How to design crime out of society

Renowned criminal science writer, researcher and lecturer Tom Gash talks to eolas about how to tackle crime systemically rather than simply increasing the number of police officers and why it is time to stop treating criminals as a separate class of society.

“Most criminal justice systems are based around flawed concepts of why we behave as we do based on oversimplified views of human behaviour,” Gash, the author of Criminal: Why People Do Bad Things, says. “We can reduce crime by changing the circumstances people find themselves in on a daily basis.”

“It’s very clear that if you’ve had experience of trauma and have limited ability to cope with conflict situations, you’re much more likely to fly off the handle if, for example, someone knocks into you and knocks your drink over,” he says. “We need to get rid of this distinction of us and them and recognise that we are all profoundly influenced by our circumstances. We need to redesign justice systems to make them more precise and more reflective of models of human behaviour and crime as it actually is and not the idealised oversimplified view of crime as we’d like it to be.”

Citing a study into the reduction of violence in the nightlife scene in Surfers Paradise, an area of Australia’s Gold Coast, Gash explains how a concerted effort to understand and change external influences led to a large reduction of crime in an area notorious for its night-time violence. “What they did was not implementing tougher jail sentences, or throwing cops at every single problem, they took a really nuanced view of the contexts that were driving these disputes and they introduced a series of micro measures, some of which had very little to do with the police or the criminal justice system whatsoever.

“For example, smaller glass sizes reduced binge drinking incentives. They looked at the mix of people in venues and the interesting thing was that there were more private security guards than police officers. Studies show that quite a lot of the time it’s the security guards that cause the problems. They concentrated on security staff managing the place and the mood, trying to deescalate any tension that arose and not just showing that they were the biggest body in the area.”

The study found that through measures like these, assaults dropped by 52 per cent within one year.

Similar to the bouncers and private security of Surfers Paradise realising that their responsibilities far exceeded the traditional view of stopping violence at any cost, Gash credits the “car industry waking up to their responsibilities” as the reason for a worldwide reduction in car theft. Where previously, “you used to be able to steal a car with a brick and a coat hanger”, Gash says that the industry realised that making it harder to steal such expensive commodities would make the significant expenditure required seem less risky and thus lead to more people buying cars.

Simple changes, such as the requirement of paperwork signifying ownership of a car when selling it for scrap, along with more technological ones, such as “immobilisers, monitoring and tracking” all had, according to Gash, “a vast impact on levels of criminal activity”.

“Making small adjustments in the difficulty of committing a crime makes it much less attractive,” the Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government says. “We are starting to see people recognising how to design crime out of society.

“We like to think that we are very goal-oriented people and that very little will put us off our paths whereas in fact we are making millions of choices all the time both about our goals and our means of doing things so we can change even the most profound and disturbing decisions.”

“We have very broad brushes and very blunt levers for decision making, but we need things that are more precise and surgical.”

Gash explains that deterrents that may seem small have historically gone on to have great effects on human behaviour, and that, though we may not even perceive them, the slightest hindrance to an accepted way of doing something can lead to people not doing it at all. “The most serious example we can have is suicide,” he says. “I think the most powerful study I’ve ever seen on the impact of circumstances on how behaviour is in relation to suicide not crime.”

Gash cites the UK’s suicide rate plummeting in the 1960s as evidence of what can happen when people’s circumstances and access to common methods are changed. In 1963, almost half of the UK’s suicides, including that of the writer Sylvia Plath, were done by gas poisoning via an oven. While some credited the newly-founded Samaritans helplines and the stabilisation of the economy for the reduction in suicide, Gash subscribes to the argument that it was largely down to the reduction of carbon monoxide levels in ovens. By 1974, the level of CO2 in gas ovens had reduced to 10 times less than 1963.

“What this did was remove a lethal killing weapon that was the most popular choice for suicide,” he explains. “When that method was removed, they found that it wasn’t the case that everyone killed themselves by another mechanism. Means of death are not equal to people, many people fear a violent death much more than they do one that has less physical trauma. Similarly, the alternatives to suicide by gas that aren’t violent are not very effective: in the case of taking overdoses of prescribed pills, it generally takes a large quantity to kill a person and limits on the amount given out at one time can prohibit this.

“These examples pose fundamental questions to our view of behaviour and, laterally, the view of crime and the justice system. Our mechanisms don’t encourage this focus on the moment and the detail of individual decision making. We have very broad brushes and very blunt levers for decision making, but we need things that are more precise and surgical.”

Gash’s last point centres on how we as people react to crime and criminals: “We need to escape our general moral reactions to crime, where we want to go and seek the perpetrator and think that will solve the problem. There are systemic, context-driven risks in society that can be reduced. They will affect the number of crimes committed by any one individual and the number of individuals committing crime and reduce harm in society much more cost-effectively than some of the other means and methods.”

Gash says that society needs “a fundamental shift in how we talk about crime as practitioners and policymakers”. The challenge is in our marking of criminals as enemies, he says. “As soon as we mark someone as different, we find it even harder to try to understand their circumstances. We need to get away from categorising people as criminals,” he concludes.

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