Illustration by Nick Gazin
I recently spoke to some reformed gangsters about how and why they left crime behind. In most cases, it was because they knew that being in and out of jail for the rest of their lives would suck. That a life behind bars is really no kind of life when you could be outside, eating decent food, enjoying swimming classes, or getting really into needlework blogs.
One slightly confusing revelation, however, came from former biker gang member John Lawson, who told me that a major factor in his decision to go straight was reading a story about himself in the paper and realizing that perhaps he wasn't the nicest of guys.
I couldn't help but think: Did it really take a damning article for a gangland debt collector to notice he wasn't leading a particularly ethical life? And, if so, how is it that criminals who carry out immoral acts day after day manage to convince themselves that they're actually upstanding people?
The only explanation I could come up with is that, to be a career criminal, you either have to be a master of self-deception, or genuinely just not give a fuck.
According to criminal psychology expert Shadd Maruna, studies indicate that the majority of criminals either make excuses for, or attempt to justify, their actions. There's little evidence that these justifications are made prior to committing the crimes, so it's possible—and somewhat likely—that they're thought up afterwards as a way to mitigate the guilt.
"Criminologists have interviewed every imaginable sample of individuals who break laws, and found remarkable consistency in the use of what we call 'techniques of neutralization,'" Maruna explained. "There have been studies of deer poachers, terrorists, rapists, shoplifters, cyber hackers, murderers—you name it. And yet the individuals involved tend to use a very consistent and discernible number of post-hoc rationalizations to account for what they did."
These "techniques of neutralization" form the basis of a concept known as "neutralization theory," which was posited by sociologists David Matza and Gresham Sykes in the 1950s. The theory holds that criminals are able to neutralize values that would otherwise prohibit them from carrying out certain acts by using one or up to five methods of justification: "denial of responsibility," "denial of injury," "denial of the victim," "condemnation of the condemners," and "appealing to higher loyalties."
"Denial of responsibility" is when an offender proposes that he or she was forced by the circumstances they were in to commit a crime; "denial of injury" means insisting that the crime was harmless; "denial of the victim" involves the belief that the person on the receiving end was asking for it; and "condemnation of the condemners" is when the criminal claims that those criticizing or dishing out punishment are doing so out of spite or to shift the blame from themselves. The final method, "appealing to higher loyalties," involves the perpetrator believing that the law needs to be broken for the good of a smaller section of society—for example, a gang or a group of friends.
I was curious to see how these theories worked outside of textbooks, so I got in touch with five reformed criminals and asked how they used to justify their actions to themselves.
The first person I spoke to was former fraudster and violent street robber Darren Armstrong, who now runs a charity aimed at rehabilitating ex-offenders and addicts.
"With the fraud, I was robbing big catalogue firms and thinking, They won't miss the money," he said. "When I did street robberies, I'd usually be off my head on butane gas, see someone walking down the street with nice stuff on and think, Why should he have nice stuff when I've got nothing? I was homeless, full of hatred for society, and felt the system had let me down."
The idea that Armstrong was only stealing from people who could afford the loss seems to fit into the category of "denial of injury," and the fact he felt his victims were undeserving of their wealth because it was unfair they were richer than him suggests that "denial of the victim" was also at play.
Next, I spoke to Glaswegian former gangster Kevin Dooley, who was jailed for firearms offenses and attempted murder, but now works as an addiction recovery coach. He explained that his justifications were often to do with the perceived wrongdoing of the authorities. "I minimized, rationalized, and justified my wrongdoing to everyone, including myself," he said. "My justifications involved [blaming] corrupt politicians, police, and society."
A classic case of "condemnation of the condemners." So far, so accurate. However, not everyone I spoke to fit neatly into one of the neutralization theory categories.
Mubarak Mohamud was a leading figure in Camden's Time for Hustling gang, before turning his back on crime to run a clothing company. He now focuses on steering others away from lawbreaking. During his time as a gang member, he was able to minimize his feelings of guilt by convincing himself that the ends justified the means.
"I just thought, I've got to get that money," he said. "I was trying to justify the means I used to make money, so I kept telling myself that I was doing good and being successful, and repeated it so many times that I actually believed it."
Heith Copes, an expert in criminal decision-making, explained that treating crime as a skill can help offenders mitigate feelings of guilt, as—in their minds—it legitimizes the behavior. Mubarak was justifying what he was doing by viewing himself as a skilled entrepreneur rather than someone who made a living by committing immoral acts.
Next up was former armed robber Frank Prosper, now an actor, who said he purposefully avoided thinking about the rights and wrongs of what he was doing while he was an active criminal. He suggested that it would have been difficult to go through with a robbery if he'd spent too long agonizing over the morality of his chosen career.
According to Copes, willfully abstaining from considering the ethical implications of a crime is another documented technique that criminals use to prevent their guilty consciences from stopping them in their tracks. "Pushing thoughts out of their heads is a way to overcome the guilt," he said. "This is exemplified by saying or thinking phrases like 'fuck it' immediately before or after the crime."
The final person I spoke to was Marcus "Paradise" Dawes, who was jailed in the US for firearms offenses before moving back to the UK and becoming a mentor to young criminals. He mentioned that he saw himself as being involved in a "classic Robin Hood scenario" at the time, which suggests he could fall into the "appealing to higher loyalties" category. He claimed that the justifications he made to himself came after sentencing and were concerned with his belief that he was being punished too harshly. This ties in with the notion that neutralization doesn't necessarily take place at the time of offending, and can come into play afterwards.
Dawes also argued that "condemnation of the condemners" could be seen by some as a valid reason for breaking the law, rather than just an excuse after the fact. "The people who create the law, interpret it through the judicial system and enforce it through policing are seen as corrupt and as double-dealing as the system they've created," he said.
Some might read this as another spurious justification; others will look at the Panama Papers and the MPs' expenses scandal and probably see where he's coming from.
While some justifications could feasibly be argued as rational, it's clear that others are created solely to bypass guilt. So, does being able to convince yourself that what you're doing is right—given that it involves manipulating your own conscience to facilitate wrongdoing—make you a dangerous person?
According to Maruna, the opposite is actually true. "For the last 30 years or so, excuses have got a bad name, and personal responsibility has taken on a cult-like status as a societal panacea," he said. "Individuals in group treatment programs who give explanations for why they got involved in crime are said to be suffering from cognitive distortions or criminal thinking, and are told they're not allowed to make excuses and justifications, but have to accept complete responsibility for their crimes. The problem is that this leaves them only one self-narrative: I did it because I wanted to. If people genuinely believe this, they meet the criteria for what some label as 'psychopathy' and others call 'evil.' This hardly seems like it should be the aim of therapeutic interventions."
So it's not people like the John Lawson of the past—criminals who tell themselves that what they're doing is OK—who we should fear the most; it's those who don't make any attempts to see themselves in that light. Those who think, I don't give a fuck if I'm evil or not.
Follow Nick Chester on Twitter.