While reviewing our newsfeeds we noticed an article titled, “The World’s Dumbest Criminals.” Of course, having met several incredibly dumb criminals in our careers, the article piqued our interest. Sure enough, there were plenty of examples of dumb mistakes by people committing crimes: leaving their wallet at the scene of the crime, leaving keys and prescriptions, using the back of their checkbook deposit slip to write their bank robbery note, and the list goes on.
It makes one wonder if perhaps these people subconsciously wanted to get caught. Having interviewed tens of thousands of criminals in our careers, we highly doubt this is the case. In the post-confession interviews we have conducted, the suspects may say that they felt guilty for what they had done, but not one of them had turned themselves in before they got caught. We think that the simple expression of guilt is a means to justify their actions after the fact. But not one ever indicated they wanted to get caught.
In our experience, people begin to plan their criminal acts well in advance of actually committing them. They consider all the possibilities and eventualities, planning each and every step before they actually do the deed. This planning begins to diminish the fear of consequences and enhances their belief of success. That is not to say that every single crime is planned out from surveillance of the target to the planned getaway.
We interviewed a young man who had just been released from custody for murder as a juvenile. Once he reached the age of twenty-one, he was paroled. Shortly after his release, he and a friend decided to go out for a “lick.” What this meant to him was that he and his friend were going to go out and commit a crime to get a taste of the good life. They were looking for an opportunity to present itself. Unfortunately, they were approached by a police officer intending to question them. Before the officer could get out of his car, they shot and killed him. This clearly was a random event, but their plan to commit a crime and their success in the past doing so made them optimistic about their success in committing some type of a crime.
Sexual offenders in downstate Illinois were monitored by polygraph testing to assure they would not reoffend. The initial polygraph examination was to clear all their past criminal activity, so they could be tested about their activities from that time forward. There were about 700 offenders, and between them, they made over 42,000 admissions of criminal activity that they had never been questioned, arrested, or prosecuted for. Clearly, this repeated offending made them optimistic about the likelihood of success in their future criminal acts. After all, what’s the odds you’ll get caught this time? Instead of putting his gun in the trunk, he leaves it laying on the front seat where the officer sees it as he approaches the car.
This is very much like the liar who gets away with his deception repeatedly, giving them a sense of invincibility. This perceived invincibility in getting away with their deception causes them to lie boldly and unnecessarily. It gives the individual a sense of power that they can do or say anything, and nobody will disprove it. Whether it’s committing the crime or offering up a deception, there is an increasing level of confidence that they will be able to control whatever situation they step into. Their past successes allow them to reduce the perceived risk and mitigate attempts at deterrence.
While planning varies across crimes, there is also variability due to the subjects’ individual experiences and personal situations. Those that need money instantly for drugs or sustenance do less planning than others who are looking for a larger score. Depending on the individual, the planning could be visiting the target beforehand to understand the setting and perhaps conducting surveillance compared to those who make a more spontaneous decision after a few moments of observation.
For example, in one study experienced and inexperienced shoplifters were walked through a simulated retail store. The experienced shoplifters reported paying more attention to employee positioning, access control, and tagging compared to the inexperienced individuals. The experienced shoplifters also took note of the store layout, fixture design, and packaging than the inexperienced.
The risk of detection can also be mitigated by the experience of other criminals who have successfully committed crimes at the location. This street intelligence can be shared with others in the social group regarding opportunities or vulnerabilities of particular areas. This peer group probably has several advantages in mitigating risk for the individual. Research has shown that the availability of a peer lowers the offender’s assessment of the risks of committing the crime while making him more tolerant of the risk. Certainly, the decision to offend is generally a rational one based on the probability of detection, possible punishments, and social disapproval of family and friends. These are balanced by the possible benefits derived from committing the crime. This could also include the thrill of the act, material benefits, and perhaps even increased status amongst peers. This rational decision-making will likely be different for different people. Some may see the thrill as more important than the reward while others view it differently. Still others may view immediacy as important while others view long-term rewards.
It’s often said that birds of a feather flock together, and this is never truer than with the criminal element. Peers can help shape an individual’s behavior over a long period of time and perhaps make committing a crime more rewarding. It is also likely that between peers there will be differences in their view of an immediate reward versus long-term success. Still others may look to their peers to bolster their own self-image. The peer who has successfully gotten away with previous criminal acts reduces the appearance of risk since they have avoided punishment.
All this, however, does not factor in with the opportunist. Observing a lone individual on the street, an unoccupied running vehicle can be prime targets for the opportunist whose planning may be limited to a quick view of the surrounding area. In these situations, the peer can become a co-decider in making the decision to offend. With the help of a friend, the individual can change his own perception of risk and reward making the decision to commit the crime easier.
So the passive influence provides support, attention, or status to the person considering offending. These are only useful if the person is present or is likely to find out about the crime and respond positively to learning about it. The possibility of being rejected for one’s act can create anxiety and perhaps ridicule, seriously impacting the individual’s self-image. However, if the peers are supportive of the individual’s action, it reduces feelings of responsibility and lessens the seriousness of the incident by spreading it amongst others. Finally, and maybe as importantly as anything else, having a peer to share the excitement of the event can increase the pleasure of success. The shared enjoyment far outweighs a success experienced alone.
What we have just discussed revolves around a passive peer influence versus one of an active nature. When peers act as instigators, they may point out opportunities that the individual would have missed or not considered. In a study titled “Peers and Offender Decision-Making” published in Criminology & Public Policy (Hoeben and Thomas 2019), 87 percent of group offenses committed by adolescents pointed to one peer as the instigator. This instigation may have been initiated by offering suggestions or advice. In some cases, it may have even revolved around reassurance that a correct decision was being made.
Also actively influencing another may involve becoming a co-offender providing help and trusted advice on how to commit the offense. The division of labor and advice born from experience reduces the risk while increasing the likelihood of success. There is also an element of trust with the co-offender that provides the psychological support for the individual and his self-esteem.
In our experience, people have planned their crimes to some extent by simply thinking through the possibilities that might occur and how they might have to deal with them. The dumb criminal is likely to be one who becomes careless because of past successes, much like the liar who lies when it is unnecessary. The level of planning certainly can be influenced by peers, and as we have discussed, this can be either in a passive or more assertive fashion to alter the individual’s perception of risks or potential rewards. Importantly, there is likely to be a leader amongst a group who instigates and later promotes the continued offending. While some offenders may give the appearance of committing a dumb crime, don’t be fooled that they were looking to be caught and punished. In our experience we have never found this to be the case.