Assessing the Effectiveness of Organized Crime Control Strategies: A Review of the Literature


Much of the evidence pertaining to the efficacy of OC control strategies is descriptive and anecdotal. Studies adopting sophisticated research designs are virtually non-existent. In fact, very few studies are explicitly referred to by their authors as evaluative studies. The multi-stage process used to identify relevant research reflects the paucity of efforts, in the OC literature, assessing the implementation and impact of OC control strategies. The search for materials began with a search of several major electronic databases. The bibliographies of materials identified through this search were then scanned for additional documents that might contain some additional evidence. This process was repeated as bibliographies were once again examined to complete a third round in the search for relevant materials.

Several issues stand out as impediments to arriving at generalizations regarding the effectiveness of measures to control OC. A definitional morass exists, as both scholarly and legal definitions vary substantially in their scope. Some definitions emphasize the enterprise aspect of OC, while others relate to activities frequently attributed to criminal organizations. Another impediment to research and evaluation in this area is the fact that not one country routinely collects and publishes data on OC activity, however it is defined. Finally, a variety of measures have been used to gauge OC control efforts, hindering the ability to draw overall conclusions about the value of these efforts. Furthermore, many of these measures have serious shortcomings.

Notwithstanding these concerns, the evidence that does exist provides some clues as to the efficacy of the various approaches to controlling OC. Table 2 displays the 18 control measures or strategies that have been reviewed in this report. These measures range from regulation and legalization to tools available to prosecutors, law enforcement, and other public and private sector agencies.

The strategies are listed in the first column of the table. The second column contains an evaluation of the volume of evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, assessing the impact of each strategy or measure. The focus was on the volume rather than the quality of the evidence, as most of the evidence is descriptive in nature; hence there is little variation in the quality of studies. While the evaluation of the research is somewhat subjective, it is based on the evidence presented in the previous chapter. Furthermore, other scholars often provided their evaluations of the evidence in relation to the different control measures (refer to Chapter 4).

Three ratings of the evidence were adopted:

  1. A "nil" rating was provided when there was virtually no evidence, other than the anecdotal, provided in relation to a measure;
  2. A "limited" rating meant that just a small number of studies had been undertaken and the evidence was confined to just one country (usually the US);
  3. A "significant" rating meant that the studies were quite numerous and were found in several countries.

Table 2 - The Effectiveness of Organized Crime Control Strategies

The evidence was found to be significant in relation to just three measures—measures to combat money laundering, witness protection programs, and reducing the supply of illegal goods and services. A "limited" rating was provided in relation to the majority (12) of the measures. In the case of three measures—anonymous juries, witness immunity, and investigative grand juries—no evidence regarding their efficacy was uncovered, other than the anecdotal. Thus, it would seem that, according to the rating scheme employed herein, additional research is required in relation to 15 of 18 control strategies before more conclusive assertions can be made about their efficacy.

The third and fourth columns in the table indicate some of the most salient benefits and shortcomings of each OC control measure. The material contained in these columns is essentially a summary of the strengths and limitations of each measure as discussed in the previous chapter. These costs and benefits were considered in arriving at the overall effectiveness rating provided in the fifth column.

A number of ratings were provided of overall effectiveness:

  1. An "insufficient data" designation is given where no evidence was found regarding the effectiveness of a measure or where the evidence was not sufficiently conclusive to provide a rating;
  2. A "low" effectiveness rating is used where the shortcomings of an OC control strategy seem to considerably outweigh the benefits;
  3. A "low-moderate" rating is used where a measure has more strengths than those rated "low" but where the costs still outweigh the benefits;
  4. A "moderate" rating reflects a situation in which the strengths and limitations of a measure are fairly balanced;
  5. A "moderate-high" rating is used where the strengths of a measure are considerable and where they outweigh the costs substantially; or, where there is significant evidence of the effectiveness of a measure even where the shortcomings may be fairly significant;
  6. A "high" rating would be used where both the strengths outweigh the costs considerably and where the evidence of effectiveness is significant.

No rating was provided in relation to one-third (6) of the measures—anonymous juries, witness immunity, investigative grand juries, citizen's/ police commissions/community-based efforts, intelligence analysis, and legalization of illicit goods and services—due to a lack of or insufficient evidence.

A "low" effectiveness rating was provided in relation to four of the measures—prosecuting OC kingpins, measures to combat money laundering, seizure and forfeiture of assets, and reducing the supply of illegal goods and services. With regard to the first, prosecution of heads of criminal organizations, it was found that while the US, in particular, has "decapitated" many prominent groups (especially Cosa Nostra families), these groups have demonstrated considerable adaptability in maintaining their operations and there is little evidence that OC activities have been affected. As for the control of money laundering, there is strong evidence from a number of countries that, notwithstanding many recent convictions in the US, just a small fraction of large or suspicious currency transaction reports lead to investigations. Also, there are many impediments to cooperation at the international level. Asset seizure and forfeiture also received a "low" rating, as just a fraction of crime proceeds are confiscated, the processes to achieve forfeiture, as well as the management of assets, are costly, and there are concerns about abuses of due process. Finally, supply reduction strategies also received a "low" rating as there are many indications globally that this approach, even when pursued aggressively, fails to appreciably affect the supply of illicit drugs, is very costly, and that traffickers have recourse to countless methods and routes of smuggling and distribution that circumvent interdiction and enforcement efforts.

Undercover operations and the use of informants were collectively rated as "low to moderate" in terms of effectiveness. These operations have produced many convictions of high-echelon OC figures, have been critical in major proceeds of crime and money laundering cases, and at times have caused turmoil and demoralization within criminal organizations. However, these advantages may be outweighed by some significant problems, such as their cost, danger and damage to the lives of officers, unreliability of and abuses by informers, concerns about entrapment, and potential for harm to third parties.

Four OC control measures were rated as moderately effective-prosecutions of persons involved in OC, prosecutions through the use of taxation laws, OC strike forces and drug task forces, and electronic surveillance. With regard to the first, many individuals have been convicted for lengthy prison terms under the RICO legislation in the US and some crime families have been disabled as a result. This apparent success has been diminished by the frequent use of this legislation to prosecute those not involved in OC. Historically, taxation laws have been a valuable tool in the prosecution of OC figures; however, their utility is counterbalanced by the cost of financial investigations and privacy concerns. OC strike forces and drug task forces launched coordinated attacks on OC in the US, involving many federal and local agencies. The drug task forces, in particular, have brought many indictments and asset forfeitures. On the down side, the strike forces were eventually disbanded due to jurisdictional conflicts with US attorneys' offices. Electronic surveillance is considered by many investigators as indispensable in the investigation and prosecution of OC figures and has contributed to the conviction of some notorious individuals. These advantages are diminished by the costs of surveillance, privacy concerns, the mobility of OC members, and issues involved in the interpretation of material that has been intercepted.

While no OC control measure was rated as "highly effective", three were given an effectiveness rating of "moderate to high." These three measures were: injunctions, divestitures, and trusteeships; witness protection programs; and, increasing regulation and establishing public benefit corporations. The first of these is rarely discussed, perhaps because the measures fall outside the realm of criminal law. Court orders to dissolve organizations or to remove those with OC connections from their influential positions have been found to be highly successful in some instances, where organizations have been seriously tainted. No shortcomings of these remedies were mentioned in the limited literature on the topic. Nevertheless, a "high" rating was not accorded this approach as the evidence attesting to its utility was limited and somewhat partisan (i.e., much of it was furnished by a former prosecutor who found these tools useful). While such accounts may not serve as a rigorous evaluation, it was thought that the experiences of those utilizing various OC control measures should carry some weight.

Witness protection programs were also rated as "moderately to highly" effective. These programs are not without their critics, who voice their concerns about their costs, abuses by career criminals, difficulties in building new identities and in the relocation of witnesses. These programs nevertheless received this rating because of the considerable evidence, from more than one country, of their value in saving the lives of witnesses and in facilitating the prosecution of many key OC figures who otherwise might not be convicted due to witness intimidation.

Finally, enhancing regulation and the establishment of public benefit corporations have received some strong, if limited, endorsements. While caution must be exercised in avoiding excessive regulation, strong regulation in sectors prone to OC infiltration eliminates the loopholes that invite this penetration. The use of licensing powers has prevented tarnished companies and individuals from operating in areas in which OC's infiltration in legitimate businesses has been problematic. Public benefit corporations have also been successful in competing with OC-dominated cartels and have thereby lowered prices for consumers. Here again, the highest effectiveness rating was not provided because the available evidence was limited.

Some Final Remarks

It is evident from the previous section that much research is needed in assessing the impact of OC control strategies. Limited evidence exists in relation to most measures and the evidence that does exist is largely descriptive in nature. Also, most of this evidence has been generated in one country-the United States.

Very little evaluative work, that is available to the public, has been done in Canada despite the flurry of federal legislation in recent years. Canadian initiatives also include such measures as the targeting of the upper echelon of criminal organizations, civil asset forfeiture in Ontario, an agency dedicated to combating OC in British Columbia, and municipal bylaws prohibiting "biker bunkers". These measures were not described in length, because the review did not find any non-classified studies examining their impact on OC activities or groups. The above analysis also indicates that Canada may need to invest more in witness protection programs, as well as in remedies that use local regulatory powers and other tools that might divest tainted organizations and individuals of their interests in legitimate businesses, where this is considered to be a problem.

In addition, some scholars note that the largely punitive approach to preventing OC (e.g., prosecuting members and confiscating assets) is limited in its efficacy due to new realities, such as increasing global economic integration, that facilitate multinational crime (Hicks, 1998). Such realities require multilateral solutions that take into account the growing mobility of money and contraband across national borders, as well as attention to the elastic supply and demand structure of illicit goods and services.

Before further research is done, however, scholars need to address the definitional chaos prevailing in the field. Performance measures, too, must be carefully considered. Simple body-counts that tells us about the number of people convicted or amount of assets seized, as a result of some operation, are insufficient. Information is required about the economic and other costs involved in generating these results, the proportion of cases initiated that result in convictions, the proportion of criminal proceeds seized and confiscated, and the extent to which criminal organizations have been disrupted by enforcement efforts. With regard to the last-mentioned, there is considerable evidence that many OC groups are adaptable and resilient (see, for example, the discussion of headhunting and supply reduction strategies in Sections 4.2 and 4.16). Thus, evidence is required of long-term disruption of such groups. Even where this occurs, the possibility that other groups have filled the void needs to be investigated.

Ultimately, however, measures of the effectiveness of OC control efforts need to address the question of whether the harmful activities of OC groups have been mitigated. Mastrofski and Potter (1986:165) underscore this point about the questions that evaluations ought to address:

Most important, what was the impact of these arrests on the business of organized crime? Were the offenders' illicit operations curtailed? Were the organizations disrupted? Did any disruption produce a net reduction in illicit activity, or did another criminal group merely take over? Without this in-formation the arrest statistics have little merit.

For Mastrofski and Potter (1986:169), OC must be conceptualized as a process and business as opposed to a static, centralized structure. They argue that there has been excessive emphasis placed on incapacitating individuals and too little on describing the manner in which OC networks operate, launder their revenues, and reinvest their profits. More emphasis is needed on the manner in which criminal networks organize to meet public demand and on the way enforcement efforts influence their illicit activities. Research on these and other process-related issues is still in its infancy.