Most of what we are told about crime is a lie argues alumnus Tom Gash, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government
Criminologist Tom Gash is seeking to dispel the myths that surround the causes of crime
By Olivia Gordon
Dinner party conversations can prove rather irritating for Tom Gash. As soon as he mentions that he works advising governments on how to reduce crime, everyone’s ears prick up, and everyone wants to share their solution.
‘They are very quick to say “Shouldn’t we just do X? Why don’t we just do Y?”’, says Gash. One of the things people say to him ‘all the time’ is that we should have longer prison sentences and make prisons tougher to deter crime. People argue: ‘If we had longer prison sentences, they wouldn’t do it; we should make prisons more horrible – you’d think twice, wouldn’t you?’
Tom Gash is exasperated by popular theories like this. Having spent years researching the causes of crime and the results of its punishment, he has come to the conclusion that most of what we are told about crime is a lie.
The seemingly obvious notion that criminals might think again if faced with the deterrent of a harsh punishment is completely unjustified, he says. ‘The thing is, you might think twice, but would someone living a drug dependent, chaotic life think twice?
Oxford Prison before the demolition of B Building in the mid-twentieth century
‘Making it more catastrophic will just end up with them serving a sentence and you paying for it, with less money on education, healthcare and preventing crime in the first place.’
Of course committing a crime needs to have consequences, Gash says, ‘but how harshly you punish is not going to be the thing that changes how much people commit crime.’
That’s not the only myth that Oxford History alumnus Gash (St. John’s, 2000) is keen to debunk. He hopes to spread the message that the following assumptions are without evidence: that crime is rising; that criminals will stop at nothing; that poverty is the real cause of crime; that immigration increases crime rates; that biology determines criminality; that criminals don’t change their spots; that we need radical reforms to reduce crime; and that we need more bobbies on the beat.
After leaving Oxford, Gash worked as a management consultant, but a fascination with criminology started to build after an encounter on a train in his mid-twenties. He was on his way back from a meeting with a pharmaceutical company when an excited woman bounced into his first class carriage despite not having the correct ticket. Gash recalls how the woman announced: ‘I’ve just got out of bird [prison]’ and proceeded to tell him the story of her life. Gash says: ‘She had seven kids in care; she had been in and out of prison all her life; she had £46 to her name, and had already spent some; her phone had no battery; she had no fixed abode. I thought: “Something is badly wrong in our system - this person’s being sent out with very little hope of getting back on track. Could that be changed?”’
So Gash moved into the public sector to become an advisor on home affairs in Tony Blair’s strategy unit. There, he had access to studies and reports on crime which almost never reached the general public. Soon, he was ‘learning fascinating stuff about what motivates humans to behave badly and what governments can do about it’ – and he realised that ‘many of the assumptions you believe to be true about crime, how it operates and what to do about it, aren’t true.’
As a result, Gash says he became a very sceptical person. ‘When I watch TV, and read news stories, I’m always asking: “Is that really likely to be true? Why is someone trying to persuade me of this? What’s going on behind that story?” I don’t just do it with crime now - I do it with current affairs; anything we’re being told.’
Too often, he thinks, ‘people are attracted to a simple answer’ when reality is, of course, nuanced. For example, the idea that more visible bobbies on the beat will reduce crime is false, according to Gash. ‘The average police officer wandering around aimlessly will very rarely encounter a crime. You need to think about where crimes are taking place and focus resources on those places, and think much more about prevention in policing: how can we make areas less attractive to alcohol-related disorder and street fighting? You need to make sure taxi queues are supervised, that there’s enough transport out of town on a Saturday night. There’s a huge range of things that have an impact.’
One thing he stresses is that often crime is not particularly organised, but is rather exacerbated by opportunity. ‘A lot of the things that affect crime are not within the frame of the criminal justice system; they relate to things like transport arrangements and how secure companies make their products. We had a spate of assaults by unlicensed taxi drivers. People are basically getting into cars belonging to others who they don’t know and that creates risk – as soon as we have better transport so people can easily choose not to do that, you suddenly reduce the opportunity for those types of crime.’
Gash says: ‘I don’t want to imply there aren’t people who deliberately go out and do bad things, but even for those people, the amount of bad things they do will depend on opportunity.’
There is some truth, he acknowledges, that the roots of violent or ‘bad’ behaviour often lie in early childhood or in psychological problems, though a propensity for wrongdoing ‘can change throughout life depending on people’s experiences’. But overall, he says, ‘we can much more easily change the situations people encounter than their nature.’
The biggest myth of all, Gash says, is that there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’; heroes and villains. ‘The vast majority of people will have committed some sort of minor crime, and roughly a quarter of people have criminal convictions. And yet we have a “them and us” thing – something we’re very complacent about. The boundaries are much more fuzzy. The innocent victim and demonic perpetrator is a real myth; some who are most victimised are also committing serious crimes.’
The idea of children as angelic and being corrupted as they grow older is also misfounded, according to Gash. It’s more the other way around, he says, noting that one study found people were at their most aggressive at the age of five or six. Small children are naturally anarchic, but gradually learn to behave in a cooperative, socially acceptable way, whether simply for the selfish reason of avoiding punishment, or because of altruism – says Gash, ‘Most people have figured it out by the time they get into their teen years.’
Those who commit serious crimes, he says, tend to be the people who, into adulthood, fail to realise the value of behaving well, often because they weren’t helped enough to grasp that value in childhood. ‘They often have other problems [relating to] mental health, health, substance abuse, low educational attainment, poor job prospects. If you can support people earlier, in a way that addresses impulsiveness and build resilience, the benefits are much broader. It should be about opportunity and helping people succeed, not stopping them from doing bad things.’
Gash’s views fall between the political poles of left and right. He believes ‘both the typical left wing account and the tough punishment account have done us a great disservice. On one hand it’s led to people thinking we cant do anything about crime until we address social inequality; on the other, we incarcerate far too many people at much too high a cost, instead of investing in prevention.’
As well as becoming more skeptical, Gash has also become more optimistic as a result of his research. ‘I’m not paranoid about crime,’ he says – ‘there isn’t any need to be; it’s dropped so much over the last 30 years. It will happen, but in general you can go about life pretty safely in England.’ Also, at 35, he is now well beyond the age when people are most at risk of violent crime (the teens and early twenties).
He adds: ‘I know most people eventually get better behaved, and also kids are getting better behaved - there are now fewer first-time offenders coming into our justice system in the UK than in the last 40 years.’
Why is this? No one is sure, he says, but he hazards a guess it could be connected to the fact young people today go out less (they’re too busy looking at phones and playing computer games), and also that fact that we’ve got better at making it less easy to commit crime – cars, for instance, are harder to steal these days than in the 1980s.
Having written his first book, Criminal, about his research, Tom Gash is hoping the public and government will listen to him. He says more evidence-based ideas about crime are now gradually ‘percolating through’ – the government’s latest crime prevention strategy mirrors many of his arguments. But, he asks, ‘do we have policy makers with the bravery to resist the knee-jerk response?