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Kushal Sood reflects on the new Anti-Racism department at SHU Law

My colleague and I have been given the honour of drafting “articles about injustice arising out of race etc and issues specific to the criminal justice system”, to launch SHU Law’s anti-racism department  In reflecting on this important and specific task, I have found it useful to take stock of my first three months at the University itself, in what is my first university appointment.  Diversity has been enthusiastically adopted across sectors, the most startling example being in public service.  The Home Office, for one, has established the Network, its very own race equality network.  It is clear they attach importance to ensuring forcible removal and abandonment has a diverse taskforce.  The Helena Kennedy Centre, of which SHU Law forms a part, similarly cites diversity as a key aim, alongside developing specific fields of study to professionalise probation and police practice.

Words are easily co-opted, and as diversity drives are increasingly exposed as means of further expanding the carceral state, they lose their credibility.  Anti-racism, however, remains an endeavour championed by grassroots activists.  Its vulnerability to being co-opted as an endeavour, by institutions with little or no evidence of commitment to actual anti-racism, is plain to see.  It is in that context that the launch of SHU Law’s anti-racism department becomes so important.

In June 2020, the Coalition for Critical Technology wrote an open letter to the Springer Nature Editorial Committee expressing grave concerns regarding a forthcoming publication entitled “A Deep Neural Network Model to Predict Criminality Using Image Processing.”  The Coalition comprises “a growing community of scholars who are challenging academia’s key role in the creation and maintenance of carceral technology. The Coalition aims to support larger movements of scholars, technologists, and organizers who are working for justice by resisting technologies that exacerbate inequality, reinforce racism, and support the carceral state”.  The Coalition made a number of points in challenging the publication causing grave concern.  The first one was bluntly stated: “Data generated by the criminal justice system cannot be used to “identify criminals” or predict criminal behavior. Ever”.  Yet this is an indelible feature of every single risk assessment tool relied on by professionalised carceral actors, controlling who is imprisoned, for how long and in what conditions.

For an anti-racism department to establish and sustain any credibility, it is necessary to see beyond collaboration with those carceral actors (who are incentivised to maintain the status quo).  Treating collaboration as a universally accepted form of anti-racist practice would catalyse the loss of credibility.  Neither is it credible – in the aftermath of each horror story around police behaviour we see in our news cycles – to state that ‘frank conversations’ are being held with those carceral collaborators.  Such statements are vacuous.

Domestic courts are behind those in many comparable jurisdictions, when it comes to critiquing tools purporting to predict criminal behaviour.  Recent victories, including in dismantling the Gangs Matrix (at least in its current form) will not deter carceral actors from continuing to develop tools they (falsely) claim to have predictive worth.  There are many being proactively developed and sustained in His Majesty’s prisons alone.  The work of SHU Law’s prison clinic must be grounded in confronting the indelibly discriminatory effects of these tools, as the Coalition for Critical Technology described in their open letter.

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