Crime: An Evidence Based Approach

Review: Tom Gash, Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things (London: Allen Lane, 2016), pp. 337, RRP £14.99

Remember that mass brawl last month, involving 100 school boys in Northumberland Heath, Bexley, South East London?

“Never seen anything like it”, Jeanne Asquith wrote on Facebook. Another local told the Guardian, “This is the first time for a long, long while that we’ve had gang-related problems round here”. A witness informed the Daily Mail, “It was just scary. It was school kids, basically, all in their uniforms, with hoods up and lots with their faces covered up. Some had knives and bats and who knows what.” Sharon McHattie, landlady of the nearby Duchess of Kent was quoted in the Daily Telegraph,“It’s a miracle no one was killed,” she said. “They all had their hoods up and balaclavas on. How they never got killed I don’t know. They were all standing in the middle of the street.”

Bloody kids. I’d forgotten too.

Commenting on the London riots of 2011, the then prime minister David Cameron spoke in parliament, to the nation:

Mr Speaker, whenever the police face a new threat – they must have the freedom and the confidence to change tactics. This government will make sure they always have that. The fight back has well and truly begun. But there will be no complacency. And we will not stop until this mindless violence and thuggery is defeated and law and order is fully restored on all our streets. … No-one will forget the image of the … furniture shop that had survived the blitz now tragically burnt to the ground.

An inference that something has seriously gone wrong with the youth of today. The age old complaint and the complaint of old age. Criminologist Geoff Pearson noted ten years ago that the trope of decline is common to public discourse on criminality:

The youth crime debate in the UK is invariably accompanied by, and embedded within, some notion of generational decline in terms of family, community, authority, tradition and morality, so that young people with their senseless crimes and their tuneless music reflect some kind of modern emptiness. For example:

“That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium steel everywhere.. .radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over.. .There’s something that’s gone out of us in these twenty years since the war”. Or again:

“The passing of parental authority, defiance of pre-war conventions, the absence of restraint, the wildness of extremes, the confusion of unrelated liberties, the wholesale drift away from churches, are but a few characteristics of after-war conditions”.

We know this sorry postwar blues off by heart. However, the immediate and complicating difficulty is that these are both complaints from before the war. The first is from George Orwell’s pre-war novel Coming Up for Air. The second is a Christian youth worker, James Butterworth, reflecting in 1932 on his experiences in the boys’ club movement in the Elephant and Castle area of working class London.   

In Criminal, Tom Gash, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and former member of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, tackles the myths surrounding discussions of crime and adopts an evidence-based approach to further the understanding of why people commit crime.

Gash’s analysis may be boiled down to three questions: what, who and why?

What’s Going on?

“If it bleeds, it leads”, so goes the old crime reporters’ motto. “Crime”, so seductive and simple a word. A Manichean manifestation dividing the “hangers and floggers” from the “do-gooders”. Assumptions and emotions amplified by our rolling 24 hours news (shorter deadlines, tighter budgets) feeding national historical amnesia. Violence, against people and property, catches the eye.

Despite popular assertions that the world is going to hell in a handcart, violence – and tolerance of violent crime in the western world – is at an all-time low. Research undertaken since the 1980s, popularized by Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and James Sharpe’s recent A Furious and Fiery People, shows that twentieth-century England was 95 per cent less violent than the fourteenth century. Take the case of Oxford, the homicide rate fell from 110 per 100,000 people to less than one.

Lies, damn lies and statistics. Yet the pioneering hypotheses of English murder by J.S. Cockburn and Ted Robert Gurr were confirmed by Manuel Eisner’s studies of homicide in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Switzerland.

And while experts claim that US murder rates during the 1990s would have been three times higher if medical technology had been on a par with 1960s practices – eighteen times higher than those of 1900 – most of decline in death occurred prior to the twentieth century.

Using Norbert Elias’s “civilizing process” as an exploratory tool, Pinker writes

As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.

Particularly pertinent to Tom Gash’s study is the shift from a culture of honour to one of dignity:

as Elias points out, the habits of refinement, self-control, and consideration that are second nature to us had to be acquired – that’s why we call them second nature – and they developed in Europe over the course of its modern history.

Self-control, twinned with opportunity, as the key. So forget “organized crime”, a term selling journalistic copy and justifying more resources for the police. Yes, there are “crime lords” out there – take the vicious David Hunt who remains at liberty – but most crime is small scale.

Drugs serve as a useful example. Most “drug deals” are consenting transactions, often between friends and acquaintances. Peter Reuter, Professor in the School of Public Policy and Criminology at the University of Maryland, cautions for the distinction between “illegal markets” and “organized crime”:

What I’m struck by, is how small are the firms in illegal markets, and that is a real structural consequence of product illegality … your principal cost – at least if there’s any enforcement – is the cost of the risk associated with activity. And if you make the firm larger, then the number of people who can inform against you goes up. So you want to keep it pretty small. Drug organizations are almost always quite small.

Who Commits Crime?

Did you ever buy booze before your eighteenth birthday? Smoke a spliff? Fuck a fifteen-year-old when you were in your late teens? Buy something from the “man in the pub”? Pay a plumber in cash for a reduced rate?

Chance is, you’ve committed crime, but don’t consider yourself a criminal. You’re not a murderer, rapist or robber.

In the UK, more eleven-year-olds are cautioned or convicted than 45-year-olds. The most prolific public offenders are males in their teens and early twenties. Self-control, or the lack of it. Tom Gash poses the question:

Could it be that, rather than gradually learning the skills of a criminal lifestyle, many people are born with antisocial instincts which they eventually learn to shake off?

Self-control and opportunity helps to explain why nearly 50 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a partner, or an ex, and why two-thirds of serious sexual assaults on women are committed by a partner, or an ex (52%) or family member (10%). Even tit-for-tat gang murders, with their culture of respect (honour), turn out to be exaggerated responses to the death of a friend.

Gash also examines the politically provocative province of migration and crime. Particular attention is paid to the “paradox of assimilation”, where data from across Europe shows that second and third generation immigrants often, though not always, have higher offending rates than “natives”:

they often compare their lot with that of others in the country in which they live rather than the country of their parents’ birth.

Profiling and discrimination built-in to the justice system aside, ethnic minorities do tend to be over-represented in criminal statistics. Gash offers the sensible suspicion:

There is plenty of evidence that points to the fact that resentment of perceived injustices can make people lash out – with violence or other forms of ‘expressive’ behaviour, including vandalism and looting.

Why Behave Badly?

Self-control and opportunity. Professor Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania spent most of the 1990s examining the brain scans of criminals:

The main difference was that murderers generally had far lower levels of brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex area, the very same area responsible for planning, reasoning and problem solving […]. The death row murderers in Raine’s sample were clearly a particular type of criminal. But they did suggest a pattern linking brain dysfunction to short fuses and extreme violence […]. Those murderers who didn’t have deficits in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control usually did have noticeable differences in the other parts of the brain, in particular the amygdala, hippocampus and thalamus, areas that are associated with primitive human urges.

IQ appears to correlate with criminality. Gash writes:

A Swedish study measured children’s IQ at age three and followed the children throughout their lives. The researchers found that those who ended up committing the most crime had an average IQ of 88, whereas non-offenders had an average IQ of 101. Similar studies in Michigan, Philadelphia, Copenhagen and Cambridge, UK, have had similar results.

Delectation for the Daily Mail. Born criminals? Gash is quick to quash these headline-grabbing quotes with the qualification of King’s College London’s professor Terrie Moffitt:

Knowing something is inherited [in scientific terms] does not IN ANY WAY tell us anything about whether changing the environment will improve it.

Urban planners believe that it may be possible to design-out crime. The Groningen (Netherlands) experiment of 2008 showed that twice as much litter was dropped in a cycle-parking alley when the rubbish bins were removed and graffiti was present than when the walls were clean.

Research of Pittsburgh public housing also shows that high-rises tended to suffer higher violence yet lower property crime than low-rises:

Presumably it’s difficult to make a quick getaway from a burglary on the seventh floor but equally difficult to escape a fight.

What’s To Be Done?

Explaining crime trends since the Second World War, Gash observes:

The period of economic expansion from the 1960s saw a dramatic increase in criminal opportunities. High-value consumables became a tempting target for theft and at the same time shifting social values brought ever-increasing numbers into situations where violence was a risk: for example, the mixed-sex urban settings where intoxicated men could be tempted to prove themselves through violence. […] Crime only fell as society adapted to these changes with better policing and home security and far more effective supervision of social spaces. We may also have benefitted from technological advances, which made computer games much better than they used to be and kept more teenagers indoors and out of trouble.

Rather than advocating sweeping policy statements to combat crime, Gash concentrates on the local, what may unhelpfully be called micro-behaviour. Initial research into prison diet shows that supplementing food with Omega 3 and other vitamins may help to reduce violent behaviour.

Motor-cycle theft fell in Germany, Netherlands and the UK when the wearing of crash helmets became compulsory. Disposing of stolen goods through the traditional route of the scrap-metal dealer has been stymied by the introduction in 2012 of legislation banning cash-in-hand payments, compelling dealers to acquire a licence and keep records for three years, and forcing sellers to produce ID at the point of sale.

Confirming the bonds of crime, self-control and opportunity are the presence of crime spikes in most countries following pay day – more goods to steal and inhibitions lowered by drink. Knowledge is king. A study in Minneapolis showed that an area covering just three per cent of the jurisdiction accounted for 50 per cent of emergency calls to the police.

More targeted policing is critical for crime fighting. Office workers are crucial to data collection and analysis. The very workers bearing the brunt of cuts in these austere times. As historian Chris Williams reminds us:

Cut the back office too far, and we’re back to the early nineteenth century, when policing was as good as the individual police officer, but could never be any better.


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