Book review: Criminal, The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things

Tom Gash (Penguin, March 2017)
​Paperback 352pp ISBN 978-0241960431

A key insight into this book is that the author is a former management consultant, who describes himself as challenging received wisdom about crime and punishment, and being sceptical of ‘big ideas’. 

Another perspective is that his view about what is wise is informed by what is expedient and his conclusions contain reassurance for politicians of all stripes. Poverty doesn’t really cause crime, and prison doesn’t really solve crime. Neither radical social change nor more prison estate is necessary. All that needs to be done is to give people, irrational but malleable little actors that they are, a lot of carrot and a little stick to make crime – conceived here as often an opportunistic phenomenon – unappealing.

While the title of the book seemingly places it in conventional territory (‘why people do bad things’), it appears that Gash’s desire is for people not to be good so much as to be sensible. He removes crime and punishment from a moral context and doesn’t provide any definition of ‘crime’. Nowhere is there a discussion about what is a legitimate response to it.

Each chapter of the book debunks a theory about what causes crime. Gash has certainly looked at a lot of data and put together a well written canter through decades of criminological research. However, it is in the chapter ‘Poverty is the Real Cause of Crime’ that the absence of serious interest in moral development most obviously weakens his analysis. He considers the results of the American ‘moving to opportunity’ scheme which transplanted families at random from high crime areas into wealthier neighbourhoods. He views the results as supportive of his contention that poverty alone doesn’t cause crime. Violent crime arrests for boys moved to wealthier surroundings fell, but property crime arrests rose: the boys were still criminals but responded to the new opportunities. Gash does acknowledge that variations in the results probably had something to do with ‘in-home influences’ but doesn’t discuss how this might work. A 2015 analysis of this programme (not referred to in the book) suggested that each extra year of childhood exposure to a low crime neighbourhood increased that child’s future earnings potential, and that policymakers should create de-segregated neighbourhoods with more equal social resources.

Having spent our professional lives trying to shape the same tale of social deprivation, inadequate parenting and drug abuse into mitigation, criminal barristers know poverty alone doesn’t cause crime. In his rather compartmentalised myth busting, Gash does not properly acknowledge the interconnectedness of poverty, addiction, education and mental health: the latter is barely mentioned. It threatens the legitimacy of the criminal justice system to acknowledge it, but don’t we all know that some wills are freer than others, and that poverty plays a vital part in this? Isn’t that why we have all those compromises at the edge of the criminal law; diversion, duress, diminished responsibility?

Reviewer Mary Cowe, Guildhall Chambers and Counsel Editorial Board