What causes crime?

There is something we find uncomfortable about a world without obvious answers, which is one reason, of course, why we cling stubbornly to our dominant views of crime. Our thirst for certainty may also explain why a number of theories about crime have, when stated boldly, gained alarming and unjustified popularity.

This quote from Criminal by Tom Gash falls right into the recent theme on this blog.

I’ve just started this book, and I’m not entirely sold on its premise yet. But it does a good job of framing how public policy and discussion can be captured by a false dichotomy. And seemingly because the simple narratives fill a painful void – we don’t know why people commit crimes and it’s probably too complex to ever submit to an single, easily expressed answer.

Gash essentially argues there are currently two dominant explanations for “why” someone commits a crime:

The first I call the ‘Heroes and Villains’ view, because of its moral emphasis and its central premise that those who commit crime must be confronted by the full force of the justice system to avoid society becoming corrupted. The second I call the ‘Victims and Survivors’ view, reflecting the argument that crime is not simply a selfish choice but often one forced by adverse circumstances…

This dichotomy between evildoers and victims of circumstance is quite evident in the world around us. Take the war on drugs and it’s more recent backlash, which has so often been a proxy for deterrence.

I’ve myself strongly argued against deterrence, leaning heavily into arguments about social context, learned norms and identities, and, ultimately, path dependence.

But this is really too simple.

Think of the last time you committed a crime (contrary to our Heroes and Villains view, most of us have) – or, if you are in the minority, think of a recent case you know of. Then consider the forces at work affecting your behaviour. I am certain that you will most likely uncover layer upon layer of possible influences, many considerations interacting in complex ways to facilitate the crime in question.

As Gash notes, “motivation” is too blunt a tool for what we are trying to accomplish. In fact, crime appears to be highly specific and contextual, and we’re ignoring profound economic, social and technological shifts.

There probably is neither one reason or one answer.

As always my emphasis