Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, and Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory.
What are you working on?
A cross-disciplinary study of the development of ideas of responsibility for crime since the 18th century; and on the comparative political economy of criminalisation and punishment.
How did you first become interested in the law?
My first love was always literature; and I studied law principally to go into legal practice. But my study of criminal law threw up intriguing moral, political and conceptual questions; and in my final year, the jurisprudence course developed my interest in legal philosophy, which led to taking a graduate degree. By the end of my BCL, my main interest was in the nature of law in general, and of criminal law in particular, as a social system.
Why are we so fascinated by criminals and villains?
Some people think that we are intrigued by criminality because, in our highly regulated world, reading about crime gives us a taste of transgression. Others suggest that literary treatments of crime sit within a long tradition of didacticism in fiction, while others point to a longer tradition of texts pondering good and evil. Crime raises fascinating and surprisingly intractable questions about the sources of human conduct and the nature of human agency. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is my favourite literary criminal, and she provided rich resources for my most recent book, Women, Crime and Character: From Moll Flanders to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
What is the biggest challenge to the criminal justice system?
Other than criminal responsibility, my main research interest is in the analysis of criminal justice policy in different countries. Why do we imprison about twice as many people per hundred thousand of the population, than do the Nordic countries? And why does the USA imprison about five times as many as us? With the apparent collapse of the Minister of Justice’s recent policy initiative to slow the growth of the prison system, and with the unfortunate explosion of criminal legislation over the last 15 years, we must work out how to prevent the criminal justice system operating as an accelerating force in the trend towards an ever more intolerant and divided society.
Is prison the best available form of punishment for criminals?
While it is necessary to send some people to prison, it should be used far more sparingly in this country. Even under more satisfactory conditions, such as less overcrowding, we know that any deterrent effect is seriously offset by the damage caused to a prisoner’s personal relationships, employment prospects and access to decent housing. It would be wiser to invest in social programmes and education.
Are you working on a new book?
I am working on a further book on criminal responsibility. I hope in the future to continue alternating work on academic monographs with projects aiming to reach a broader audience, including, I hope, another biography.