Assessing the Effectiveness of Organized Crime Control Strategies: A Review of the Literature

3.0 Definitional Issues, Measurement and Other Concerns in Organized Crime Research


Any review of assessments of OC control strategies is limited by the degree of rigor and overall quality of scholarly works on the topic. The previous section has emphasized the dearth of rigorous evaluations of efforts to combat OC. There is little standardization with regard to the research methods used and much of the literature is anecdotal or descriptive. Thus, assertions are often made in the absence of any empirical evidence or they are based on rather crude, descriptive data.

Three key factors compromise the quality and sophistication of the literature on OC:

Definitional Issues
There is little consensus as to a definition of OC. However one conceptualizes OC, it is ultimately the key dependent (outcome) variable in studies aiming to determine the impact of OC control efforts. That is, in order to assert that an initiative has been beneficial, one must presumably demonstrate that it has engendered some reduction in OC. A failure to agree on what OC is compromises its measurement and any claims as to the beneficial effects of various policies and practices.
Data-Related Issues
The dearth of standardized data on organized crime has compelled scholars to rely on a multitude of sources, some of which have been of questionable credibility. Some sources of information are likely to be self-serving and sensationalistic, while others are heavily biased in favour of a certain view of OC.
Crude and Varied Performance Measures
The definitional issues and the limited data available on OC groups and activities have served as major impediments to the measurement of the impact of initiatives designed to control OC. Performance measures used are highly diversified and are often very basic, calling into question the credibility of much of the evidence advanced on the success of OC control efforts.

The remainder of this chapter elaborates on these issues.

3.1 Definitional Issues

There are numerous references to the lack of consensus on any existing definition of OC. There are varied definitions offered by scholars, as well as great variation in legal definitions provided under different statutes. In its evaluation of the Federal Strike Forces established to fight OC, the United States’ General Accounting Office (1977:i) observed that "there is no agreement on what organized crime is and, consequently, on precisely whom or what the Government is fighting." Later in that same report, the GAO added: "Before a problem can be dealt with, it must be adequately defined. Participating Federal agencies cannot completely agree on what the term ‘organized crime’ encompasses" (p.8). Furthermore, the report cited a 1974 survey of Federal Attorneys in the US, commissioned by the US Attorneys’ Advisory Committee, which revealed that over half thought that OC was not defined sufficiently to delineate prosecutorial responsibility.

An analysis of definitions used by 15 scholars over a period of more than 15 years has revealed that, collectively, they have identified 11 different attributes of OC (Albanese, 1996). The table below lists these attributes and the number of authors identifying them.

Table 1 : Definitions of Organized Crime in the Scholarly Literature
Characteristics Number of Authors
Organized Hierarchy Continuing 15
Rational Profit through Crime 12
Use of Force or Threat 11
Corruption to Maintain Immunity 11
Public Demand for Services 6
Monopoly over Particular Market 5
Restricted Membership 3
Non-Ideological 3
Specialization 3
Code of Secrecy 3
Extensive Planning 2

Source: J. Albanese, Organized Crime in America (3rd edition). Cincinnati: Anderson, 1996.

This analysis indicates that there is some consensus that OC operates as a continuing enterprise, works rationally to make a profit, uses threats or force, and corrupts public officials to achieve immunity from prosecution. There is less consensus about such things as exclusive membership, OC’s non-political nature, its specialization in certain activities, the existence of codes of secrecy, and the degree of planning in carrying out activities.

Abadinsky (2003) adds another element to those identified above. OC groups are often seen as being governed by a set of rules covering the conduct expected of their members. Violators of such rules can expect to be disciplined if it is perceived to be in the interest of the organization (Maltz, 1994:31 in Kelly et al.).

Maltz (1994) further asserts that involvement in legitimate businesses is a frequent, although not necessary, characteristic of OC groups. Legitimate businesses may serve as cover for illicit activities, facilitate money laundering, provide respectability to group members, or serve as payment for gambling or loan shark debts.

Schelling (1971) also expanded the definition of OC by pointing out that, aside from the direct provision of illegal goods and services, OC acted as a "government" by extorting those criminals who were supplying these services. Those engaged in drug dealing, prostitution, and bookmaking pay tribute to the gangsters protecting their territory. A criminal organization can also mediate disputes between neighbouring bookmakers, loan sharks, or narcotics dealers.

Beare (1996:14) asserts that OC’s essential characteristic is that of a process or method of committing crimes, rather than a distinct type of crime or criminal. Indeed, a constant theme in the literature is the duality of definitions, the debate as to whether OC is characterized primarily by its enterprise quality or by certain types of activities that are thought to require some degree of organization--e.g., protection rackets, loan sharking, and illicit gambling (Stelfox, 1998). The Canadian Criminal Code (Part XII.2), for example, identifies about three dozen offences as enterprise crimes.

The diverse definitions of OC provided by US states illustrates the prevailing definitional chaos (Reuter, 1994:93). On one extreme is the very broad statutory definition of the state of Mississippi: "Two or more persons conspiring together to commit crimes for profit on a continuing basis." Such a definition would include two robbers or burglars, or even members of a youth gang, who planned and executed crimes together for a period of time.

Many states have adopted definitions that have emphasized the elements of fear, discipline, and corruption (Reuter, 1994). The state of Kansas, for example, refers to "a continuing criminal conspiracy organized for power and profit utilizing fear and corruption to obtain immunity from the law." Similar to the Canadian Criminal Code, other US states spell out the activities of OC. Pennsylvania, for example, indicates that, "‘Organized crime’ and ‘racketeering’ shall include, but not be limited to, conspiracy to commit murder, bribery or extortion, narcotics or dangerous drug violations, prostitution, usury, subordination or perjury and lottery, bookmaking or other forms of organized gambling" (Reuter, 1994:93).

Blakey, Goldstock, and Rogovin (1978) assert that the manner in which definitions are arrived at by those with enforcement responsibilities are reversed from what one would intuitively expect. Logically, we would expect to first define OC and then develop legal and investigative tools to deal with it. Rather, these authors assert that definitions are often based on issues that have been identified as particularly worthy of investigation:

Most often, the content of the definition [of OC] reflects the perspective of the discipline or profession of the author, and different perspectives have led to different definitions. Definitions, too, reflect purpose. To meet varying needs, organized crime may, of course, be quite legitimately defined by members of the same profession in quite different fashions; for example, to limit or expand investigative jurisdiction, create special crimes, or to assess extra punishment for those who engage in certain kinds of criminal behavior. (p.3)

Blakey and his associates (1978:3) further assert that the law enforcement community is inconsistent in defining OC and often fails to focus on the manner in which offences are committed:

In the absence of a generally accepted definition of organized crime for administrative purposes, however, police and prosecutors have tended to focus their attention upon conduct that can be clearly labeled criminal: conspiracy, extortion, bribery, etc. Nevertheless, these categories of the substantive penal law do little to distinguish persons involved in individual acts from those individuals involved in larger criminal networks…The failure to give due attention to specialized knowledge about the manner in which crimes are committed and its relation to substantive crime definitions gives an accordion-like quality to operating definitions of organized crime and organized criminals. Definitional flexibility may be desirable for some purposes, but it clearly does not give rise to a great deal of consistency between units charged with organized crime control.

The definitional morass is further underscored by the failure of respected task forces, such as that of the US National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, to formulate a clear definition. The Task Force proclaimed that: "No single definition is believed inclusive enough to meet the needs of the many different individuals and groups throughout the country that may use it as a means to develop an organized crime control effort "(cited in Bynum, 1987:4).

Until some consensus exists as to the definition of OC, attempts to draw generalizations regarding the success of efforts to combat it will be seriously limited. Another major limiting factor is the absence of agreement in terms of the most preferred measures to use in the assessment of OC control strategies.

3.2 Data-Related Issues

Unlike more conventional crimes, data are not routinely collected on OC groups or activities. Thus, there is no standardized database, established by a credible agency, that scholars can rely on in order to conduct their analyses. Governments do not maintain statistics on how many "organized criminals" have been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated (Lyman and Potter, 1997). In Canada, while there is support among the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Justice for an ongoing reporting mechanism, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics collects a minimum of data in this area. Specifically, the Adult Criminal Court Survey provides some data on the disposition of cases involving criminal organization offences.

The dearth of standardized data creates substantial uncertainty with regard to the gravity of the problem. Albanese (1996:11) notes:

The true extent of organized crime is unknown. Characteristic organized crimes, such as conspiracy, racketeering, and extortion are not counted in any systematic way. Other offences are known only when they result in arrests by police. The problems in relying on police arrests as a measure of criminal activity are apparent: much crime is undetected, some that is detected is not reported to police, and arrest rates go up or down depending on police activity and not necessarily criminal activity.

Reuter (1994:91) writes of the difficulty of gaining access to data on OC due to the sensitivity of official records and privacy laws. For example, legal barriers exist to the use of grand jury testimony and information obtained through electronic surveillance (Maltz, 1990:17). Reuter adds that field research faces serious obstacles in this area, including the investigator’s lack of access to information on the most repugnant activities of criminal organizations. He also asserts that an extensive non-scholarly literature does contribute significantly to our understanding of OC. These works involve accounts of the experiences of investigators or prosecutors and biographies written by OC figures, often with the assistance of a journalist. Clearly, such literature must be treated with prudence, due to its tendency to be self-serving and sensationalistic.

Beare (1996:26) notes that insiders’ accounts of criminal organizations can yield a great deal of useful information about the structure of these organizations, the nature and changes in their operations, the motivations of members, and the extent to which legislation may have encouraged insiders to tell their stories. Nevertheless, the veracity of these accounts must be carefully assessed. Ianni (1972), for example, was said to be co-opted or deceived in his study of the Lupollo crime family. Critics argue that the family concealed from Ianni some of its most serious activities, such as heroin distribution and violence (Beare,1996:25). The value of information provided by insiders is also dependent upon their location within the organization, as just a few members understand how the entire operation works (Reuter, 1983).

Reuter also asserts that existing materials are limited by their nearly exclusive focus on the Italian Mafia and on the settings of Chicago and New York. Other groups need to be considered in discussions of OC. Reuter contends that even in the case of the Mafia, we still await a solid understanding, as scholars have for long been embroiled in a sterile debate as to its existence, rather than its strength, durability, and uniqueness. Furthermore, much of what we know about the Mafia is based on the word of Joseph Valachi, OC’s most notorious informer (Block, 1994:3).

The reliability of information on OC provided by law enforcement agencies has been the subject of considerable academic debate. These agencies have faced the criticism that they have developed a fixed conception of OC (Beare, 1996:29). This conception is that of an "alien conspiracy", with OC viewed as being predatory and as corrupting society, while discounting the role of citizens who seek illicit goods and services, as well as officials who may collude with criminal groups. Critics contend that police intelligence work and the interpretation of data generated is shaped by this conception.

In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, US law enforcement agencies believed in the existence of a national Mafia criminal conspiracy. This belief was said to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the focus of police turned to Italian-American crime families. The predictable result was that most criminal cases were Mafia-related (Beare, 1996:30). The view of OC as somehow alien to society, rather than as a byproduct of the weaknesses and vices of its members, is also said to serve the interests of police agencies by promoting their pursuit of additional resources.

Another concern is that the lack of sufficient data on OC has compelled scholars to rely excessively on government documents, many of which have also historically adopted a conspiratorial view of OC (Galliher and Cain, 1974). One scholar, for example, argues that the work of royal commissions and inquiries into OC is often superficial and driven by a political agenda: the need to relieve "a politically defined, media-generated crisis" (Beare, 1996:33). Overall, it has been argued that the over reliance on official sources of information has impeded the development of independent scholarship in this area. For their part, law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to release information that might compromise their operations or the safety of their officers (Auditor General of Canada, 2002).

The media can be fruitful sources of information on OC, due to their international scope, focus on current issues, and the investigative skill of many journalists (Beare, 1996:34). Journalists have figured prominently in the limited Canadian literature in this area. Prudence must be exercised here again, however, due to the tendency of these accounts to be sensationalistic and speculative. Furthermore, journalistic works tend to focus more on OC figures and their activities, than on the effectiveness of control strategies.

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