


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