As well as being a member of the Sociology department, Phil doubles up as the director of the university's Multi Faith Centre where he and his colleagues are engaged in several outreach projects, and that includes supporting young people from the (primarily Slovak) cohort of Roma who arrived in Derby after 2004. His way in to exploring how this community is disadvantaged and has its young people up before the courts in disproportionate numbers proceeds via some elementary and widely-applied sociological concepts. Is it the case that a moral panic surrounds the Roma which stigmatises and labels them, in turn compounding the magnitude of the panic and driving a criminal justice response, or is something else happening?
Drawing on the classic study by Stanley Cohen, a moral panic is an exaggerated social action attributable to a social group that is amplified (if not stoked by) the media and certain political concerns. Each panic seeks to construct a folk devil on which a panic can ultimately be hung, re-hung, and hung again for good measure. Longtime readers/observers of the right wing press in this country will certainly have an idea of which groups have received this treatment over the years.
In many ways, the Roma are the perfect set of folk devils, which is fed by centuries of antipathy toward Gypsies and travellers. The Roma also bring with them associations formed in Eastern Europe and reinforced by non-Roma migrant workers who've also settled here. These tend to be associated with littering, overcrowding, loitering in public, anti-social behaviour, lack of parental supervision, and petty crime. Phil also observed that Roma, or at least those living in Derby, tend to live in relative isolation marked both by very close proximity and communal living. 3,500 (approximately) are clustered in three wards in the south of the city. Furthermore, some community practices such as kids having a freer reign, and more problematic ones such as marriage-at-16 tend to reinforce separation from the host society.
Erving Goffman's Stigma, is useful for thinking through some of these issues. Goffman understands stigma as a socially attributed status disqualifying people caught up in it from full acceptance. In the UK context, Phil noted that certain cultural mores might contribute to stigmatisation in the eyes of the host community. Firstly, however, it was important to note the Roma do not see themselves as stigmatised. Most important are "internal" dynamics of shame and honour, and anything belonging to the outside is just that - they pay second fiddle to what you might call their own specific forms of symbolic and social capital. It followed that tensions between these structures and the conventions and law of the wider society are bound to happen. As Phil illustrated by anecdote, Roma youth tend not to take encounters with the police too seriously as here they tend to get cautioned and locked up, whereas back in Slovakia beatings and getting threatened with guns is the normal run of things. Either way, whether policing is violent or not, what matters most are the cultural codes of the Roma.
Hence from their point of view, boisterous behaviour on street corners and petty crime is normal behaviour whereas it can be viewed as threatening by others, and therefore brings forth a criminal justice response. Developing strategies to tackle the over-representation of young Roma in offending and re-offending rates means understanding the culture and, crucially, not turning a blind eye to practices that transgresses the law but develops a strategy that can discourage, promote integration, and not come over as crudely assimilationist and bureaucratic. To this end, informed by this analysis Phil and the MFC have been working with the office of Derbyshire's Police and Crime Commissioner. Together they have provided outreach workers and mentoring to provide activities that take folks off the streets - in full consultation with the Roma themselves, and to work with young offenders. There is always two-way consultation to let the authorities know about any issues as well.
Going from the pilot work done so far, it appears to have had some positive results. First time offending and reoffending rates are well down - of 17 young offenders who received mentoring, only one ended up back in the criminal justice system. Of course, there may be other factors in play not controlled for by the study and intervention. For instance, Derby these days is growing quickly and providing greater numbers of job opportunities than other similar-sized cities, particularly outside of the south east. It is possible that a more benign economic environment could be having an impact coincident with the study, though that caveat seems to be stretching credulity a touch.
By way of a tentative sociological conclusion, Phil argued that the fieldwork showed that the Roma weren't disadvantaged and targeted by law enforcement because of the mainstream labelling them deviant and stigmatic, but rather lay in the tensions between their internal values systems and wider British society. While moral panics a media stigmatisation are damaging, it's not a simple case of doing away with negative portrayals of Roma and everything will be alright - as I hope my rendering of Phil's paper has demonstrated.