Can Making Neighborhoods Safer Boost Organized Crime?

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Marlon Brando in "The Godfather." Photo by Steve Troughton via Flickr

Innovative crime-reduction policies can produce a temporary increase in organized crime activity, argues a forthcoming study in The Manchester School, an economics journal edited by the University of Manchester (UK) School of Social Science.

While the increase may not be sustained over time, the potential for such policies to “backfire” adds an unexpected twist to crime-fighting strategies, writes Iain W. Long of Cardiff University in Wales.

Law enforcement agencies today employ a number of tactics, such as predictive policing and “hot-spot” targeting , to make neighborhoods safer and deter offenders— and the tactics are often linked to efforts by justice practitioners and social activists to promote court reform or reduce the socio-economic roots of criminal behavior, such as unemployment.

But a shrewd crime kingpin can undermine those efforts.

Under normal circumstances, activities aimed at increasing the “opportunity costs” of engaging in criminality discourage illegal activity and cause crime levels to fall, the study said.

“In the presence of organized crime, however, the outcome is less certain.”

While such activities can move many individuals “on the margins” away from crime, Long argued, organized criminal groups merely double down on their own activities with fewer but more determined members.

“Those who still opt for a career in the (criminal) organization are hardened criminals (and) they require relatively little compensation for engaging in criminal acts,” he wrote.

“With this in mind, the organization substitutes away from a large, inactive membership towards a small, prolific one. This may help to explain evidence suggesting that (a crime-reduction) policy can backfire in the presence of organized crime.”

Long applied a series of formulas to quantify what he said were the counter-intuitive effects of the reduction in some forms of criminality. The formulas suggested that “protracted” periods of organized criminal activity were a byproduct of concentrated efforts to reduce violence and other criminal behavior.

Organized crime groups’ ability to continue their activities or even strengthen them depended on crime bosses’ skills in motivating and attracting members, the study indicated.

Even traditional forms of crime-fighting—such as an upsurge in arrests—don’t necessarily weaken the cartels.

He cited for example the U.S. experience in the so-called War on Drugs in the 1980s, which not only saw a dramatic increase in arrests for heroin and cocaine trafficking, but an increase in successful convictions, from 85% in 1985 to 92% in 1989.

Yet, over the same period, “the availability of both drugs increased, whilst their prices remained stable,” Long wrote, suggesting that drug cartels had not been deterred.

The study, entitled “The Storm Before the Calm? Adverse Effects of Tackling Organized Crime,” will be published in The Manchester School journal next month. It is available on line here.

This summary was prepared by TCR Executive Editor Stephen Handelman. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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