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

4. Implications for Research, Policy and Enforcement

  • What can be done to obtain better objective information on crime, its costs and consequences?
  • To the extent certain crimes are on the rise, do they call for new laws or new resources?
  • Will particular sectors be particularly susceptible to criminal infiltration? If so, what pre-emptive measures should be taken?
  • What are the appropriate responses? To what extent can and should the job of dealing with profit-driven offenses be delegated in the first instance to civil courts and/or the regulatory system?

Passas insisted that there was the need for certain essential types of long-term research, and it should no longer be bogged down by the myth of organized crime but get refocused onto the really serious criminal threats, many of which emerge from the activities of seemingly legitimate corporations. Nonetheless, it is also possible to have short term research that comes up with sensible and useful results. Much can be learned with analysis of existing information.

Passas suggested an inventory of what is actually known on the basis of academic and professional research with any degree of certainty. Right now the process is purely reactive – a problem emerges and people rush to discover what information already exists. It is then adopted without much critical reflection since there is urgency to arrive at some conclusion which then might be translated into policy which then might become law. But once a proper inventory of knowledge is made, and classified in a way that makes it easily accessible, it can be readily deployed as the need arises. He also pointed out that qualitative studies can be far more revealing than quantitative ones – so much has to be subsumed into common categories for the quantitative approach to work, that the results are usually not very revealing.

One of the biggest problems in getting support for research on the genuine long-term reasons as distinct from immediate triggering causes (using Thoumi’s distinction) for any increase in or shift in the nature of crime is the change in focus, over the last two decades, away from environmental factors to rational-choice models as explanations for criminal activity. If criminals are nothing more than cold cost-benefit calculators (a view growing in popularity over the 1980s and 1990s), what is the need for any information about what they do and why they do it, apart from what is necessary to catch and convict them? If, as was generally believed two decades ago, there is value in understanding motivation on a more profound socio-economic basis, then serious preventive and environmental research is necessary. In a sense it depends on the prevailing understanding of the causes of crime.

Levi stressed not just the need for better information about crimes and criminals, but for far more stress on evaluation of policies. The lack of such research in Europe and North America was particularly striking. As he put it, American policies and programs tend to be exported before they are evaluated. He suggested developing a methodology that would evaluate the impact of regulatory measures on both the organisation of crime(s) and levels of criminal behaviour. Levi in particular stressed the importance of doing in Canada with IPOC data what van Duyne has done in the Netherlands. Such an exercise does double-duty – to evaluate the policy and demystify the target.

Mention was made of the need for more economic focus in the research. Naylor suggested that there are two things to avoid. One is the search for an aggregate magic number, since, as the earlier discussion so well demonstrated, such numbers are generally misleading. The danger is that, once they exist, they get out into the public domain and become what Passas referred to as “facts by repetition.”

On the other hand, a potentially useful exercise, in terms of meeting demands for an immediate response, would be to compile an inventory of “magic numbers” and the criticisms of them. It might be possible to produce an inventory of counter-numbers from those that already exist – there may be no need to use resources in searching for new ones, simply assembling existing data.

Notwithstanding the importance of economic analyses, cost-benefit analyses can be problematic. The outcome depends on the choices of which externalities to measure, what shadow price is chosen to represent each of them, and what discount rate is picked. As a result a cost benefit study can be made to produce virtually any result desired while giving the illusion of scientific certainty. (Levi pointed out that cost-benefit studies are now required by the British Home Office.) Naylor and van Duyne both stressed that crime should be seen as a moral issue, not an economic and financial one. Cost-benefit calculations assume that the real costs to society are measurable in dollar terms.

Both Thoumi and Naylor emphasized that the focus of economic research should be on understanding how criminal markets operate. Once there is adequate micro understanding, it might be possible to go one step further and tentatively attempt aggregation, but even so there are innumerable pitfalls. Van Duyne also emphasized this level of research, pointing out that much could be done by proper use of tax and police files. However he cautioned data is only the start – there are big problems in interpreting it, and then translating those interpretations into policy. For example, increases in estimated value of drugs traded and increases in estimated number of people involved in trading them may be a sign of law enforcement success! That is because attacking supply drives up price in a market with inelastic demand and therefore causes total expenditure to rise, while it also forces the entrepreneur to increase the layers of protective intermediation and therefore dissipates profit in more hands.

Still, the focus on understanding the structure and functioning of individual markets, rather than the search for aggregate dollar values coursing through them, suggests a significant innovation. Nowhere in Canada (or anywhere else in the world to the knowledge of the panelists) does there seem to be a project designed to truly understand how the most important profit-oriented crimes are committed. It is assumed that the term (bank robbery, credit card fraud etc.) is largely self-explanatory. That in part reflects the fact that the whole orientation of research is on actors rather than acts, in Passas’s terminology. It reflects the fact that criminology is a branch of sociology and the fact that ultimately the criminal justice system tends to judge results of policies depending on how many individuals get charged and convicted. None of this is conducive to understanding, for example, how drug markets actually work, or how gunrunning as a professional trade really takes place. The real challenge is to follow the commodity or service from point of production through to point of final sale and the flow of money back again, in a systematic way. There are already bits and pieces of such information – detection and investigation and prosecution of cases requires some, but far from all, of that data. In a few cases analysts have actually dissected the criminal markets with some care. (For example Naylor on guns and gold.)

Thus, the information requirements necessary for understanding thoroughly the laws of operation of the criminal economy are clearly quite different from the information requirements necessary for prosecution of individuals. Yet if, for example, a bank were to request from the police an up-to-date manual of the various bank fraud techniques with some consideration of what trends in banking technology might do in terms of altering or increasing vulnerability to those frauds, it would simply not exist. Nor, given their competitive instincts, if one bank created it, would it be either complete or available for others to consult. And clearly justice policy could be much better informed and targeted if it really understood such patterns on economic and commercial terms, rather than just in terms of who does the offending against this or that criminal statute.

Therefore one possibility is to pick a list of the ten or twelve most prevalent profit-driven crimes, and, using police and tax files in the way Van Duyne suggested, along with existing criminological literature, as Passas suggested, build a composite profile of criminal methods employed for each. To take another example, there has been an abundance of writing on credit card fraud, yet there is not a good analytically useful summary of existing knowledge. Similarly with currency counterfeiting – obviously there are counterfeiting experts in various law enforcement agencies, and presumable at the Bank of Canada. But police information is case driven. Bank of Canada information is likely on costs of anti-counterfeiting technology. These and other sources could be tapped to create a composite picture of the overall counterfeiting problem, including an assessment of future trends of print technology and their impact.

To these ideas of creating a composite understanding of criminal markets and enterprises, Levi added the need to simultaneously ensure examination into the factors that lead to offender choices. Given a wide range of possible options, just what will determine why an offender opts for one rather than another? Police “intelligence” departments are so preoccupied with immediate cases, they have little or no resources, human or financial, to build this kind of data base.

Thoumi proposed a comparative analysis (social, economic, political and cultural) of what makes societies vulnerable to large-scale deeply-entrenched criminality. He had the contrast with Colombia immediately in mind. But similar research could be directed towards Italy, Lebanon, Ulster, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, to name but a few. The objective would be to isolate key variables, then determine to what degree they might possibly be present in Canada.

Research is needed to counter demands for more law enforcement and the creation of more criminal offenses. Motives for criminals are complex and variable, and it is time to refocus attention on the broad social environment rather than try to reduce everything to some sort of “rational choice” or risk-benefit calculation. It would be useful to research the use of alternative instruments to deal with things now treated with traditional criminal justice methods.

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