How Criminologists Foster Crime
Last week in the prison I asked a young man why he was there.
"Just normal burglaries," he replied.
"Normal for whom?" I asked.
"You know, just normal."
He meant, I think, that burglaries were like gray skies in an English winter: unavoidable and to be expected. In an actuarial sense, he was right: Britain is now the burglary capital of the world, as almost every householder here will attest. But there was also a deeper sense to his words, for statistical normality slides rapidly in our minds into moral normality. The wives of burglars often talk to me of their husband's "work," as if breaking into other people's homes were merely a late shift in a factory. Nor is only burglary "normal" in the estimation of its perpetrators. "Just a normal assault," is another frequent answer prisoners give to my question, the little word "just" emphasizing the innocuousness of the crime.
But how has crime come to seem normal to its perpetrators? Is it merely a recognition of the brute fact of a vastly increased crime rate? Or could it be, on the contrary, one of the very causes of that increase, inasmuch as it represents a weakening of the inhibition against criminality?
As usual, one must look first to the academy when tracing the origins of a change in the Zeitgeist. What starts out as a career-promoting academic hypothesis ends up as an idea so widely accepted that it becomes not only an unchallengeable orthodoxy but a cliche even among the untutored. Academics have used two closely linked arguments to establish the statistical and moral normality of crime and the consequent illegitimacy of the criminal justice system's sanctions. First, they claim, we are all criminal anyway; and when everyone is guilty, everyone is innocent. Their second argument, Marxist in inspiration, is that the law has no moral content, being merely the expression of the power of certain interest groups—of the rich against the poor, for example, or the capitalist against the worker. Since the law is an expression of raw power, there is no essential moral distinction between criminal and non-criminal behavior. It is simply a question of whose foot the boot is on.
Criminologists are the mirror image of Hamlet, who exclaimed that if each man received his deserts, none should escape whipping. On the contrary, say the criminologists, more liberal than the prince (no doubt because of their humbler social origins): none should be punished.
These ideas resonate in the criminal's mind. If his illegal conduct is so very normal, he thinks, what's all the fuss about in his case, or why should he be where he is—in prison? It is patently unjust for him to be incarcerated for what everyone still at liberty does. He is the victim of illegitimate and unfair discrimination, rather like an African under apartheid, and it is only reasonable that, on his release, he should take his revenge upon so unjust a society by continuing, or expanding, his criminal activity.
It is impossible to state precisely when the Zeitgeist changed and the criminal became a victim in the minds of intellectuals: not only history, but also the history of an idea, is a seamless robe. Let me quote one example, though, now more than a third of a century old. In 1966 (at about the time when Norman Mailer in America, and Jean-Paul Sartre in Europe, portrayed criminals as existential heroes in revolt against a heartless, inauthentic world), the psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the revealing title The Crime of Punishment. It was based upon the Isaac Ray lectures he had given three years earlier—Isaac Ray having been the first American psychiatrist who concerned himself with the problems of crime. Menninger wrote: "Crime is everybody's temptation. It is easy to look with proud disdain upon ‘those people’ who get caught—the stupid ones, the unlucky ones, the blatant ones. But who does not get nervous when a police car follows closely? We squirm over our income tax statements and make some ‘adjustments.’ We tell the customs official we have nothing to declare—well, practically nothing. Some of us who have never been convicted of crime picked up over two billion dollars' worth of merchandise last year from the stores we patronize. Over a billion dollars was embezzled by employees last year."
The moral of the story is that those who go to court and to prison are victims of chance at best and of prejudice at worst: prejudice against the lowly, the unwashed, the uneducated, the poor—those whom literary critics portentously call the Other. This is precisely what many of my patients in the prison tell me. Even when they have been caught in flagrante, loot in hand or blood on fist, they believe the police are unfairly picking on them. Such an attitude, of course, prevents them from reflecting upon their own contribution to their predicament: for chance and prejudice are not forces over which an individual has much personal control. When I ask prisoners whether they'll be coming back after their release, a few say no with an entirely credible vehemence; they are the ones who make the mental connection between their conduct and their fate. But most say they don't know, that no one can foresee the future, that it's up to the courts, that it all depends—on others, never on themselves.
It didn't take long for Menninger's attitude to permeate official thinking. A 1968 British government document on juvenile delinquency, Children in Trouble, declared: "It is probably a minority of children who grow up without ever misbehaving in ways which may be contrary to the law. Frequently, such behavior is no more than an incident in the pattern of a child's normal development."
In a sense, this is perfectly true, for in the absence of proper guidance and control, the default setting of human beings is surely to crime and antisocial conduct, and everyone breaks the rules at some time. But in a period of increasing permissiveness, many draw precisely the wrong conclusion from human nature's universal potential for delinquency: indeed, the only reason commentators mention that potential at all is to draw a predetermined liberal conclusion from it—that acts of delinquency, being normal, should not give rise to sanctions.
In this spirit, Children in Trouble treats the delinquency of normal children as if its transience were the result of a purely biological or natural process rather than of a social one. Delinquency is like baby teeth: predetermined to come and go at a certain stage of a child's development.
Not so very long ago, such an attitude would have struck almost everyone as absurd. Everyone knew, as if by instinct, that human behavior is a product of consciousness, and the consciousness of a child must be molded. I can best illustrate what I mean by my own experience. At the age of eight, I stole a penny bar of chocolate from the corner store. It gave me a thrill to do so, and I enjoyed the chocolate all the more for the fact that it had not made an inroad into my weekly pocket money (sixpence). Unwisely, however, I confided my exploit to my elder brother, in an attempt to win his respect for my bravery, which was much in question at the time. Even more unwisely, I forgot that he knew this incriminating story when, furious at him because of his habitual teasing, I told my mother that he had uttered a word that at that time was never heard in respectable households. In retaliation, he told my mother that I had stolen the chocolate.
My mother did not take the view that this was a transient episode of delinquency that would pass of its own accord. She knew instinctively (for, at that time, no one had yet befuddled minds by suggesting otherwise) that all that was necessary for delinquency to triumph was for her to do nothing. She did not think that my theft was a natural act of self-expression, or a revolt against the inequality between the power and wealth of children and that of adults, or indeed of anything other than my desire to have the chocolate without paying for it. She was right, of course. What I had done was morally wrong, and to impress the fact upon me she marched me round to Mrs. Marks, the owner of the store, where I confessed my sin and paid her tuppence by way of restitution. It was the end of my shoplifting career.
Since then, of course, our understanding of theft and other criminal activity has grown more complex, if not necessarily more accurate or realistic. It has been the effect, and quite possibly the intention, of criminologists to shed new obscurity on the matter of crime: the opacity of their writing sometimes leads one to wonder whether they have actually ever met a criminal or a crime victim. Certainly, it is in their professional interest that the wellsprings of crime should remain an unfathomed mystery, for how else is one to convince governments that what a crime-ridden country (such as Britain) needs is further research done by ever more criminologists?
It is probably no coincidence that the profession of criminology underwent a vast expansion at about the same time that criminal activity began the steepest part of its exponential rise. Criminologists in Britain once numbered in the low dozens; and criminology, considered unfit for undergraduates, was taught only in one or two institutes. Today, hardly a city or town in the country is without its academic criminology department. Half of the 800 criminologists now working in Britain got their training (mostly in sociology) in the late sixties and early seventies, during the heyday of radical activism, and they trained the other half.
Of course, it might have been that the problem of crime called forth its students. But since social problems are often of a dialectical nature, could it not also have been that the students called forth their problem? (British economist John Vaizey once wrote that any problem that became the subject of an ology was destined to grow serious.) Since the cause of crime is the decision of criminals to commit it, what goes on in their minds is not irrelevant. Ideas filter down selectively from the academy into the population at large, through discussions (and often bowdlerizations) in the papers and on TV, and become intellectual currency. In this way, the ideas of criminologists could actually become a cause of crime. In addition, these ideas deleteriously affect the thinking of the police. In our hospital, for example, the police have posted notices everywhere warning staff, patients, and visitors about car theft. MOTORISTS! proclaims the notice. YOUR CAR IS AT RISK! This is a very criminological locution, implying as it does a mysterious force—like, say, gravity—against which mere human will, such as that exercised by thieves and policemen, can be expected to avail nothing.
In the process of transmission from academy to populace, ideas may change in subtle ways. When the well-known criminologist Jock Young wrote that "the normalization of drug use is paralleled by the normalization of crime," and, because of this normalization, criminal behavior in individuals no longer required special explanation, he surely didn't mean that he wouldn't mind if his own children started to shoot up heroin or rob old ladies in the street. Nor would he be indifferent to the intrusion of burglars into his own house, ascribing it merely to the temper of the times and regarding it as a morally neutral event. But that, of course, is precisely how "just" shoplifters, "just" burglars, "just" assaulters, "just" attempted murderers, taking their cue from him and others like him, would view (or at least say they viewed) their own actions: they have simply moved with the times and therefore done no wrong. And, not surprisingly, the crimes that now attract the deprecatory qualification "just" have escalated in seriousness even in the ten years I have attended the prison as a doctor, so that I have even heard a prisoner wave away "just a poxy little murder charge." The same is true of the drugs that prisoners use: where once they replied that they smoked "just" cannabis, they now say that they take "just" crack cocaine, as if by confining themselves thus they were paragons of self-denial and self-discipline.