Melaleuca Media
How does crime work? - the neglected dimension in community safety.

"prostitution can be a highly organised affair and usually that is how it is regarded. However, prostitution is also a business which can be engaged in by enthusiastic amateurs with nothing in the way of capital investment. Economically, the amount of prostitution seems to be determined by the amount of demand for sexual services; however the forms of prostitution in any jurisdiction appear to relate to legislation and enforcement and regulatory practice"

It will be the contention of this paper that there is a neglected research dimension that has the potential to contribute to community safety. Currently, we reasearch, to a greater or lesser degree, the degree of crime, the motivations of crime, the perpetrators of crime and the enforcers of crime and how crime fits in to the modern society. But while the "what" and the "why" of crime is relatively well covered, the "how" is relatively neglected. The author contends that careful analysis of the nuts and bolts of specific crimes has implications for community safety, in revealing the factors that facilitate specific crimes and suggesting more effective means of countering crime. It will conclude with a call for more careful evaluation of anti-crime measures generally on the basis that we know little about the real effectiveness of either current measures or any proposed amendments to them.


In this paper it is my intention to be somewhat provocative. It is therefore necessary to emphasise at the outset that I am speaking in an individual capacity and not as an official representative of the Criminal Justice Commission or its Research Division.

The connection between crime and criminal justice research and community safety would seem to be self evident. I don't think anyone here would argue that we can never know too much about the causes of crime, the costs of crime and the best responses to crime. And although there is a lot of doubt about how effectively the fruits of research get to the policy makers and the law enforcers, no-one seriously questions the value of the research.

What I am going to argue here today is that there are some deficiencies in much of our research in two areas - firstly a lot of our categories aren't particularly logical or helpful, secondly we miss out on or neglect the economic perspective in crime and thirdly that while we look very intently at who commits crime and why they commit crime and where they commit crime we often don't pay much attention to how the crime is committed.

Now I didn't start out a fair dinkum researcher- basically I am a jumped up journalist - but I have found myself working on these sorts of questions because there was very little to refer to and few others looking at them. Having been doing this for a few years now it seems to me that the accurate description of crime, and the understanding of how crime works in an economic sense and how it is conducted in a specific sense has the potential to be very useful information as far as lessening the impact of crime goes. Lets look at some specifics.

How do we describe crime? Well you could be forgiven for thinking that there are basically two varieties of crime - organised and the rest which is presumably unorganised. And then, without any clear relationship to either, there is something we call white collar crime. Or you can start cutting up crime into fine categories, theft, and auto theft and bicycle theft and skateboard theft. This has problems as well - some theft is obviously combined with insurance fraud which raises questions like is it basically theft or is it basically fraud and how do we count it or describe it.

In academic terms, a lot of our definitions and categorisations of crime are quite foggy; in operational terms and in popular understanding, most of our definitions and categories are totally foggy. As an example, there is a great divide between organised crime as the best researchers understand it and organised crime as it is understood by those institutions charged with combatting it. The organised crime definitions that matter, those that legislators and police are actually working to, come in basically three varieties(See for example NCA Act):

Organised crime is crime that is organised;

Organised crime is crime committed by organisations;

Organised crime is whatever we define it to be;

and I shouldn't need to say that these peculiarly circular definitions are no help whatsoever to understanding. Operationally, most agencies seemingly work most of the time to an informal definition that equates drug crime and organised crime; it is worth noting that some of those who have studied the drug trade from the academic perspective come away with the impression that much of it is essentially disorganised. (Wardlaw et al)
Further, once a crime has been defined as organised that usually seems to be the end of the matter - not much work is usually done into how it is organised or why it might be so organised. Take prostitution for instance; potentially, prostitution can be a highly organised affair and usually that is how it is regarded. However, prostitution is also a business which can be engaged in by enthusiastic amateurs with nothing in the way of capital investment. Economically, the amount of prostitution seems to be determined by the amount of demand for sexual services; however the forms of prostitution in any jurisdiction appear to relate to legislation and enforcement and regulatory practice. Looked at analytically, these perspectives can be very revealing. For instance in Queensland in the late 1980s prostitution was basically regulated through franchising arrangements administered by the regulators. This was eventually detected through the Fitzgerald Inquiry confessional box; however, it could also have been detected through some reasonably basic economic analysis which is the point I am making here.

If we look at crime economically I would think we can distinguish two basic varieties of crime. First there is illegal commerce, which is the trade in illegal goods and services like illicit drugs, rare parrots, sexual or gambling services or for that matter the offer to illegally dump toxic wastes at a discount. Then there are what I have called criminal depredations where crime is basically parasitical upon the body economic; by this I mean such activities such as fraud, theft, extortion and the like. In this area, there is the potentially very useful term racketeering, which the Americans use indiscriminately and interchangeably with the term organised crime. However we could use the term if we chose to describe a common sort of criminal activity which is economically very damaging but which we often don't recognise because we don't have a word for it - that is the taking, through some more or less imaginative rorting, of a percentage in what is otherwise quite legal commerce. One example is a security service I once investigated which went to potential customers with the proposition that you take our quite expensive security or we will guarantee that you will lose business and need to spend lots on repairs.

The significant point, I think, is that utilising an economic viewpoint we can get new insights into crime; what it really costs, how it works in a macro or even micro sense and, just possibly, what we can effectively do about some of it.

Secondly, we need to get away from this dichotomy of crime being either organised or, presumably, unorganised. It really isn't very helpful, partly because the meaning of organised crime has been debased to where it really doesn't say anything other than that we are talking about some big, bad thing.

It probably would be more helpful to use specific categories to describe how crime is organised and the scheme I have used is this:


Individual, which is obviously an individual involved in criminal activity entirely alone;

Familial, which is where the members of a family engage in crime together;

Partnerships, where persons who are not related engage in short or long term criminal activities;

Enterprises, which are criminal endeavours where there are persons in an 'employee' role;

Corporate enterprises, which occur where some of the 'employees' fulfil management functions;

Networks, or definable groups of people involved in serial criminal activity; and

Fraternities, where a critical factor in criminal activity is membership of some self-defined group.

These patterns of organisation are not mutually exclusive. An individual can conceivably engage in criminal activity on their own account or in company with relatives or associates, and simultaneously fulfil obligations to some criminal fraternity. The individual can be placed at several points on a continuum of criminal activity. However the organisational requirements vary considerably - a fraternity is likely to develop some internal rituals and obligations to fulfil or reinforce its separate identity, while the essence of a corporate structure is the assignment to individuals of specific roles in a wider organisation.

In general, what is proposed is the replacement of the not very useful blanket term "organised crime" with specific analysis and description of the pattern of criminal organisation apparent in a specific criminal endeavour or activity. It can be seen that most of what we traditionally call organised crime is really a fraternal or corporate pattern of organisation or some combination of the two.

It is my contention that using these sorts of perspectives - the economic and the organisational - we can examine crime in context in society and perhaps begin to grope at other ways of dealing with it than simplistic arrest and seize responses.
Lets take the sort of economic crimes that most bother the citizenry, the business of housebreaking and the invasions of privacy that this entails. I have looked at a few operations in this area and one way of looking at what is going on might be through postulating the existence of what I have called a general petty criminal network. This is a loosely defined group of people, usually largely in a single locality, who commonly or habitually raise a portion of their income through criminal activities such as minor fraud, housebreaking, shopstealing and street level drug dealing.

It is a network because these people are in fairly constant association, although it includes all sorts of forming and dissolving partnerships and family groups and to a minor degree, some criminal enterprises. These people are most probably the source of the main workforce for more organised criminal activity and as well, one of the principal markets for its goods and services.

Traditional law enforcement looks at a lot of individuals committing offences. From a network point of view however, not all members are equally significant participants in crime and the crucial people for these networks seem to be the reliable receivers of stolen property and the reliable suppliers of illicit drugs, who, as it turns out, are often the same people. If these people were to be targetted and to use a law enforcement term, taken out, then potentially you have, for a period at least, disrupted the operations of the network in a locality. This could, potentially again, reduce the amount of crime that the network facilitates, at least until it re-establishes itself.

In my mind we could, or should, do some research into such a hypothesis and its possibilities. I have done a little bit, enough to make me excited about the possibilities and I will share this snippet. On the most recent figures I have analysed, theft accounted for about 73 percent of all crimes reported to police in Queenslandi. Of about 170,000ii instances of theft a year about 35,000 or 20 percent are 'cleared' by police.iii Currently, police prefer about 2500 charges a year of receiving or otherwise dealing in stolen property, of which a large proportion are not so much criminal offences but relate rather to the sloppy bookkeeping of second hand dealers.iv There are other ways of approaching this problem as well - to illustrate one I could add that on a tentative calculation, a relatively small number of frequent, regular heroin users in this State need to raise about $40 million a year from property crime to contribute to their annual cash requirement of about $120million a year. At the very least, there is an obvious need for research to illuminate that great 'black hole' into which a vast amount of stolen property is disappearing.

With any of this sort of research you find yourself wading into the same sorts of definitional and categorical swamps that we have already talked about with organised crime. And I think, once again, the key lies in being as specific as possible. Sticking with stolen property, there are obviously a range of ways of dealing in it. With stolen property I ended up mapping out all the influences that bear on theft which once again involved using economic and market insights to explain patterns of theft. And similarly, we identified eight distinct options for the disposal of stolen property - once again, there is a lot more potential for beginning to come to grips with this variety of crime than to treat it all as "receiving". I might not have explained it all that well but I hope I have been able to give you some idea of what research into the "how" of crime would entail.

One place to start this sort of research would be with a group of research subjects who know more than anyone else about criminal technique and practice than anyone else but who are almost never consulted by researchers. I am talking of course about the petty criminals themselves and at any one time there is always a statistically significant captive group so to speak of research subjects available for interview in various of Her Majesties institutions.

I'm continually amazed that we, as a group of researchers, almost never go near them. That is not to say they are never approached but usually they are being asked about their early childhood experiences or facing demands to give up their associates and confess to other crimes or other people's crimes. And most of the time, they are not very co-operative and when they are they are often not very helpful and cause some considerable anxiety to the judiciary.

On the other hand, when they are not being judged and are being treated with some respect as experts in the human endeavour of crime they can be a mine of useful information and this has been my experience both as a journalist and a researcher. I don't believe they have always told me the truth, in fact I know that they have not, but when carefully evaluated and considered together with all the other available related information, this testimony is invaluable. As an example I could give the model of the Queensland market of cannabis in the CJC's recent discussion paper which was prepared in just this manner.

To wrap up, what I am saying is that we need to do more specific research into crime and how it is conducted as a powerful means of doing something about it. We need to bring in fresh insights and be a bit dubious about some of our cherished beliefs and categories. And lastly, we need to consult the experts, the people involved in crime as their particular solution to life.

Thank you and I hope I have given you some food for thought.