25 June 2010

Smart and Dumb Criminals

A former federal prosecutor comments on the people that he prosecuted:

So many of the criminals I prosecuted were, let’s say, not very bright. They were so not bright that catching and convicting them was relatively easy. (These were mostly the ones that resulted in guilty pleas.) One thing I always found troubling as a prosecutor was that, in a way, we were fooling the public. We let the public think that law enforcement and prosecutors were doing a brilliant job of keeping the streets safe, or maintaining the integrity of the financial markets, or ferreting out public corruption. Sure, this was true some of the time. But a lot of the time, we were arresting low-hanging fruit, the bad guys who were so na├»ve they didn’t realize they were leaving a trail behind them that practically glowed in the dark. In short, in a world where there are smart criminals and not-so-smart criminals, we were disproportionately getting the latter.


It is true, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that lots of not very bright people commit lots of serious and not so serious crimes. High school dropouts are vastly over represented in prison populations, and high school dropouts (particularly male high school dropouts) overwhelmingly performed very poorly academically for many years before dropping out. In contrast, people who have graduated from high school and had even some college education, without actually getting a degree, are vastly underrepresented in prisons.

The hard question is how much this represents differences in actual crime rates, and how much this represents different levels of involvement in the criminal justice system.

We know that race and socio-economic class has an immense impact on the likelihood that someone will face criminal sanctions for drug use. Is that true in other crimes?

Fiction frequently makes the assumption that there are indeed two classes of criminals, stupid criminals who routinely cycle through the criminal justice system, and smart criminals who very rarely get caught. But, is there really a class of smart criminals who routinely evade capture out there?

My intuition is that the reality varies a great deal by type of crime. There probably is a fairly large class of people who routinely commit white collar crimes like willful tax evasion, securities fraud, identity theft, document forgery, and consumer fraud who routinely escape criminal sanctions. White collar crime can pay well, serious penalties have been rare until recently, enforcement is usually a low priority, and acquittals are relatively common in gray areas where criminal intent may be factually present but hard to prove. Often victims of these crimes are blamed for being gullible or failing to take proper care.

But, there is probably not a very large class of people who routinely steal or extort tangible property who routinely escape criminal sanctions. Theft, robbery and burglary typically involve monetary values that are quite low. Even if the average offender commits a couple of hundred offenses for each time that he or she is caught, this isn't a very lucrative way to make a living. Bank robbery, for example, nets an average of about $5,000 per offense and individuals rarely get away with more than half a dozen offenses before they are caught. And the facts that offenders who are convicted for these offenses are extremely likely to be caught reoffending, and that a large share of those convicted of these offenders have prior criminal records, supports the inference that a large share of the pool of people who commit these crimes are in the stupid criminals who get caught class. Perhaps there are some stolen property brokers (a.k.a. fences) who manage to make a living from it, and a few people making a living stealing scrap materials from abandoned houses in places like Detroit, but there seem to be few professional thieves who consistently manage to escape punishment.

The only places where theft seems to be a profitable way of life is in places like Somolia, where all law enforcement has broken down, allowing piracy and banditry to prevail.

Violent crime seems to come in several subtypes. A lot of violent crime is committed between non-family members who are known to each other, more or less impulsively, often when the offender is drunk. This is hard to keep out of the criminal justice net consistently, although there are probably some communities that favor self-help over a resort to the law. Some violent crime is committed between family members and this is often chronic (e.g. domestic violence, incest). This may evade detection for a long period of time, particularly if the economic costs of punishing the offender or leaving the family are high and if it is possible to avoid the scrutiny of neighbors (for example, for single family homes on large lots as opposed to crowded apartment buildings).

A lot of violent crime seems to involve "enforcers" for criminal gangs that are engaged in vice, mostly against other gangs or people believed to be connected with other gangs. Clearance rates for these crimes by police are much lower than for ordinary violent crime and the connection to the gang can make this kind of activity profitable. While the criminal justice system may not catch many of these enforcers, however, long profitable careers doing this seem to be rare. It is dangerous work, and gangs rarely have many middle aged members. Gang members in places where there is a lot of gang related violent crime tend to live lives that are nasty, brutish and short. Anecdotally, there appears to be considerable evidence that gangs who hire outside "professional" hit men to kill people that cross the gang often kill their own hit men when they come to collect their payment or shortly before or after that point, in order to cover up evidence of their connection to the killing. The large proportion of prison inmates with a gang history suggests that gangs aren't very good at keeping their members from ending up in prison eventually for something. If there is a class of hit men or enforcers out there who lead long profitable careers without getting caught, they seem to be doing a very good job of staying invisible.

On the other hand, some of the most frightening crime is carried out by psychopaths for their own enjoyment. Many serial killers and serial rapists are not captured for decades and are only captured after that have committed many serious crimes. Psychopaths make up a minority of murderers, but a very large share of people who commit premeditated murders. Psychopaths are unlikely to feel an urge to confess to their crimes. Recidivism is relatively rare, because once caught they are usually sentenced to very long terms in prison. The upper limit on how many of these predators can be out there is fairly low, because there aren't all that many unsolved serious violent crimes with no indication of who the perpetrator is that don't seem likely to involve gang violence. Psychopathic violent criminals tend to have day jobs and engage in crime as a hobby rather than as a vocation, so it doesn't need to be profitable for them. If many of these crimes are committed by repeat offenders, then the number of possible crimes attributable to them has to be divided by the number of offenses per psychopath to determine how many violent evil criminals are out there committing crimes and not getting caught. At an order of magnitude level, we are talking about a few violent psychopaths per million people, tops, in an world where hundreds of thousands of men per million in some social circumstances will ultimately end up with felony criminal records. In all likelihood, far more people are caught in the crossfire or killed due to mistaken identity in gang warfare than are killed by depraved psychopaths. Gangs of individuals who together engage in serial killings for pleasure as opposed to gang warfare, however, appear to be almost unprecedented.

In contrast, individuals who suddenly snap and kill large numbers of people rarely seem to have much of a criminal record, if any, usually live to commit only one incident before dying in the process or facing a long prison term, and often appear to have thinking so disorganized that they cannot rightly be grouped with the "smart" criminals.

Vice may look more like white collar crime in terms of the possibility of sustaining a criminal class. Known drug cartels manage to persist for decades. A large share of all offenses go unpunished. Prosecutors not infrequently are lenient to mid-level offenders who turn state's evidence. Prostitution arrest rates are very low and a few arrests rarely prevents someone from continuing to be a prostitute, because punishments are typically mild. And, vice generally pays much better than theft or violent crime. Whores make better money than hit men do.

Taken together, there is a decent case that there is a class of smart criminals who largely avoid punishment for their actions out there. But, this probably consists overwhelmingly of economically motivated white collar criminals and vice participants, rather than violent criminals and thieves of tangible personal property. There may also be hundreds of, or even a few thousand psychopaths out there committing crimes, most of whom appear to operate independently of each other. And, there are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of families out there with chronic histories of domestic crimes that totally escape the criminal justice system.