This text reconsiders the concept of crime, doing so in the context of the period to 2020 and the global operating environment
There are four sections to the text.
In summary: crimes are committed by a small cadre whose behaviour is highly responsive to a number of framing circumstances. Crime management consists of tracking and managing these. A much small cadre of capable criminals may, however, create an infrastructure which greatly predisposes the delinquent group to crime: providing drugs or an outlet for the products of car crime, for example. Disabling this infrastructure, or removing the causative agents from the scene, may have a disproportionate affect upon the levels of crime
An additional and very important variable is the attitudes held by the population to the law and to its prosecution. Where legal structures are arcane or arbitrary, corrupt or overly-favourable to elites - or where social change has moved the 'comfort zone' of society far from where it was when laws were enacted - then institutions will come into disrepute. Populations may feel alienated and disaffected. They may regard those who police them as the agents of the enemy.
Inappropriate regulation - for example - makes civil servants a hostile force, affords opportunities for corruption and brings the law into disrepute. Where implementation of the law is weak - where there are 'no go' areas, for example - then crime tends to proliferate. Where, by contrast, the law is rigorous and no barriers are tolerated, crime is suppressed. There is a fine balance between liberty and the protection of public goods, a balance which varies with the social cadre that dominates debate
Looking forward, the population of the industrial nations will be increasingly elderly, dependent and, perhaps, averse to risk. The knowledge economy may reward the capable and exclude the less able. Almost all nations will be suffering severe strains on their welfare budgets, and thus will be seeking cost-effective ways of minimising their exposure to welfare and other overheads. Crime management represents a strong element within this.
Societies may also be more tolerant of difference. The balance between secure, cost effective control of social behaviour and the demand for liberty and individualism will certainly intensify. The tendency to find identity within ethnic and other enclaves may increase. Information technology will, however, both create a stronger trail of data with respect to individuals, groups and commercial concerns, but also afford complex techniques of surveillance.
The less wealthy billions in the world will, in general, abut more upon the concerns of the industrial nations. Intellectual property may be stolen. Dangerous technologies may be exploited in unsafe ways. The environment may be systematically damaged. Corrupt practice, a generic feature of nations with weak institutions, may impact on industrial and social concerns. Nations may harbour industries - such as tax evasion and drug exports, but also 'unethical' pharmaceuticals, software and entertainment goods - which the industrial nations will wish to control. Remotely-mediated interactions, from e-crime to unacceptable media content, will undoubtedly increase, as will active counter-measures
It seems unlikely that the international institutions that would be required for a formal, transparent system of management of these issues will be in place in time to meet the challenge. The wealthy nations, as natural targets and as the sources of four fifths of the world's added value, may well have to patrol the new, shifting boundaries in quite new ways. It may well be that a complex system of accreditation, oversight and issue management will come into being, operating from within the wealthy world and aimed to manage impingement of external affairs upon it, as much as transactions within it. How this is to be done and by whom remains both uncertain and little-discussed.
There is, inevitably, an element of relativism to any discussion of crime. Social concepts are always rooted in assumptions. What is seen as crime depends on the perspective of the viewer. However, most societies need broadly the same structural features to be in place if they are to operate. Transgression of these needs tend to present a common picture around the world, and so most nations see most crimes as equally criminal.
Societies are complex engines which undertake a wide range of tasks. They set down and police patterns of conduct and so create predictability. They settle disputes and in so doing, create and manage divisions of ownership and authority. They permit the division of labour, saving and investment, choice and competition on which economic activity is predicated. Governance promotes synergy and adaptability, manages friction and participation and copes our accidental by-products. Criminality, in the main, is that which thwarts these management structures. Politics is the means by which orderly change is produced within them.
All societies exist within a framework of trade-offs. A consensus is stable when it rests on a workable compromise. This balance is then captured in legislation. Similar distinctions may exist between nations, where different balances create differing perceptions of what is or is not a crime, differing approaches to the law of evidence, to the intensity of penalties and the like. Few in the modern world expect the specific of what constitutes a crime to be absolute across jurisdictions, but they do look for natural justice - certified by proportionality, impartiality, relative predictability, transparency and appropriateness - within any jurisdiction. When this is absent, it shows itself as four syndromes, any one of which can vitiate or utterly destroy the moral authority of the law
In a traditional society, for example, uniformity of conduct and of religious observance may be seen as a public good, as defining the community against erosive forces. Defaulters and dissenters are then seen as criminals, sullying the clear waters of consensus. European laws on heresy and atheism, enforceable profession-related dress codes, laws managing the match between permissible ostentation and rank, on sexual propriety and freedom of speech are all burdens that we have shed.
A 'crime' is, by definition, that which is against explicit and tacit law. However, explicit law may transgress social praxis and tacit rules. People may then feel the law to be more criminal than its flouting. Oligarchies which have written laws to protect their advantage may be felt to be criminal by those they oppress and revolution against them may be seen as just, if temporarily illegal. In less extreme situations, majoritarian political systems may be seen as oppressive by minorities whose views they quite legally suppress. The chronic weakness of political institutions in Northern Ireland is an example of this in action.
The relativism in discussions of crime may stem from these concerns. An important element is, therefore, the way in which a society adjusts its formal rules in order to reflect the balances that it has, informally and in a plural manner, decided to strike. It is where these forces are out of alignment that one 'flavour' of relativism comes to the fore.
Societies are made up by regularities, and thus need rules. The issues about which these are drawn up are common to most societies. Clean air and contracts, waste disposal and property rights present universal issues which meet with, if not universal solutions, then at least a recognition that something needs to be solved. Quite aside from conceptual dissent of the sort described above, therefore, states have citizens who defy these rules. These are, by definition, criminals. There may be some called criminals who should not be, and many who are formally honest but who are over-due for investigation. We discuss this latter group in a moment. Additionally, there are mainstream citizens who break the law - particularly in those states which are set up in ways that make this almost unavoidable - and there are areas of law where transgression is accidental and detection episodic.
These fringes aside, there are two rather distinctive groups of criminals, for whom transgression of the law is a commonplace of daily life. These have been called the pathetic and the parenthetic: a group who forage on the fringes - always ill-educated, sometimes mentally ill - and those who occupy a set of 'brackets' that keep them distinct from society at large. Some of these are minority ethnic groups, but the most significant are what used to be called - tautologically, perhaps - the 'criminal class'.
Although it is now politically incorrect, this term nevertheless captured an essential truth. Societies contain groups which have arrived at collective values that are essentially parasitic on the body politic. The majority are seen as milch cows, to be drained at will; and the closed society awards those most daring and effective at doing this with status and power. In fact, most crime is committed by members of such groups upon their peers, or on the marginal: welfare scams, drug sales, theft and the retailing of the products of theft, intimidation and extortion. Officialdom presented as the face of an inimical world, and the local sources of power as the protectors of the population from this and, increasingly, as the mediators between them and it. In the policed, transparent world of the industrial nations, around nine tenths of all crime originates from one twentieth of the population. The poorest twenty percent suffer around 85% of the recorded crime (an probably much more of the unrecorded crime, stress and related tension.
Where such tendencies are unchecked, the result is initially anarchic. Eventually, however, the social system becomes anchored on 'alternative institutions', whereby the available turf is divided up amongst equal powers and a modus operandi emerges, by which power balances are defined and managed. Those who seek redress go to their local power broker: cacique, don, yakuza baron, Russian origarch. After some time has passed, social norms come to propitiate the powerful. In many Latin states, for example, the Catholic right of compadrazco establishes an individual as a compadre with a client group who are all dependent upon the favours of a don, himself typically on of several a clientes of a higher-level don. The system of nested pyramids may flow down from the highest reaches of society to the lowest, with each aware of the string within which they operate. Each don has to appropriate goods to pass down his or her patronage network. Any organisation of which they are a member suffers employees with dual loyalty, and a tendency to appropriate anything not nailed down. Commerce, in particular, is handled on a one-to-one basis insofar as collective responsibility is near-impossible to achieve.
In such and environment, economic success often flows from 'permissions' and the evasion of proliferating red tape. Commerce is, in effect, criminalised. Political power or official office creates the gate keepers and toll-takers to these short cuts. Entrepreneurial efforts are bent to gaining access to these networks rather than to strictly commercial ends.
Crime is then what the elite say is a crime, and the rules of society make it impossible to live without being criminalised. An individual must operate within and around unrealistic commercial and building regulations, with uncertain access to education and jobs, with patronage and corruption as gate keepers to every public good. The consequence of the establishment of such a society is that resource is mis-allocated, trust is vitiated and what is said and what is done begin to operate on distinct planes. Planning ahead is rendered a matter of winning personal favour. The excluded - which is virtually all of the society - see a world that makes little sense, and which is at the mercy of a merciless elite.
Societies which fail to develop may do so for many reasons. It is worth noting, however, that poor people die young, have ill-educated children with poor life prospects and, on the whole face a life of relative stress and unhappiness. Elite decisions which slow modernisation and development have a toll which is directly measurable in premature deaths and increased misery. The numbers which are involved are very considerable. Zimbabwe, for example, has an economy which has been paralysed by incompetent leadership for quarter of a century, and as a consequence, has an economy which has under-performed against both history and its potential. People are around 25% poorer per capita than they would otherwise have been on trend. In terms of longevity per capita, this translates to around five years per individual. Given the current average life span, the population of Zimbabwe has suffered the equivalent of several million deaths at the hands of its leaders. Is this criminality, or regrettable 'happenstance'?
There are, therefore, two factors which are confounded in any discussion of crime.
In the first of these, societies arrive at laws in order to generate public goods. One important public good is the law of contract and the framework around the rights and duties of private property. Those who transgress these laws - who damage these public goods - are deemed criminal. Experience leads us to generalise in two ways. First, that where the processes that define what constitute the public good are open, consultative and predicated on the general good, then the resulting laws will be appropriate, minimalist and widely accepted. Second, where the machinery of law generation and enforcement are accountable, transparent and open to challenge, then the processes that give rise to them are most likely to be "open, consultative and predicated on the general good". As we have noted, there may be many appropriate outcomes at any one stage of development and in any given circumstance. What is central is an adaptive process which keeps formal regulation appropriate and which handles change in a predictable manner. Failure to achieve this criminalises increasing swathes of a society, as not the least of its many ill-consequences
Figure 1: The framework for various concepts of crime.
These 'framework-setting' variables are shown in the figure. A typical development pathway moves up the figure and, certainly, nations which do not move up the figure show limited capacity to develop. The upper-right quadrant is often a source of frustration, perhaps characterising much of the Western world a generation after World War II. Modernising tendencies were breaking out all over, resented and sometimes criminalised by the majority. Populism often appeals to this dynamic
The figure shows the primary concerns of policing in each of the quadrants. Firm (if often ineffective) hands are used in the lower segments, whilst the upper left is focused on managing the residual crime that exists when rules and plural aspirations are brought into alignment. The remainder of this document will focus on this specific issue in his particular quadrant
The second factor is, therefore, concerned with this irreducible criminality. There will always be the sad, the mad and the bad in any society. At issue is how these are to be managed in order to give those at risk minimal motive to default and to afford minimal impact when they have done so. This is a vast topic and it is clearly necessary to be restrictive. There are, however, some clear observations
The two groups, the pathetic and the parenthetical have distinct characteristics, although individuals may drift from the one to the other in the course of their life. It is true of both groups that
The pathetic group have low self-esteem, have high levels of mental illness and - often linked - drug addiction and alcoholism. They create much of the work of the police, but generate relatively small amounts of serious crime. Drug-dependency is said to be responsible for around 80% of the crime committed by this group, and welfare fraud and the like much of the balance. This group has high levels of suicide and lesser self-damaging actions. The sharp age- and gender-dependency of impules and more serious crime is universal
Figure 2: The contribution of age and gender to crime.
The parenthetical group have higher levels of self-esteem. They are more capable as individuals. They are typically young, male and individually anxious, whilst publicly aggressive and confident. They derive self-worth from group solidarity.
They have least to gain from compliance with social norms. Modest achievement may seem a step down, giving less freedom and creating more dependency. Success stories represent a leap* which is unattainable through conventional means. Sport and crime offer the only two springboards that make this leap feel attainable to average talents in acceptable time.
The parenthetical group tend to develop in one of three ways. They may settle down, more or less on the margin as, for example, street traders or jobbing contractors. This tendency is strengthened where there is a family influence, or when they have built a relationship with someone who has such sources of stability. Some may do well for themselves. Indeed, it is this groups which is most benefited by active measures which are aimed to fit it to employers needs, and to give its members a model by which to manage their lives. US approached to dependency management have made significant strides in this area.
A second and large group migrate to the characteristics of the pathetic group. A third, tiny fraction become 'professional criminals', addressing the issues which are involved in this with the straightforwardness of an artisan. This group, seasoned by gaol and by war stories, undertake the most serious crimes. Their overall economic impact is, however, probably light. Their chief negative role is secondary to this, providing the organisational infrastructure that allows petty crime to proliferate: they importing drugs, for example
Mainstream crime (as opposed to the fringes which we discussed in the previous section) can be estimated in a number of ways. The black economy - tax evaded, the difference between all declared value streams and the other ways of calculating total added value in a society - is substantial: over half the economy in poor nations, and around 10-15% in the rich ones
Figure 3: The black economy averages 10-12% of most industrial economies.
This measure may well point to the scale of crime, if not the cost. Ten percent of world added value is some $1.2 trillion, implying a turnover of something is the order of $5 trillion per annum. This is both an impressive figure and a pointer to the difficulties of accounting. That is, the data on which this is based are dubious. The reporting agencies have a vested interest in the number being large, and the criminals have an interest in remaining undetected as, on occasions, do their clients and victims. Secondly, forms of criminality which constitute an exchange of value - cash for drugs or prostitution, for example - are transactions in the retail and service economies and actually add to notional gross product. Third, however, the need for prevention and policing leads to direct costs. Fourth, the indirect costs - measured in increased crime, evaded taxes, misdirected resources and expectations, in the erosion of the rule of law - are literally immeasurable
Crime that occurs across borders has attracted strong interest. Many high profile agencies are well-funded to develop means to counter it and the data - however strong or dubious - are correspondingly well-publicised. The illegal drug trade is estimated by the UN to run at about 8% of world trade, or some $400 billion. Proportionately smaller figures and factors can be brought forward about organised cross-border prostitution, which is though to involve around half a million women and children in Eastern Europe alone. Weapons trading, money laundering and other systematic crimes are also of significant economic weight. International crime syndicates are thought - again, estimated - to turn over around $1.5 trillion a year which, converted to their estimated extracted profit, would represent 3-4% of world product. Even if this is wrong by a factor of two, it exceeds the net borrowing of all OECD governments. The money involved distorts the banking system, creates systematic frameworks by which others may evade the tax framework and creates an infrastructure of crime on which progressive internationalisation may develop.
The true costs of crime are, therefore, much less transparent than the profits from it, or the turnover of it, as measured in frictional costs and blighted lives. It has to be said that much the same is true of everything from industrial pollution to alcohol abuse: we can measure what can be measured, but we find it hard to price the rest.
We can guess at some of the contingent costs. Crime-oriented policing, for example, consumes around 2% of US GNP.
Figure 4: Expenditure of public and private security in the USA.
Insurance against crime-related difficulties runs at about the same level. The physical overheads needed to contain crime and the loses incurred through theft and fraud cost retailing about 7% of its turnover. Guessing at this as a reasonable benchmark for the remainder of the economy, we can guess that around 10-12% of the economies of the industrial nations are being consumed by crime, roughly twice what most spend on health, four times what they spend on defence and a third of what is spent on welfare. This sum squares with the scale of the black economy in such nations. These are very considerable sums. The non-cash costs are, of course, yet higher
As ever, the answer depends on what is intended. One can suppress most crime through draconian measures, through surveillance and through other invasive means. There are, however, some basic rules that have been established. The level of crime is set by two factors: by predisposing conditions and by the level of deterrence. The interplay between these depends on a wide range of deeply embedded social factors, such as the dis-inhibition of the population, the age profile and the level of wealth in the country in question.
It is notable that the reported level of crime in societies has no correlation whatever with the income of the countries. There are, of course, confounding factors - such as the adequacy of reporting in poor countries - but the rate of gaoling the population, and the seriousness of the crimes from which they are gaoled - do not show a trend with income. If a few were in gaol, but all for crimes such as murder, then it would be reasonable to suppose that only serious crimes were punished. This is not seen in the data, however. Indeed, drug use actually increases fairly steadily as nations become richer (and, independently, as they become more educated!)
Within a society, however, those with the lowest income and the least engagement with society commit the most crime (and also suffer the worse impacts of crime.) Studies of US communities allow good predictions to be made of crime rates from variables such as the turnover in population, the level of unemployment, the age profile, the number of households with one adult and one child and the level of immigrants. Strikingly, these predictions can be offset by one countervailing variable, which is the degree to which the area feels itself to be a community. That is, people in such areas tend to agree to assertions that that those who live there will tend to act against those who disrupt it: by vigilante groups, internet-focused neighbourhood watch, shopkeeper informant networks and the like. Levels of crime rise when such informal policing stops, as with the lessening of IRA control in Northern Ireland. The task will be to bring such movements within the remit of civil policing, without agency capture by 'community leaders' and those whom RAND has called 'ethnic entrepreneurs'
Many societies have used increased intensity of punishment to substitute for weak detection and poor probabilities of being sentenced. The prospect of being hung for a loaf of bread was not, apparently, much of a deterrent two hundred years ago and its equivalent is untenable today. The capacity to register the commitment of a crime, to identify a suspect and to proceed against them are all steps in the path that leads to appropriate retribution. It is guessed, however, that around half of all serious crimes (and a far smaller proportion of minor crimes) are in fact reported. From this initial weakness, the other stages in the process show further attrition
Figure 5: Criminal face low 'unit risk'.
The figure shows how the stages in the prosecuting process suffer an attrition in four countries. The crime - which carries the potential for a gaol sentence - is reported ('100%'), and the case passes through the stages which lead to the identification of a suspect in around a quarter to a third of the cases. A decision to prosecute may halve this rate, and the trial will lead to a conviction in a further half of the instances. Only a few reported crimes lead to the award of a custodial sentence.
The role of surveillance systems is, of course, critical to the management of some categories of crime. Direct observation - as with the new generation of video data processing, which permit both incident identification and individual identity to be established automatically - have much to commend them. Indirect observation, integrating suspect data trails so as to create an overall picture of them, again with automatic flagging of anomalies, is also a maturing technology. Both raise major issues of civil liberties, and present dictatorial governments with a potent tool. There future use is inevitable in at least some countries and some situation, and their management within civil society needs debate.
Figure 6: Imprisoning habitual offenders has a strong effect on reported levels of crime.
The technology and the data exist to track those with a high predilection to offend. Concern about civil liberties - and around the criminalisation of trivial acts, of victimless social deviancy and the like - make us deeply suspicious of going too far in exercising this potential.
Our attitude to crime is defined by balances: by who is speaking and who is actually getting hurt, between security and liberty, between conformity and pluralism. Our perspectives on crime are also deeply inaccurate: the Swiss, believing themselves sound and secure, have very high rates of crimes against the person, whilst Northern Ireland perceives itself as crime-ridden whilst is in fact exceptionally safe from crime. Crime that affects the chattering classes - theft from the home, mugging of the well-to-do on the street - tends to excite comment, whilst poor-on-poor crime and domestic violence attract relatively little attention. Rare, gaudy crimes, such as child abduction and rape, score highly on the things which people fear, whilst the more common but less striking crime - such as theft of or from vehicles - attract little concern
This last is, perhaps, the fundamental lesson. People with something to lose weight this against the chances of getting away undetected. Morality aside, if a person has enough and much to lose, then they tend to follow the path of probity. If they are in want and have nothing to lose, then they do not. It is the provision of a predictable ladder to self-betterment, plus assistance in finding it, taking the first steps and sloughing off misguided local social models that may offer a way to self-sustaining crime management. The 'artisan criminals', the white collar predator and their kin will not be affected by this, but they are vulnerable to better detection. It is the sea of the pathetic and the parenthetical who represent the major cost.
In the wider world, the industrial nations (elderly, rich) will increasingly abut against the affairs and interests of the rest of the world. Tax evasion will be an issue, notably with de-located value chains and intangible products. The theft of intellectual property may become a critical factor in maintaining competitiveness. Dangerous technologies may be rife. Regulated systems - such as access to medical interventions - may be hosted by nations outside of the jurisdiction of the wealthy world. Drug exports are already a problem. New synthetic drugs will be active at very small doses, probably highly specific in their action and easily delivered by, for example, mail. They may be less recreational than performance-enhancing (consider the impact of steroids on the sporting world, and the difficulties of managing a few hundred athletes.) They may flip biological switches: to make a partner suggestible, to set the gender of a child (or raise its IQ at the cost of mental stability, or any of a host of unregulated possibilities.
The aim is not to detail the possible problems. Remote extortion or theft - 'e-crime' - may well be a possibility, for example, about which we know next to nothing. The key point is that what used to be in one jurisdiction is now in several, or none. The machinery by which to deal with these issues will bring the rich and the poor world into much closer contact, if not alignment. The chronic weakness of institutions (and the frank criminality of many, as discussed above) will make this a heavy burden to carry. There are limited means and there is limited time by which to address these concerns.
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