chapter  4
48 Pages

Studying the criminal justice system

Such issues are not exclusive to research about the criminal justice system. Indeed, they can be just as pertinent in research we discussed

in the preceding section about the extent of crime and about explanations of criminal behaviour. However, there are certain features of the criminal justice system which ensure that such issues are brought into sharp relief. For example, some areas of the criminal justice system, particularly prisons, are formally closed, and any visitor-researcher or otherwise-needs permission to enter. Even where permission is granted, activities are severely curtailed. Where access does not need to be formally negotiated, for example in the courtroom, many of the day-to-day activities are ‘backstage’ and there are individuals and groups that have interests in ensuring they remain hidden from view. What is more, the criminal justice system as a whole is concerned with practices and policies about the detection, control and punishment of crime, each of which has important security aspects and the interests of security, however they may be defined, invariably run contrary to the goals and aims of researchers. More fundamentally, these practices and policies are inevitably underpinned by important political viewpoints about which there is often considerable dispute. It is not surprising, therefore, that those who formulate such policies and those who activate them are sensitive to and often hostile towards those who appear to be questioning or undermining such policies and practices. Throughout the case studies we shall consider, two important themes reoccur. First, the need to treat ‘objects’ of inquiry as subjects; second, the need to examine the respective interests of four broad groups of people-subjects, gatekeepers, sponsors and researchers-and the power relations which exist between them.