Criminal justice faces ever more challenges from society. While official figures show a drop in police recorded crime in the UK the distribution of crime shows a more complex pattern with violent crime showing a rise.

The phenomenal increase in cybercrime is challenging even the way we conceptualise and observe acquisitive and personal crime in the digital era. All this occurs in a background of economic austerity where the criminal justice system is often asked to do more for less.

Meanwhile, areas of emerging political instability and conflict interact with existing criminal networks to present risks not only to personal security but to basic state functions. This is not a problem of emerging economies alone as the USA faces challenges of conflict between the police and public, following reports of police brutality and the apparently retaliatory shooting of a number of police officers. Analysis and solutions to such problems transcend conventional categories of measurement and disciplinary boundaries.

At the University of Birmingham the new Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing will focus its areas of research on the key challenges facing UK policing today. The following examples highlight four areas of research currently being undertaken.

Domestic violence: identifying the triggers

Domestic violence is often situated around a complex interaction of unemployment and alcohol use. A combination of quantitative analysis and interviews with perpetrators and victims is providing us with a far fuller understanding of the problem, in a way that can inform practical policy implementation.

A team in Economics, Psychology and Social Policy are analysing a treatment programme within the community to determine how effective it is in changing the behaviour of perpetrators and understanding what triggers the change.

Threats in cyberspace

Cybercrime is a growing threat and it is tempting to look at technical solutions to it. Clearly, computer scientists have the technical knowhow to create sophisticated security software but one needs to understand the nature of offences and victimisation in order to decide what to safeguard. ‘Routine Activity Theory’ with its emphasis on offenders, targets and (lack of) capable guardians offers insights into this, particularly economic cybercrime. Combined with cost benefit analysis, it offers insights into where to invest in costly technology and where cheaper but effective safeguards will suffice. 

When developing technical processes and solutions to assist in the investigation of cybercriminals, computer science again has an important role to play. Such endeavours are, however, enhanced by drawing on psychological understanding of the heterogeneity of the offenders and their behaviours.

Ultimately, the tools developed will be used by human beings. Therefore through social science–computer science collaborations, it can be ensured that tools are developed that fully meet the needs of the user.

Examining youth offending and neurobiology

Youth crime is a pressing problem and some countries, notably the US, take a very harsh approach leading to high rates of incarceration. While some think this approach acts as an effective deterrence from engaging in crime, recent research in neurobiology suggests that differences between adult and adolescent brains can explain a lot of criminal behaviour which may naturally cease with age. Thus, imprisoning youths can establish a counter-productive dynamic of stigmatisation. Academics from Neuroscience and Social Policy are looking at this challenging area of research.

Breaking the cycle of repeat offending

The UK suffers from high rates of reoffending. An innovative project with experts from Geography, Law and Psychology is examining if prison visitation can break the cycle of reoffending. An ESRC-funded project combines macro-level statistical analysis with mixed-methods research into visiting facilities to identify the nature of this relationship and its socio-spatial context. This will inform policy regarding visitation and the design of visiting spaces, and contribute to broader debates on prisoner rehabilitation and resettlement.

The Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at Birmingham

These examples of current research illustrate the success possible when disciplines work together to develop innovative solutions to problems facing the criminal justice system.

Within the University of Birmingham, we have at least 40 academics from all five colleges with research expertise in the areas of crime, justice and policing. As outlined, stakeholders in the criminal justice system have complex requirements, including offenders and victims, and those administering policing and legal processes.

To meet these complex needs, we have established the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing. Cross-college collaborations by Centre members have already resulted in a number of joint projects, many of which are externally funded. Overall, our aim is to develop a multidisciplinary community of academics and stakeholders who can work together to co-produce research that is relevant to the challenges facing the criminal justice system.

 Dr Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

Reader in Economics and Director of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing, Department of Economics, University of Birmingham

 Dr Jessica Woodhams

Reader in Forensic Psychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham