The Experiences of an International Conference.

This month to celebrate the ESC 2019 in Ghent, we have asked postgraduate students to write blog posts about their experience. This is our very first one, please enjoy! and do get in touch if you would like to contribute!

EuroCrim2019 by Ruwani Fernando

Between the 18 and 21 of September 2019, the 19th Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology took place in the beautiful city of Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium. The conference was organised by and held at the University of Ghent, with the theme being Convergent roads, bridges and new pathways in criminology. During four sunny days, we had over 300 panels with presentations from postgraduates to professors on a wide range of topics within criminology, as well as a poster session and four plenary sessions.

Having never been to an international conference before, I arrived in Belgium looking forward to experiencing my first event with the ESC. Now that I am back home, I want to tell you about my conference highlights.

The opening plenary on Wednesday evening kicked off the conference with some interesting speeches: Professor Michel Tison, the Dean of the Faculty of Law and Criminology of the University of Ghent, gave us a warm welcome to the city and the University. Professor Tom Vander Beken, the president of the ESC (at the time of the conference, the current president being Professor Lesley McAra from the University of Edinburgh) gave a presidential address entitled ‘Hot and cold topics in European Criminology’, where he overviewed the most and least popular topics researched in Europe in recent years. A lovely welcome reception followed in the UFO building, with drinks and snacks, including some delicious fresh Belgian fries, which were particularly popular!

The next day, I attended a panel on the theme of prison studies and community sanctions. A presentation that stood out was Professor Axel Dessecker’s from the University of Göttingen in Germany, who spoke on the harmful collateral consequences of punishment as seen in Europe. He outlined the existing research and discussions on the collateral consequences of incarceration. He stressed the difference between collateral consequences and labelling, or stigmatisation. The harmful consequences of imprisonment concern issues with families, relationships and communities, sources of income and caretaking responsibilities for instance.
This is of particular interest to me because in talking to people who wish to desist from offending, these collateral consequences are often brought up in the form of barriers to cease offending and social integration. Professor Dessecker has also demonstrated the usefulness of distinguishing direct collateral consequences – for example, the prison term itself or the loss of employment – to indirect collateral consequences, such as the potential open access to criminal records and subsequent challenges in (re)entering the labour market.

On Thursday afternoon, it was time for me to present my own paper. I had prepared a presentation entitled ‘Narratives of change: a cross-national comparative study of desistance processes’, in a panel on narratives of crime and justice. I presented initial thoughts from data collected (currently still collecting) in the context of my thesis, which uses narratives to explore experiences of desistance from crime in France and England. After introducing myself and my work, and providing some background to the research, I presented two case studies from interviews I had conducted. Through extracts from my transcripts, I drew a parallel between the two discourses, demonstrating participants’ narratives of change and motivations outside of offending. At first, I was a bit nervous, but I quickly gained confidence when I introduced myself to the audience and started my presentation.

At the end of the panel sessions on Thursday, there was a plenary session where Professor Martine Herzog-Evans spoke on the multidisciplinary approach of qualitative criminology. Professor Herzog-Evans is a researcher from the University of Reims in France and has been one of the few French academics to take interest in desistance from crime and indeed from criminology altogether, so I was particularly keen on hearing her talk. Her background is in law and it seems that her interests in sentence implementation law and probation have led to her multidisciplinary approach in legal and criminological theory. Her talk made it clear that our research gains from its multidisciplinary feature and that as researchers we can benefit from thinking about criminological issues from various lenses whether this is sociology, law, psychology or other.

After this plenary session, we were back at Campus Aula for the poster session and Belgian beer reception. This was a particularly efficient initiative to expose people’s research in a setting which encouraged more spontaneous and relaxed conversation.

My colleague and friend Charlotte Walker has presented her poster entitled ‘Conducting research in the Magistrates’ Court: practical and ethical issues’. Her thesis looks at experiences of defendants who do not have legal representation. Charlotte is seeking to explore why people chose to represent themselves in court, what resources they use for this and the impact of unrepresented defendants on court proceedings and on other agents of the criminal justice process like judges, magistrates or legal representatives. Her fieldwork involves observations of court proceedings and interviews of a variety of court actors. The poster she presented focused on the fieldwork and obstacles faced in the data collection phase of her research. This resonated with me as I have also been conducting interviews with participants that are rather difficult to reach.

The following day, I decided to attend a panel organised by the Community Sanctions and Measures Working Group, which was entitled ‘Transforming resettlement?’. In researching processes of desistance and teaching a ‘Rehabilitation of offenders’ module, I have somewhat familiarised myself with the literature on resettlement and rehabilitation, specifically concerning the role of probation supervision.

In this panel, I particularly enjoyed Professor Peter Raynor’s presentation, entitled ‘Resettlement after short prison sentences: what might work in England and Wales’. Professor Raynor contrasted the current notion of resettlement after prison to that of “aftercare” used until the 1980s. In the context of the changes brought about in probation by the Transforming Rehabilitation initiative, he pointed out that nothing concrete was put in place to ensure resettlement plans were implemented. With the decrease of voluntary sector involvement in resettlement since Transforming Rehabilitation was implemented, the risk of recall to prison has increased, which begs the question: what might work? This presentation is perhaps one of the talks that stuck with me the most during this conference, as it challenged the notion of compulsory supervision in thinking about efficient efforts for offender management and resettlement.

Friday afternoon, there was a coffee and ice cream break, provided by the American Society of Criminology, followed by the ESC general assembly. Among other things, the topic of the conference sponsorship by private security companies G4S, Securitas and Series Security was discussed. Prior to the conference, a number of academics had written an open letter to the president and president-elect of the ESC to challenge and question the coherence of these sponsorships. During the assembly, it was agreed that members would have time during the following weeks to contribute in drafting criteria and conditions that frame the accepted sponsors of the society and the conferences.

Saturday morning, I went to a panel on ‘Development and life-course criminology’. My own topic of research has been influenced by development and life-course studies, so I was particularly drawn to this panel. Babette von Hazebroek presented a paper entitled ‘Who are really at risk? Using risk profiles to differentiate between offending trajectories of early onset offenders’. Babette has used questionnaire and interview data to perform a statistical analysis to explore differences in offending trajectories according to different risk profiles. I particularly liked that she had linked her findings with theories of life-course criminology, which I was familiar with, as this provided me with a different approach to understanding and employing these theories, specifically through the notion of risk.

In the last plenary session, our very own Professor Joanna Shapland gave a talk entitled ‘Seeing people in the round: the challenge for criminal justice policy and practice’. She suggested that one of the challenges criminology today was to avoid the perception of individuals at the heart of our research, as an amalgamation of factors and risks rather than people who actively navigate through their contexts or situations. Focusing on desistance, she put forward the argument that theories need to be about change, agency, opportunity, hope, ultimately “restoring the whole person from the pile of their fissured parts”.
The closing ceremony ended the conference with a speech from next year’s organiser from Bucharest and from the president-elect of the ESC, Professor Lesley McAra.

In summary, my first international conference was a great experience. I attended some excellent panels and thought-provoking presentations. I have genuinely learned and gained a lot from talking and listening to other academics. I hope to return in the future to present the results from my thesis and continue to exchange with criminologists from all around the world.

Ruwani is a third year PGR at the University of Sheffield’s School of Law. Her thesis is a comparative study of desistance processes in France and England. She looks at subjective experiences of people who wish to stop offending and who are supervised on probation, through the narratives of those who are concerned. With this study, she aims to take an international approach to advance knowledge on the unique contexts and processes involved with desistance from crime. More broadly, she is interested in rehabilitation, reintegration, prisoner resettlement and comparative criminology.
You can reach Ruwani on rfernando1@sheffield.ac.uk or @Ruwani_F on twitter.

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