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What is Organised Crime? Describing it with a Single Diagram

What is Organised Crime? Describing it with a Single Diagram

20 February, 2019
Jay Albanese

Organised crime (OC) is often described as criminal conduct that is “organised”. Of course, this is a tautology, saying the same thing twice only with different words. As a US Supreme Justice once said about obscenity, he did not know what it was, but “I know it when I see it”.  One of my students also contended, “I know that organised crime is more than the Mafia, but I’m not sure how much more!”. In the contemporary flurry of organised crime, from trafficking human beings, caviar, drugs, and counterfeit products to stolen identities and illegal wildlife trade, it appears as if organised crime surrounds us all, but it is bewildering to those who do not study or research it, or engage in policy and practice against it. In this article I attempt to bring all of this together into a single diagram to make it clear to our constituents what we are up to.

In general terms, organised crime focuses exclusively on planned, rational acts that reflect the effort of groups of individuals. A general definition of organised crime sees it as a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities that are often in great public demand, often maintaining this continued existence through corruption of public officials, intimidation and threats. By definition, organised crime requires more than one person and some degree of planning and organisation in carrying out the criminal conduct.

Is it possible to describe organised crime in a single diagram?

This commentary is designed for those trying to better understand the concept of organised crime and, more importantly, explain its significance and reach to others, such as students, policymakers, and the general public. The diagram in below illustrates the three types of conduct that describe organised crime as I see it: organisation and either provision of illicit goods and/or services, and/or infiltration of legitimate business and government.

Organising to commit crime

Several criminal offences have been established to capture the first category, which is the organised commission of crimes, in order to distinguish between the criminal acts of individuals and those that are the product of more planned, systematic criminal conduct by multiple persons.

There are numerous mechanisms through which countries can punish individuals involved in the organisation and preparation of criminal acts. These mechanisms target the essence of organised crime: conspiracy, criminal association, and racketeering. Conspiracy is an offence that prohibits agreements to commit crime. It is widely used in common law countries, such as Canada, Uganda, the UK, and the US. Criminal association prohibits participation in the activities of an organised crime group (OCG). Criminal association laws are seen in civil law countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, and Venezuela.  A few countries have elements of both conspiracy and criminal association in their criminal law.

The above diagram illustrates the differences in these three approaches to the criminalisation of organising to commit crime

Racketeering is a third, and newer, legal concept with broader scope. It provides for extended penalties for crimes committed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Several countries have laws with the intent to penalize ongoing illicit enterprises of various kinds, including Australia, Canada, Italy, South Africa, and the US. The above diagram illustrates the differences in these three approaches to the criminalisation of organising to commit crime. Conspiracy focuses on the planning of criminal acts, criminal association focuses on membership in criminal groups, whereas racketeering focuses on ongoing criminal enterprises.

Provision of illicit goods and/or services

The provision of illicit goods and services (the second, most profitable “one-third” of organised crime activity) attempts to satisfy the public demand for money, sex, labour, and property that legitimate society does not permit. This includes human beings, illegal drugs, counterfeit goods, firearms, wildlife, and stolen property, among others.

Infiltration of legitimate business or government

The third category of organised crime is the infiltration of legitimate business or government. For example, some businesses are coerced or intimidated into making extortion payments to protect themselves, or their customers, from harm from OCGs. OCGs may also make payments to corrupt government officials to secure permits, licenses, or pass inspections.

This three-pronged description of organised crime is summarised in the table below.

Elements of Organised Crime Activity Nature of the Activity
Organising to commit crimes Conspiracy, criminal association, racketeering
Provision of illicit goods or services Illicit trafficking in human beings, drugs, counterfeit goods, firearms, wildlife, stolen property (a growing list); provision of money laundering and cybercrime services (among others)
Infiltration of legitimate business or government Coercive use of legal businesses or government agencies (from the inside or from the outside) for purposes of exploitation (e.g., corruption, bribery, extortion)

Those of us actively involved in organised crime study or research, or in the policy and practice of organised crime interdiction and prevention, sometimes overlook the wide array of activity that it encompasses, and the confusion many people have about its true nature. I hope the diagram above helps to remove some of this confusion.

In furtherance of better education about the true nature of organised crime, a new “Education for Justice” Initiative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has developed a 14-module, open-access course on organised crime for instructors worldwide to use at the university-level. There are also different versions for students in primary and secondary school. This kind of multinational effort may reduce the level of ignorance about the important subject of organised crime, and raise both awareness and public insistence in working more diligently and effectively against it.

Jay S Albanese is a professor in the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He was the first Ph.D. graduate from the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. Dr. Albanese served as Chief of the International Center at the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.  He is author and editor of 20 books and many articles on organised crime, corruption, transnational crime, and ethics. Dr. Albanese is a recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award from Virginia Commonwealth University, the Gerhard Mueller Award for research contributions from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences International Section, and the Distinguished Scholar Award from the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime. He is a past president and fellow of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.

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