There are two contradictory narratives about crime. In one, the criminal act is a selfish choice, and tough punishment the only solution. In the other, the system is at fault, and perpetrators will change only when society reforms.

Both are wrong.

That’s the blurb on Tom Gash’s new book Criminal.

I have always believed that crime, like all human behaviour, is too complex to be reducedTom Gash criminal to sound-bites and ideology.

In the same way that I believe that good probation practice is more about skill, attitude and humanity than the application of risk algorithms.

So, I was keen to read Tom Gash’s new (published today, 5 May 2016) book which sets out to demystify crime.

It was always likely that I would like the book; I’m a frustrated criminologist at heart and a sucker for books by the like of Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

In the event, I liked it so much I decided to write a series of blog posts on it, of which, obviously, this is the first.

Misled on crime, misled on the causes of crime

This first post deal’s with Gash’s central premise; that crime is a slippery and complex subject with few universal truths but which can be tackled effectively if we ignore the two dominant narratives — that criminals are awful people or that society is to blame.

On the next few Thursdays I’ll be taking a look at some of the key crime myths that he demystifies:

  • Crime is rising
  • Taking up a life of crime
  • Criminals will stop at nothing
  • Organized crime is big, bad and booming
  • Biology determines criminality
  • Poverty is the real cause of crime
  • Immigration increases crime rates
  • We need more bobbies on the beat
  • Tough sentences are a sure-fire way to deter crime
  • Leopards can’t change their spots
  • We need radical reforms to reduce crime

German motorbike thefts

Gash introduces his concept that crime can be influenced by all sorts of factors which have nothing to do with individual psychopathy or societal inequalities by telling us the reasons for a sudden drop in motorcycle thefts in Germany.

Motorbike thefts fell by two thirds in six years in the early 1980s. No new security systems were introduced. Car and bike thefts remained at the same level. There was no big increase in policing.

So, what was the reason?

Quite simply concerns about road safety resulted in the introduction of compulsory helmet-wearing laws which the police enforced rigorously.

Motorbike thieves soon realised that they would very quickly be identified and arrested and the vast majority did not start carrying a helmet with them when on the look out for a bike to steal.

The same phenomenon can also be traced quite clearly in the UK from 1973 and Holland from 1975.


This story leads Gash to identify three “important truths” which frequently have a large bearing on the nature and patterns of criminal behaviour.

The power of opportunity

As crime prevention professionals will know, opportunity is a key element in criminal behaviour. Gash serves notice that in his myth–busting, he will argue that the most plausible explanations for shifts in crime rates across the 20th and 21st centuries involve specific economic, social and technological changes that have radically altered the number and types of criminal opportunities we encounter in the course of daily life.

The limits of reason

Persuasively, Gash argues that the forces of logic should not be overestimated when it comes to crime. He takes issue with the idea that most criminals undertake a cost benefit analysis of likely gain against the risks of detection before committing an offence.

As an example, he cites a teenager who posted a photograph of himself on a social networking site to celebrate his theft of a large bag of basmati rice from a Tesco supermarket in the midst of the 2011 London riots, An offence for which he almost definitely received a custodial sentence.

The beauty of small things

Perhaps most interestingly, Gash argues that small things matter in two distinct senses. First, small changes – such as changing the law to require motorcyclists in Germany to wear helmets – can have dramatic effects and, secondly, that big changes can have unpredictable and variable effects.
He gives a number of examples of this latter phenomenon where bold policies have proved unworkable:

  • The US attempt to check all cars crossing the Mexican border in 1969 (which did little to disrupt drug trafficking but much to undermine legitimate business);
  • Mandatory sentencing policies (which filled prisons with low-risk prisoners);
  • Huge urban regeneration schemes – which failed to recognise that shiny buildings are not always safer ones

I hope this introduction has whetted your appetite for some crime mythbusters, starting next week with:

Crime is rising

You can follow Tom on Twitter @Tom_Gash


7 Responses

  1. “There are two contradictory narratives about crime. In one, the criminal act is a selfish choice, and tough punishment the only solution. In the other, the system is at fault, and perpetrators will change only when society reforms.
    Both are wrong.”
    But both are also inextricably inter-linked, and their separation into separate narratives is flawed.
    The certainty of detection may not be the whole answer, but the motor bike example proves it can play a dramatic part.
    The idiot who placed a photo of himself on facebook with a stolen bag of rice is simply an example of the latter of the often quoted three types of criminal: mad, bad and sad.
    Crime is largely about environmental conditioning.
    Every environment in which we are brought up equips us with both a moral compass and behavioural boundaries. But the compass can be widely out of true to the acceptable norm, and the boundaries set so far apart, that criminal behaviour is not so much condemned as encouraged.
    No one is born a criminal, crime is a taught behaviour, reinforced by an environment that allows it to flourish.
    Separating crime by the individual, from the societal environment in which it exists, blurs the debate instead of focusing it.

  2. Hi Mark
    It’s a sophisticated book which I may not have done full justice to in my short summary. I don’t think Tom Gash would deny that upbringing & poverty are factors, but would argue that this is a more complex process – what about all the people with very difficult starts to life who don’t commit crime?
    The main purpose of the book is to promote debate, so thanks very much for finding the time to comment.
    Best Wishes

    1. ‘what about all the people with very difficult starts to life who don’t commit crime?’
      They are the ones who have had instilled in them a good moral compass and set behavioural boundaries – despite the difficult societal environment around them.
      Which is why the two are so inter-linked.
      No one is born a criminal, all behaviour is learned, good and bad, the individual and the environment around them co-exist.
      The degree to which the individual allows the environment around them to affect and influence their behaviour depends on the strength of their boundaries and the accuracy of their compass.

  3. Good book and good summary, just wanna to add my thinking about crime.

    This book accurately addresses that increasing crime is caused by increase in opportunity and benefits in doing the crime itself, then it also address the push toward harder punishment and yet explained the doubt in it. Here I just wanna add my thinking which I have written in academic thesis then in a book called (in Indonesian, translated in English) Concept of Economic Based Criminal Justice Sentencing.

    I proposed a thinking about why in Indonesia the crime will never be addressed correctly if the system itself is imbalance, and yet I found some similarities with other criminal justice systems around the world. The biggest problem so far is how the punishment is too light, I suggest a harder punishments for that. I proposed a systematical system which must be enforced that; to ensure deterrent effect, criminal justice system must ensure that the perpetrators must not gain benefits from the criminal act economically.

    The arguments and criminal studies about why punishments failed to address its purpose to reform the perpetrators is explained and reasoned because of the flaws in criminal justice system itself as: 1. it is to weak punishments to ensure deterrent effects / wary / repent, 2. The current indeterminate nor indefinite sentencing system flaws which make uncertainty of criminal justice system outcome so the punishment will always felt as injustice for the doers, 3. The current criminal justice system is more to hurting the perpetrators rather than trying to restore the balance, 4. … And so on.

    Hence, I proposed a Penal sentencing which is systematical and mathematically adopts restorative justice – endorsing paying back the victim(es) economical is better than not doing it, ensure penal sentencing must guarantee that the benefits in doing crime economically is taken away compared to other people whose works legitimately in the worst condition (paid in lowest regional wage), to ensure that penal sentencing must be an equation which can be measured by everyone to ensure transparency and accountability, and give message that easily understand by everyone that the criminal justice penalties will ensure crime does not pay.

    Hopes it helps, sorry for my English…

    1. Hi Teng
      Thanks very much for your comment; as you obviously know, there is increasing interest in restorative justice in this country too.
      I hope someone in Indonesia is paying attention to your analysis

      Best Wishes

      PS: Your English is fine

        1. Hi Russell, thanks for your support. Just want to update. My concept should be translated correctly into The Concept of Economic Loss Value-based Sentencing, a sentencing guideline concept that addresses the current criminal justice system 3 main weaknesses: 1) cannot guarantee crime does not pay (/ get benefit), 2) cannot give justice to both ways ( the victim(s) and the government in one part, and the perpetrator – as David Fogel’s Justice Model expressed), 3) lack of compassion: sentencing as defamation / torment / putting into misery of the perpetrator will never heal the mental sickness – can you torment a wild animal and make it tame? it will never be, only to a constant “reward and punishment system” and a loving treatment will.

          It is just accepted by my most senior professor: Prof. Dr. Barda Nawawi Arief, SH. … 😀

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