Street crime: survival or good times?

Criminal in balaclava 15 August 2011

In the aftermath of the riots and looting in some of the UK’s major cities the police, politicians and the media are searching for solutions to the public disorder. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday Boris Johnson the Mayor of London reported that the number of 'muggings and knife crime are down' in the city.

Academics and the media have traditionally seen street crime as something carried out by career criminals, but researchers at the University of Glamorgan suggest that survival is not a motive. Five of the main reasons given for committing street robbery include 'good times', 'keeping up appearances', 'excitement', 'desire to fight' and 'righting wrongs'.

In the ESRC-funded research project A qualitative study of the role of violence in street crime Professor Trevor Bennett and his team of researchers interviewed offenders in prisons and young offenders' institutions to investigate a variety of violent offences, and looked in particular at the role played by street culture.

Few of the offenders interviewed said they needed money for basic survival. Most wanted it to support "what might be described as a criminal lifestyle", Wright, Brookman and Bennett write in the British Journal of Criminology (2006), "wherein the pursuit of illicit action generated an ongoing need for 'fast cash' that realistically could only be satisfied through crime".

Some offenders also wanted to be able to show off expensive items, such as cars. "This was not so much for what the car did but for what it said to others," the researchers comment.

Sometimes cash itself was the fashion item. One interviewee said: "I just love money. It’s like, I feel big when I got money, like when I haven’t got money, it feels like ****."

Sometimes street robbery is about the excitement of the fight, the fun of overpowering someone else. "It wasn’t like, for money – I was more addicted to robbing than I was to drugs," said an offender.

Other reasons for street robbery were revenge and 'debt collecting', for instance if drug dealers are owed money. Offenders often wanted to project themselves as someone not to be messed with. It could also take the form of a rite of passage.

The research concluded that street robbers decide to commit their offences in a social and psychological terrain, containing few realistic alternatives. This is why their behaviour can appear irrational - they often net little cash and risk long prison sentences.

Desperation, the research showed, led to a mindset in which individuals are too focused on meeting the immediate need – be it to keep the party going, restore personal honour, dissipate anger or exact informal justice – to maximise reward or to think clearly about the possibility of threatened sanctions.