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What is Organized Crime and Why is it a Problem for Public Policy?

The definition of organized crime varies from country to country but it is almost certain that one can find it in one form or another all over the world, in every society. It is a problem that has been present for many centuries in many shapes and sizes and is an issue that continues to adapt and evolve with us today. Organized crime affects countries and citizens by threatening their peace and security through violence and disrespect to human rights and ultimately jeopardizing the economic and social development of societies in the world.

One of the goals of public policy is to focus on solving this problem by trying to identify the origin, scale, damage, and seriousness caused by organized crime so that solutions can be proposed to mitigate its effects on society. However, fighting organized crime has a strong effect on public policy makers as it is resource intensive; both financial and personnel resources need to be allocated to combat organized crime. (Finckenauer, 2007)[1]

Organized Crime

James Finckenauer defines organized crime as mainly “the ability to use, or a reputation for use of, violence or the threat of violence to facilitate criminal activities, and in certain instances to gain or maintain monopoly control of particular criminal markets.” Another important aspect of organized crime mentioned by Finckenauer is the corruption of public servants and officials who assist criminal organizations in their activities. This is done mainly by bribing the servants to inform them when they are in an investigation spotlight. (Finckenauer, 2007)

Organized crime primarily focuses on obtaining profit by using any means necessary. This is sometimes done by providing legal products and services in an illegal way, but more usually through providing illegal services and products that are generally in short supply. Such illegal products and services include drugs or counterfeit goods and services include prostitution, gambling, human trafficking, robbery, fraud and so on. The fact that these types of activities are illegal, and therefore hard to find, makes them profitable businesses. (Finckenauer, 2007)

It was after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s when organized crime began to seriously expand and become a global issue. Individual governments were not able to react fast enough to this growth and became unable to control the global dissemination of organized crime. (Sullivan, 2012)

Nowadays organized crime continues to develop in line with the evolution of technology – as noted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – and crime gangs have access to the increasingly sophisticated technology and are using ever more advanced methods to increase efficiency and profit margins. In recent years many such gangs have also developed international connections resulting in the appearance of large international criminal networks operating across borders. (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

Since becoming a global issue, organized crime has diversified, with illegal products being transported from one country to another, and even from one continent to another. Such multinational organized crime has a profound effect on governmental agencies and institutions by undermining their power and promoting corruption in companies and politics, ultimately empowering outlaws and reducing economic growth and social development. (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

Finckenauer defines corruption as being a characteristic of organized crime. For Buscaglia and van Dijk, both corruption and organized crime are connected and are created by the weak power of the state and civil society in controlling these activities. They see the issues as being interconnected because the increase of organized crime often leads to the growth of corruption in the public sector in numerous countries. (Buscaglia, Edgardo, and van Dijk)

In Europe alone, organized crime is a huge issue. In the 1990’s agencies in Europe defined the term “organized criminal group” as being made out of a structured consistent group which commits crimes for profit by using violence and corrupting public servants. (Buscaglia, Edgardo, and van Dijk)

One such organized crime group type is the Mafia, which is structured hierarchically in a pyramidal fashion with the members normally connected through honour, ethnicity, family or oath. Most of these kinds of groups have Italian origins, and nowadays several countries have mafia, such as Japan, the United States, Russia, and China, amongst others. (UNODC)

Public Policy and Organized Crime

Within a governmental system, public policy can be considered as a system of laws that establish regulatory measures and create action plans in order to solve problems that affect society. Public policy makers (i.e. a government or state representatives) must decide which problems require the most attention and allocate funding priorities based on their agendas and political opinions. (Kilpatrick)

Organized crime is a huge global problem and prevention initiatives are necessary; measures from permanent to temporary public policies need to be implemented. Public authorities play a leading role in this process together with several actors, such as local authorities, NGO’s and the private sector, that have to participate so that crime can be combatted and prevented from happening. (International Report Crime Prevention)

The notion of crime prevention being a public policy area in its own right is a relatively new one; more often it is still considered a goal or an initiative that needs coordination by a number of different public policies. However, as illustrated above, it has proven a useful tool in the fight against organized crime. “Measures evaluating the cost of violence provide an indication of the level of spending against which to assess the cost of public policies on violence prevention.” (International Report Crime Prevention)

Whilst combatting organized crime through public policy is clearly an effective strategy, the  effects on policy makers can be sizable in the allocation of financial and personnel resources. It is very important to monitor the efficiency of any public policies that are implemented but it is especially important to monitor the effectiveness of any policies that are intended to combat organized crime due to the amount of money and resources needed to fight such a large problem; money and resources that can be put towards other uses such as education and healthcare.

*This Article is based on the original work made for the Lecture “Organized Crime and Corruption”, which is part of the Master’s Curriculum at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany

*Cover image ‘corruption‘ by Evert Haasdijk


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