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

1. How is crime changing in the 21st Century?

In the first session the Panel was asked to address the following questions:

  • Is it the case that crime is changing in significant ways?
  • Has modern technology and globalization made criminal activity more common, more lucrative, easier to commit or harder to detect?
  • Is the old distinction between “organized” and “white collar” crime being erased as traditional crime groups become more sophisticated, and bring their capital and skills to bear on the task of infiltrating and corrupting the legal economy?
  • What are the main factors that today create new criminal opportunities?
  • What is the role of globalization and technology?
  • How can the impact of such crimes be assessed?
  • What are the primary challenges likely to face the criminal justice system in the new century?

In sum

We can expect changes in the practices and methods of committing profit-driven crimes and different perpetrators, perhaps drawn from a wider spectrum of society. Technology will also lead to changes in techniques of prevention, detection and investigation. Differences in national prohibitions, regulations and tax structures open opportunities for transnational crime. But these will not change in fundamental nature, just in terms of which goods and services are involved, and which routes and target markets. With predatory crimes, the main change will be new opportunities to conduct traditional forms of fraud using more modern communication methods.

Barring some socio-economic catastrophe or major demographic shift, there is no reason to think that the current trend towards falling rates of violent crime will change. Nor is there any reason to think that crimes will pose any more of a threat to the legitimate economy or society than in the past.

The Discussion

The nature of profit-driven crimes can be expected to remain in essence the same – theft, extortion, commercial and financial fraud, trafficking in contraband goods and services etc. However, though the underlying crimes may be the same, there will be three kinds of substantial differences.

One difference, in the case of market-based crime, is precisely which goods and services are trafficked. That is a function, in part, of what governments choose to ban. This propensity of governments to use criminal law to control private behavior is, as Van Duyne pointed out, a commonplace and seemingly intractable instinct – but at the same time an inconsistently applied one. Van Duyne suggested thinking of a citizen as possessing two criminogenic zones – upper and lower. Governments have recently been moving away from interfering with citizens’ choices with respect to stimulating the lower (sexual) one, but they continue to interfere with choices with respect to stimulating the upper (psychological) one. There is no sign of this abating, and it is reasonable to predict that as new psychotropic substances are invented, governments will create new forms of crime in an attempt to ban them.

It should be pointed out that governments, facing such new substances, will likely attempt to apply old logic, itself often based on myth and misunderstanding, thinking of the problem as “cartels” of evil aliens invading polite society. What must be taken onto account is that increasingly new substances susceptible to abuse are purely synthetic, home-made and often produced on a strictly entrepreneurial basis – thus rendering the “organized crime” logic dubious in regard to the new markets.

Illegal profits can be driven equally well by prohibition, regulation and taxation. What will emerge in the way of new crimes or at least new opportunities to commit old ones will also depend on structural shifts in the patterns of trade and the resulting international price differentials. Trade liberalization when it leads to equalization of costs across borders has the potential to reduce those opportunities.

Has there been a change in offenders – perhaps due to a “democratization” of criminal opportunities? Levi suggested there may be greater temptations for employee fraud if workers feel less committed to a corporation as a result of cost cutting, “globalization” and greater mobility. Passas and Thoumi agreed that current trends to greater disparities in the distribution of income while simultaneously expectations keep rising are conducive to criminality. Thoumi also pointed out that in many countries, particularly those with which he is personally most familiar in the Americas, “rent seeking” behavior was the norm in legitimate economic activity, and therefore the frontiers between criminal and legitimate economic behavior may be fuzzy.

The third factor which may change is how crimes are organized and conducted. Most crime is not “organized crime” as that is broadly understood. Criminals who work in groups are often not very thoroughly organized. Even in the case of the so-called Colombian drug “cartels” at their peak, the degree of economic power they could exercise was greatly exaggerated – and, after the breaking of the so-called Medillin and Cali “cartels,” the industry effectively disintegrated into hundreds of distinct production-distribution units making it even more difficult to control than before. Levi pointed out the additional complication that what should be discussed most of the time is not organised crime but organised crimes in the plural. Passas similarly noted that the whole thrust of current research and discussion misses the essential point – the focus should always be on acts, not on actors. Naylor has stressed that organization will come and go, and will vary in nature, depending on market needs, that the key thing is to understand the market logic and then, if necessary, work from there to the “organization” issue.

However, it was also pointed out that it is impossible to simply shed a term so deeply entrenched in popular discourse. At the same time it is not possible to have two distinct sets of terminology, one used when talking to politicians, press and public, the other when discussions among informed researchers occur. Inevitably one will confound and confuse the other. This is an important dilemma. There is need for a common definition and understanding of the terminology.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped is to “unpack” the concept. For example, violence, commonly associated with the power of “organized crime” is widely recognized by criminology researchers to be in fact a symptom of the opposite. It is when crime fails to be sufficiently “organized” in some meaningful way that there is likely to be violence over the distribution of profit or over market share. That suggests, for example, that the attempted assassination of Michel Auger, far from being a symptom of the power of biker gangs (assuming it is eventually proven that bikers were actually responsible), is a symptom of their disorganized and competitive nature – ironically Auger’s last article before he was shot described precisely this phenomenon. Sufficiently demystified by a proper unpacking, it might be possible to make the term less problematic in the sense of reducing the extent to which invoking the term sets off a moral panic which in turn can lead to precipitous responses.

Public perceptions are largely mass-media derived. And the mass-media get their information partly through acts of pure imagination, and partly from the police, who in turn cite the mass-media as proof. This reached its logical conclusion in New York after the Godfather movies came out, when Italo-American criminals were picked up on wiretap trying to imitate the accents and phrases used in the movies. Greater harm may be done by otherwise legitimate entrepreneurs using illegal means to enhance profits.

On the question of the role of globalization, opinions differed slightly. On the one side Naylor insisted that the term is trite, that globalization, if it means anything, is a phenomenon that has been steadily in progress for hundreds of years. Others, too, pointed out that, far from globalization have a revolutionary effect in eliminating borders, the borders themselves are the thing that has to be explained – for it is only in this century that serious border control at least for the movement of humans has been the norm. The passport did not exist as a generalized phenomenon before World War I. Indeed, much of what Passas refers to as criminogenic asymmetries would cease to exist if there really were a borderless world, with the implication of uniform regulations and taxation. In that sense “globalization” might spawn less not more “organized crime.”

Panelists did seem to feel that the notion of globalization as a barrier to criminal law enforcement is exaggerated. There are ample and growing instances of international cooperation, perhaps not systematic but certainly in existence. And information flows across borders are more and more common. Indeed, things like bank secrecy laws are now becoming the exception, and extradition has become so commonplace it has even reached the historically unprecedented point where some states will routinely extradite their own citizens.

On the question of technology, again there was some variation of opinion, though it was more a matter of degree than of kind. Naylor was the most dismissive. His position was that, as with globalization, analysts who emphasize technology show a lack of appreciation of the lessons of history. He pointed out that all the hype about modern communications and transportation technology ignores the fact that in the early to mid 19th Century the impact of the railway, steamship and telegraph was far more revolutionary than the Internet or mass air travel today. Indeed, virtually every kind of crime now conducted through modern electronic communications technology had some equivalent in the telegraph age – which saw everything from insider trading to price fixing to financial fraud conducted by and through the telegraph, while telegraph companies faced problems of breaches of security by hackers threatening, in particular, telegraphic money transfers.

Van Duyne similarly emphasized that criminals are generally backward in their choices of techniques, that the real pioneers in using things like communication technology are the police and other agencies of the state. Passas added the observation that even with money laundering, where modern technology should be most evident, old-fashioned methods like physical currency smuggling still predominate.

On the other side, Levi pointed out that, although he fundamentally agreed, nonetheless many types of technological change can facilitate crimes by making detection more difficult and enabling multiple iterations in a shorter period of time. Call-forwarding, for example, can be used in telephone based fraud operations in everything from selling securities and commodities to credit card scams. Certain frauds are based on misinformation which can be conveyed faster and disseminated more broadly, though these are matters of degree, not kind. Van Duyne, Passas and Thoumi pointed out another factor, that technology can also democratize crimes. The fact that smaller players have an easier time entering the market is one reason why the notion of great crime “cartels” may increasingly be a myth as the contemporary criminal market place changes in organization. Finally, as stressed by Van Duyne, Passas and Naylor, technology may facilitate the conduct of crimes, but it also facilitates surveillance and detection. It is impossible to say a priori what the net effect is – it really must be seen on a case by case basis.

Date modified: