The Causation of Crime

IT was more than twenty-five years ago that my attention was first attracted to the causation of crime. I was a young magistrate then, trying my first, cases, very nervous, very conscientiously desirous to fulfill all the legal requirements as laid down in the codes. It had never occurred to me then that there was any gulf between justice and law; I supposed that they were one, that law was only codified and systemized justice; therefore in fulfilling the Law I thought that I was surely administering Justice.

I was trying a theft case. I cannot remember now what it was that had been stolen, but I think it was a bullock. The accused was undefended and I, as the custom is, questioned him about the case, not with the view of getting him to commit, himself, but in order to try to elicit his defense if any. He had none. He admitted the theft, described the circumstances quite fully and frankly, and said he was guilty. I asked him if he knew when he took the bullock from the grazing ground that he was stealing it, and he answered yes. I asked him if he knew that the punishment for cattle theft was two years’ imprisonment, which practically meant ruin for life, and he replied that he knew it would be heavy.

‘Then,’ I asked, ‘why did you do it ?’

He moved uneasily in the dock without answering, looked about him, and seemed puzzled.

I repeated the question.

Evidently he was trying to remember why he had done it and found it difficult. He had not considered the point before, and introspection was new to him. ‘Why did I do it?’ he was saying to himself.

‘Well?’ I asked.

He looked me frankly in the face. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I suppose I could not help it. I did not think about it at all; something just made me take it.’

He was convicted, of course, and I forgot the case.

But I did not forget what he had said. It remained in my mind and recurred to me from time to time, I did not know why. For I had always been taught that crime was due to an evil disposition which a person could change, only he would not, and I had as yet seen no reason to question this view. Therefore the accused man’s defense appealed to no idea that was consciously in my mind. I did not reflect upon it. I can only suppose that, unconsciously to myself, these words reached some instinct within me which told me that they were true. And at last, from the very importunity of their return, I did begin to think about them, and, in consequence, of the causation of crime in general. A curiosity awoke which has never abated, has indeed but grown as in some small ways I was able to satisfy it.


What causes crime? Is it a purely individual matter? If so, why does it follow certain laws of increase or decrease, or maintain an average? That looks more like general results following on general causes than the result of individual qualities.

Why is it not curable? It should have been cured centuries ago. Why does punishment usually make the offender worse instead of better? If his crime were within the individual’s control, punishment certainly would deter. Any deterrent effect it may have is rarely on him who is punished, but on the outside world, and that, is but little. So much I saw very clearly in practice, and every book I read on the subject confirmed this. The infamous penal laws of England a hundred years ago did not stop crime; flogging did not stop garroting, it ceased for other causes. I began to think and to observe.

Some three years later my attention was still more strongly drawn to this subject. I was then for a short time the governor of the biggest jail in the world, that in Rangoon. It was crowded with prisoners, under sentence for many different forms of crime, from murder or ‘dacoity’—that is, gang robbery — to petty theft. The numbers were abnormal, and they were so not only here but in all the jails of both the upper and lower provinces. The average of crime had great ly risen.

Why was this?

The reason was obvious. The annexation of the upper province six years before had caused a wave of unrest, not only there but in the delta districts as well, which found its expression in many forms of crime. There was no doubt about the cause. But this cause was a general cause, not individual. The individual criminals there in the jail did not declare the war. That was the consequence of acts by the King of Burma, and the government of India controlled by the English Cabinet, and these in turn were consequent, on acts of the French government. Therefore half of these individuals had become criminals because of the disagreements of three governments, two of which were six thousand miles away from Rangoon.

There was no getting out of that. In normal times the average of convicts would have been only half what it was. The abnormality was not due to the convicts themselves.

Thus if A and B and C were suffering punishment in the jail, the fault was primarily not theirs. A special strain was set up from without which they could not stand, and they fell. But if this be true of half the prisoners, why not of the other half? There was no dividing line between the two classes. Political offenses apart, you could not walk into the jail and, dividing the convicts into two parts, say, ‘ The crime of this half being due to external causes, they must be pardoned; the crimes of the other half being due to their own evil disposition, they must, continue to suffer.’ There was no demarcation.

Therefore general causes are occasionally the cause of crime. Here was a long step in advance.

Again, five years later, I was on famine duty in the upper province, and the same phenomenon occurred. There was an increase in certain forms of crime. Thefts doubled. Other crimes, such as cheating and fraudulent dealings with money, decreased. Here was again a general cause. Half of those thieves would have remained honest men all their lives, would have been respected by their fellow men, and according to religion have gone to heaven when they died, but for the famine.

The causes of the famine were want of rain acting on the economic weakness of the people, increased by the inability of Government. Thus, had rain fallen as usual, had the people been able to cultivate other resources, had Government been more advanced and experienced, half these thieves would not have been in jail; and no one knew which half, for thefts of food did not increase. There was in fact no reason why they should, as Government provided in the famine camps a subsistence wage for every one who came.

On the other hand, certain individuals were saved from misappropriating money, or cheating in mercantile transactions, because there was little money left to misappropriate and not much business. If they lived honestly and went to heaven, the direct cause would be the failure of rain that year, not any superior virtue of their own. But no one knew who these individuals were who were so luckily saved.

But when you have acknowledged this, what is becoming of the doctrine of individual responsibility for crime? If a man has complete free-will to sin or not, if crime be due to innate wickedness, how does want of rain bring this on ? If not, where is the common sense or common justice in punishing him for what is really due to a defective climate? He cannot control the rain. Manifestly then, as regards at least half of these thieves, there was no innate desire to steal, because that could not be affected by the famine. Had they desired to be thieves they would have been so in any case. The truth is that they did not desire to be thieves, but when the famine came the temptation increased, and as physical weakness had decreased their power of resistance, they fell. They sinned, not through spiritual desire of evil, but through physical inability to resist temptation.

But if this was true of half, why not of the whole? There was no line of demarcation; if true of some crime, why not of all? The doctrine of a man’s perfect free-will to sin or not to sin as he pleases was beginning to look shaky. It will be as well to consider it.

What is free-will?

There is no necessity to discuss the meaning of ‘free’ — we all know it; there is nothing ambiguous about it; but with ‘will’ it is different. There are few words so incessantly misused as this word ‘will’; philosophers are the worst offenders, and the general public but follows their blind lead; yet unless you know exactly what you mean by it how can you use it as a counter of your thought?

What does will mean? ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’ What does this mean? Does ‘will’ mean ‘wish’? If, for instance, you are poor and stupid, can any quantity of ‘wish’ make you rich? If you are weak, can it make you strong? If you have no ear, can it make you a musician? If you are a convict, can it liberate you? That is absurd. ‘Will,’ then, means more than ‘wish.’ To the desire must be added the ability, actual or potential. That is evident, is it not? Without the ability, the wish avails nothing.

Will, then, has two components, both of which are necessary to it. Its meaning is not simple but compound; never forget this; never suppose that merely washing with all your power can produce ‘will.’ It cannot unless the ability can be developed to aid it.

And now we go back from words to human nature. Is the criminal so because he wants to be so? No, and no, and no again. No more wicked fallacy was ever foisted upon a credulous world than this. Nobody at any period of the world ever wished to be criminal. Every one instinctively hates and fears crime, every one is honest by nature; it is inherent in the soul. I have never met a criminal who did not hate his crime even more than his condemners hate it. The apparent exception is when the man does not consider his act a crime; he has killed because his victim exasperated him to it; he has robbed society because society made war on him. The offender hates his crime.

‘But he is not ashamed of it?’

Now that is true. He is not ashamed of it in the current sense. He hates it, he fears it, but it does not fill him with a sense of sin.

‘Therefore,’ says the purist, ‘he has a hardened conscience. It is his conscience, as I said, which is at fault.’

But the purist is wrong. He does not understand the criminal. He has never tried to understand him as I have tried. What the criminal feels toward his crime is what the sick man feels toward the delirium which seizes him, what the ‘possessed of devils’ feels toward the possession when it comes over him; he knows he must succumb. He fears not the mere penalty, but the crime. But he is not ashamed, because he knows he cannot help it. And punishment exasperates him because he has not deserved it; and it will do him harm, not good. He wants to be cured, not made a fit dwelling for still worse devils. And that is what punishment does.

To say that punishment deters the criminal from repeating his crime is nonsense. All study of criminal facts proves this; it makes him more prone to crime, not less; and all the great crimes are committed by men who have been still further ruined in jails. Whatever good effect punishment may have is exercised on others, not on the criminal. And even this is very slight. Men are not usually deterred from crime by seeing others suffer. Here again, all records support this truth. Severe punishment does not deter from crime. The savage punishments of the English penal laws a hundred years ago did not lessen crime at all. Garroting in England was not stopped by flogging, as is so often asserted, nor will it stop the white-slave traffic, as is hoped. Crime is a disease; and will you stop a fever by punishing the patients? Whatever good jails do, lies in the fact that they isolate the unhealthy from the healthy community and so stop for a time infection, as do hospitals with disease. But the hospitals do not discharge the patient till he is cured; the jail but aggravates the liability to the disease and turns out the sufferer worse than before.


A man is criminal, not because he wishes to be so, but because he cannot resist the temptation. He lacks will. True, but it is the ability he lacks, not the wish.

Why does he lack ability?

This brings us to the second theory of crime — a new one — that criminals are born, not made. The tendency to crime is said to be inherent, to be a reversion. That explains why it is generally incurable when once contracted.

Many books have been written on this, but one fallacy vitiates them all. The observers have not observed the criminal in the making, but when made. They have assumed the criminal to be of a race apart, and so founded their house upon the sand. Lombroso went so far as to lay down certain stigmata which inferred a criminal disposition. The stigmata have been shown to be universal, and there is no such thing as a ' criminal disposition.’ If there be other qualities, such as want of sensibility, which do differentiate the criminal from the normal man, they are not innate.

That those crippled in some way by birth or accident frequently become criminals is no exception; it denotes no criminal disposition. But the cripple is handicapped in the struggle for life. He is cut off from the many pleasures of work and play, of love and children, which his fellows have. He is sensitive, and he is jeered at and despised. Is it any wonder that under such circumstances he becomes sometimes embittered? A cripple is set apart from his fellow men. There are for him but two alternatives — to be a saint or a criminal. Love and care and training will make him a saint; neglect too often makes him a criminal. But to whom the blame for the latter? Not to him.


Connected with this theory is the supposition that criminality is hereditary.

There are few subjects on which so much ‘scientific’ nonsense is talked and written as on this of heredity. Not very much is known of it as regards plants, less of animals, and almost nothing as regards humanity. To read books on heredity, especially those of the Eugenic Society, is to read a mass of suppositions and hazardous inductions where most, of the facts are negative, and only the exceptions are positive. The very meaning of ‘ hereditary ’ is not understoodIf any quality is truly hereditary, then it is always hereditary. It never occurs except as the results of heredity, and it is conslant, that is to say, it invariably follows. But there is no quality of which this can be said. That genius is not hereditary is known. Even talent is not. Nor is any aptitude. A lawyer’s son more often wants to be a soldier or an artist than a lawyer, notwithstanding the environment, and it is so with most professions. The exceptions seem to be due to training and influence, not to any hereditary transmission. A superficial likeness to parents seems hereditary, but that is all that we can assert, and that, outward likeness by no means infers an inward likeness. There Is nothing so easy and nothing so fatal as this tendency to attribute to heredity what is due to training or want of training. It excuses supineness in governments and professions.

All thinkers who have looked at the matter with unprejudiced eyes have seen t his. Here is what Buckle says: —•

’We often hear of hereditary talents, hereditary vices, and hereditary virtues; but whoever will critically examine the evidence will see that we have no proof of their existence. The way in which they are commonly proved is in the highest degree illogical ; the usual course being for the writer to collect instances of some mental peculiarity found in a parent and his child, and then to infer that the peculiarity was bequeathed. By this mode of reasoning we might demonstrate any proposition; since in all large fields of inquiry there are a sufficient number of empirical coincidences to make a plausible case in favor of whatever view a man chooses to advocate. But this is not the way in which truth is discovered, and we ought to inquire not only how many instances there are of hereditary talents, etc., but how many instances there are of such qualities not being hereditary.’

And again, Mill: —

‘Of all vulgar methods of escaping from the effects of social and moral influences on the mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.’

Therefore it is no use trying to exonerate society by saying that criminals are born, not made; they are made, and they are made by society, by its carelessness and cruelty.

I have as a magistrate tried many cases, and as an inquirer after truth I subsequently investigated the causes; I have read every book I could find on the subject and I can say decisively that I have, for myself, neither in life nor in books, found one single case in which it could be confidently said that a criminal weakness was inherited. That A, a criminal, has a son B, who becomes criminal, proves nothing. You must first prove that a similar child of different stock would not become criminal if brought up as A’s son was. You must also prove that if you took away A’s son as a child and brought him up differently he would still show criminal weakness. But all the facts negative this. The child even of a criminal tribe in India, if removed from its environment, grows up like other children. Coming of ancestors criminal for generations has not handed down a criminal aptitude.

You must not mistake inheritance of other traits for inheritance of criminal aptitudes. A has a very quick temper, which he has not from a child been trained to control. Under sudden provocation he kills a man. His son B inherits his father’s quick temper, is similarly badly brought up, and the same thing occurs. The hasty hereditary theorist says, ‘Behold the inheritance of a propensity to murder.’ But quick temper is not a criminal trait; it is often an accompaniment of the kindest disposition; it is an excess of sensitiveness. The training, physical and mental, was in each case lacking, and a coincidence of provocation caused a coincidence of crime.

There is not, there never was, in any one a tendency to crime until either jails or criminal education created it. No one ever wanted to commit crime as crime. A daring boy, with no outlet for his energy, may break into an orchard, may next commit robbery, and later burglary; he would not do so had his physical need for exercise and his spiritual need for facing danger had another outlet. The instincts which led him into crime were good and noble instincts which, finding no legitimate channel, found an illegitimate channel for themselves.

In that fine book by Mr. Holmes, entitled London’s Underworld, is an account of how ‘ hooligans ’ are made. The young men are full of energy; they want exercise, struggle, the fight of the football field or the hockey match, and they cannot get it. They have no playground but the streets, and no outlet for their energy save hooliganism.

Therefore we must begin to study the question anew. The old shibboleths are dead.

What is the cause of crime?

It is never the wish for crime. It is one of two causes. Either it is the only outlet for some natural instinct which is denied legitimate outlet by the environment, or it is due to an inability to resist temptation when it offers. How can it be prevented?

Now this inability is physical. The wish is spiritual; the ability is physical and depends greatly on health. With ill health or malnutrition in the young, the first thing to give way is the power of control. The average of criminals is a stone under weight. Therefore crime is dependent to a great extent on health. Poverty causes ill health; ill health causes crime; accidental mutilation creates an aptitude for crime; neglected youth and education cause crime.

Religion does not affect crime one way or another. The greatest criminals are often religious. Mediæval Europe was religious and criminal, and there are many other instances which might be cited. Honesty is inborn in all; it is part of the ‘Light, which lighteth every man t hat cometh into the world ; it requires no teaching. What must be acquired is the ability to give effect to it. Crime is a physical, not a spiritual disease. And crime is no defect of the individual. It is a disease of the nation, nay of humanity, exhibited in individuals. You have gout in your toe, but it is your whole system which is wrong.

This disease can be cured by humanity alone. Criminals are those whom we should pity, should prevent, should isolate, and, if possible, cure.

Remember what John Bunyan said, looking on a man going to be hanged: ‘But. for the grace of God there goes John Bunyan.' He, too, would have been the same had he had as bad training in his youth.

We have all of us within us instincts which rightly directed result in good, which in default of outlet we can be trained to control, but which without outlet and without training may result in crime.


There is the further question of temptation or opportunity, and this again is a very difficult matter. A world from which all temptation was removed would produce a worthless race of men; yet if it be too severe who is there who would not fall? I for twenty years had the honor of belonging to a service which prides itself on its integrity. How much of this is due to the very stringent supervision and inspection rightly insisted on from the very top down? It is for an English officer in India almost impossible to receive a bribe or to take government money. If it were not so, would the service have the record it has?

Again, take the innumerable frauds daily practiced on society. If the public had common sense, the innumerable tricksters, fraudulent company-promoters and others who live by their wits, would find their living gone. As long as there are dupes there will be those to take advantage of them. And the fault lies as much with the dupe as with the trickster; more perhaps, because it is his folly which incites to crime.

But, again, the fault is with society. Why does it allow its children to be so badly educated: Why does it exalt ignorance into a virtue, and intentionally cultivate it? ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing,’ and the less you have, the more dangerous you are, both to yourself and to others. Folly is the greatest sin of all. Are our children educated? Not very often. They are taught accomplishments, reading and writing, Greek and arithmetic; they are bound in formulæ; but the drawing out of the powers of observation and judgment inherent in us — how often is this done? Yet this alone is education.

I have tried to compress into an article what I could easily expand into a book. I do not claim to have found a cure, or even a full diagnosis. The whole subject is difficult to excess. But what I do claim is to have indicated that the present theories are wrong, are wicked, and but make things worse. When this is acknowledged, a true study of the causes, and their prevention, can be begun.

As to the urgent necessity for this study, consider: Crime is a disease of the community. Do you clearly understand what this means? It means this. You and I are members of communities. As long as there is crime in our community neither you nor I is blameless. The Judge upon the bench shares with the criminal his crime; the honored wife and mother shares with the fallen woman her shame. Humanity is one; what stains a part stains all.