Criminologists, prisoners seek end
to street crime
Led by professor M. Kay Harris, a group of 150 of the world's leading criminologists descended upon the State Correctional Institution at Graterford this week to discuss and debate a theory on ending "the culture of street crime" developed by prisoners who are serving life sentences.
"It was like defending a dissertation," Harris, an associate professor of criminal justice, said of the gathering, which corresponded with the 14th World Congress of Criminology, held for the first time this week in Philadelphia.
Co-sponsored by Temple's criminal justice department, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the L.I.F.E.R.S. Inc. Public Safety Initiative group at Graterford, the daylong mini-conference brought together about 70 incarcerated men with a select group of internationally renowned criminology scholars. The event was sanctioned by the state Department of Corrections.
Titled "Ending the Culture of Street Crime: A Day of Deliberation at SCI-Graterford," the conference included discussions on the causes of street crime and theories for ending the cycle of crime and violence in communities. The day's featured panel was composed of six members of the Public Safety Initiative alongside 12 criminologists from Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa and the United States. Altogether, criminologists from 24 nations registered for the session.
Last December, with guidance and assistance from Harris, the members of the L.I.F.E.R.S. Public Safety Steering Committee published "Ending the Culture of Street Crime," an article in the Prison Journal (available at www.worldcriminology2005.org/streetculture.pdf).
"The L.I.F.E.R.S. group started out to advocate parole possibilities for lifers," Harris said. "It later expanded its focus significantly. The members began to recognize their role in helping perpetuate street violence and the way that this endangered their own families and loved ones.
"They also wanted to find ways to try to give something back to the communities that were injured by their activities when they were on the streets," Harris continued. "The group members are drawing on their own experience, not book learning.
"By inviting criminologists in who have conducted research on the causes and correlates of violence, they're seeing how that meshes with their own ideas, and how well they stand up with scrutiny."
Harris, who is hoping to put together an edited volume that includes chapters from many of the invited criminologists, as well as several pieces by the L.I.F.E.R.S. group, said criminal justice "is a field that really is hungry for good minds, good research.
"All too often, public policy in this area is based on conventional wisdom and rhetoric," she said. "Through our work, we have an opportunity to influence not only research, but also people in the field in terms of how the criminal justice system functions in practice."
- By Barbara Baals