Expert Panel on Emerging Crimes: Hosted by the Department of Justice, Canada. In Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

2. The Changing Structure of Criminal Markets and their Economic Impact

The problem

There is a widespread belief that the criminal marketplace is dominated by a few, well-organized groups who exercise awesome power and use enormous wealth from their rackets to invade and corrupt legal markets. A counter-argument suggests that in the West, though not necessarily elsewhere, criminal markets are normally quite competitive; for the most part the earnings are limited; and the notion of massive takeovers of the legal economy by “organized crime” groups is an exaggeration. Furthermore, more attention needs be focussed on the nature of the offense and less on the nature or social origins of the offender. The difference between a “career criminal” seeking a new profit opportunity and a career business-person willing to break the rules is marginal in terms of the kind of social damage they do.

There may occasionally be rich criminals, but they are the exception. There is no evidence it requires participating in a group to get rich – most of those instances involve earning the big bucks from white collar scams which are better pulled off alone or in temporary ad hoc alliances. Yet whenever police or the mass media find a rich criminal, they present him/her as the rule rather than the exception. Nor does the frequent exposure of cases where they have grossly exaggerated the apparent wealth of their catches seemed to have moderated the tendency. (Everything from the legendary wealth of Meyer Lansky to the supposed hundreds of disappearing millions of John Gotti fit this bill.)

Going further, Naylor noted that the most common pattern is for small amounts of criminal profits to be distributed among a large number of participants, greatly reducing the possible impact they could if, assuming they actually entered the legitimate economy. Levi pointed out further that most criminals are prodigal, so the notion there is large amounts of profit susceptible of either staging takeovers of legitimate business or being available for forfeiture is misleading. Furthermore it was pointed out by Thoumi and van Duyne in their papers and interventions that the notion of profit-driven crime is an oversimplification.

On the micro level, criminals, van Duyne noted, even when engaging in crimes that reap profits, have all manner of motivations. On the macro level, Thoumi analyzed the case of cocaine in the Andes and pointed out that simple economic explanations cannot explain why drugs are produced and processed in particular countries – that a whole complex of social and historical factors are at play.

Much of the discussion focussed on the problem of biker gangs in Quebec and what can be done about them. Van Duyne noted that the problem had also been faced in Scandinavia. There were observations from those in the department experienced with bikers that bikers do much the same across Canada - involve themselves in strip bars and drugs. But there seems to be a sense that the bikers in Quebec “control” the strip clubs, “exotic” dancers and the drugs trafficked in those clubs. In addition, in Quebec, they make a point of challenging the state and the police quite openly. However, the total number of biker gang members in Quebec is estimated to be in the range of 50 or 100 members – this led Mike Levi to question what percentage of the drug scene is really accounted for by the clubs in which the Hell’s Angels have a presence.

The influence of violent television on public perception of danger, notwithstanding falling violent crime rates was raised. This sense of personal insecurity gets translated into demands for tougher laws, more prisons and longer sentences. Van Duyne pointed out that research which indicates a growing and alarming crime problem benefits the budgets of those who provide the information. The emergence of private prisons and a huge private corrections industry run by large and politically powerful corporations in the US further entrenches this bias. On the other, once law enforcement agencies are funded to “crack down on crime”they need to show results. If they cannot identify and arrest Mr. Big, they have to go looking for the Mr. Not-so-bigs. The inflated rhetoric leads to enhanced powers, and the powers are applied in a context for which the public never really imagined, further endangering civil rights.

Even assuming a serious problem exists, it is a mistake to respond reflexively with another criminal law. The problem might not be law, but application of law.

It might, for example, be a resource question. And if a resource question, it might be a matter of shortage of total resources, it might be a matter of misallocation of existing resources, it might be a matter of improper use by the recipient of perfectly adequate and properly allocated resources.

Thoumi compared the excitement over the fact that five people (other than bikers themselves) had been killed, most by accident, in the biker wars, to the situation in his own country. He personally has had forty acquaintances who were killed – deliberately. And he is fortunate in such a small number compared to most of his co-citizens in his position. His comment “I wish I was a Canadian” best serves to put the issue into perspective. None of this suggests that bikers are not a serious social problem – the question is how big a threat and how would this threat be appropriately countered.

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