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Organized Crime

Controlling Organized Crime

For many observers, organized crime is not only an object of academic study but also a practical problem about which something needs to be done. Policies aimed at the control of organized crime have tended to emphasize one of two types of strategies. The first targets the members of organized crime groups while the second focuses on the structural characteristics and market relationships that make organized crime possible. It is important to stress that these two broad strategies are not in conflict with each other. However, they do reflect quite different assumptions about how the human and economic resources available for the control of organized crime should be employed.

Strategies that focus on the members of organized crime groups tend to involve the use of the criminal justice system for the purpose of prosecuting offenders. Local state and federal agencies have used a wide arsenal of investigative and prosecutorial weapons to this end. These have included the extensive use of wiretaps, witness immunity and witness protection programs, and special grand juries. Perhaps the most important prosecutorial tool is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was passed in 1970. The act makes it a crime to acquire an interest in, to participate in the affairs of, or to invest the profits acquired from an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity. In the period after 1980, most significant organized crime prosecutions involved the use of the RICO statutes, and the decimation of the traditional Cosa Nostra organization has been attributed to RICO prosecutions.

Critics, however, maintain that all such policies have an inherent limitation in that they proceed from the assumption that the control—through prosecution—of members of organized crime groups is somehow synonymous with the control of organized crime. Such "headhunting" approaches, it is argued, confuse the arrest and prosecution of offenders with the control of the activities in which offenders engage. It has been suggested that even when they are successful, these strategies remove only some illicit entrepreneurs from the marketplace and thereby strengthen the rewards for those who remain. This outcome may be made more likely by the tendency of law enforcement to prosecute most successfully those operators who are smallest and weakest. Historically, it has been the case, critics argue, that the response to criminal prosecution is often adaptation on the part of organized crime groups. In the latter years of the twentieth century, for instance, the transparency of many national borders, and the growth of the Internet and of international money markets facilitated such adaptations by posing complex jurisdictional problems to enforcement agencies.

Rather than focus on the members of organized crime groups as the object of policy attention, many analysts argue, it is necessary to focus on the environments within which the businesses that comprise organized crime operate. Seen in this way, organized crime may require market rather than law enforcement interventions. One such intervention aims to decriminalize or legalize those goods and services that form the basis for many organized crime markets. Thus, state lotteries and legalized gambling in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City provide alternatives to a service that would otherwise only be available in illicit markets. However, the approach poses risks since it is not necessarily the case that legalization results in the destruction of illegal markets. It can instead create a social climate that proves to be even more supportive of illegal conduct.

Another strategy involves efforts to "follow the money." The recognition that organized crime activity facilitates the accumulation of large amounts of cash that must be laundered implies a need to make the money itself the object of policy attention. Money laundering by organized crime groups in the 1980s and 1990s (particularly the profits from the drug trade) has facilitated the relationships between organized crime groups and organizations in the more legitimate economy as well as between such groups and the governments of states for which such money is an important source of revenue. Thus, increasing attention has focused on the development of "money laundering" laws and policies that take the profits away from offenders by seizing or freezing assets derived from organized crimes. Indeed, in the United States, money laundering prosecutions rose 400 percent between 1991 and 1993. Effective money laundering policies necessitate a degree of international cooperation that cannot always be achieved either because of differences in enforcement resources or in political will. Such strategies also depend heavily on long-term undercover operations, stings, and the use of informants, all of which pose difficult ethical problems.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawOrganized Crime - History, The International Context, Ethnic Succession And Organized Crime, Structure, Activities, Controlling Organized Crime