3.3 Agencies of control: being selective
It is equally important to remember that rules may be applied selectively. In democratic societies subject to the Rule of Law, the principle of ‘equality before the law’ is an important political value. However, investigations of how the criminal law is applied suggest that forms of social difference and inequality may have a significant impact on who gets ‘labelled’. There are numerous examples of distinctions being made between similar behaviour that is judged differently depending on the social identities of the actors. For instance, rowdy, noisy behaviour involving forms of criminal damage to property may be viewed as criminal or delinquent behaviour if done by young working-class men, but treated as ‘high jinks’ or ‘youthful high spirits’ if perpetrated by middle- or upper-class young men.
Read the following extract about the ideas of criminal damage in the aftermath of the English riots of 2011 and reflect on whether the comparison at stake is between types of behaviour or types of people.
‘An excessive sense of entitlement’ was what the mayor of London ascribed to those looting their way across our sceptred isle – but he could have been referring to himself. In the mid-to-late 80s, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – not to mention David Cameron and his now chancellor George Osborne – were members of the notorious Bullingdon Club, the Oxford University ‘dining’ clique that smashed their way through restaurant crockery, car windscreens and antique violins all over the city of knowledge.
Not unlike a certain section of today’s youth, the ‘Bullers’ have little regard for property. Prospective members often have their rooms trashed by their new-found friends, while the club has a reputation for ritualistic plate smashing at unsuspecting country pubs. It has been banned from several establishments, while contemporary Bullers are said to chant, at all hours: ‘Buller, Buller, Buller! Buller, Buller, Buller! We are the famous Bullingdon Club, and we don’t give a f***!’
We can see some of these differentiating social dynamics at work in the definition and control of juvenile delinquency. It is understood as a male problem: most concern about delinquency – and most arrests and prosecutions of young people – concentrate on young men. Young women have historically been the focus of rather different anxieties – fears about moral or sexual delinquency have dominated. More recently, however, are worries that young women are behaving like young men – sometimes calling them ‘ladettes’ or ‘yobettes’, as in the Daily Mail headline ‘Yobette generation is plaguing our streets’ (Wharton, 2007). John Muncie, writing about the difference between male and female juvenile offending, noted that:
Fuelled by media-driven panics about a ‘new breed’ of girl gangs, the numbers of girls convicted of indictable offences rose, the use of diversionary measures (cautions, reprimands and warnings) decreased and the number sentenced to immediate custody increased dramatically (by 365 percent between 1993 and 2002) (Gelsthorpe and Sharpe, 2006).