Calculating the Benefits and Drawbacks of Crime
Being the top crime undercover detectives in Mumbai I often get pulled into lengthy discourses on the psychology of criminals. Let me shed some light today on what motivates a criminal (who is a human being like you and me) to commit a crime that can be costly for him / her.
Over time, classical criminal theory evolved into its modern version called rational choice theory, which holds that criminals think about their actions, weighing the pros and cons (including the risks of punishment) and making decisions based on their calculations.
How A Criminal Analyses the Risks & Rewards
When you need to make an important decision like changing jobs or deciding which area to buy your new house, you may sit down and write out the pros and cons on a piece of paper. You attempt to reason through each option to make the best decision. But most criminals donít engage in this level of rational thought before committing crime, but rational choice theorists contend that even though a criminal may not write out the pros and cons of a decision to commit a crime, he does go through a rational decision-making process. That is, he engages in a risk/reward or cost/benefit analysis by asking himself, ďWhat are the risks and rewards of my actions?Ē
By saying that a decision to commit a crime is rational, rational choice theorists are not saying the decision is smart. In reality, rational decisions to commit crimes are likely based on faulty values and bad judgments, but they are, nonetheless, decisions made after weighing risks and rewards. For example, a person who steals a smartphone clearly undervalues the property rights of others, but his decision may still be rational because he believes committing the crime will end not in punishment but in the possession of a smart gadget.
What are some of the benefits that a person may get from committing a crime?
Of course, the answer depends on the type of crime, but here are a few possibilities:
✓ Money or property
✓ Thrills and excitement
✓ Status among peers
✓ Dominance over others
✓ A bond with other criminals
Think about a teenager from a lower middle class area in Mumbai who sees a super smart kid he knew in his area before he dropped out of school. The delinquent
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teenager decides to beat up the smart kid. At first glance, this choice seems irrational. What good can come from this action? Indeed, the dropout probably isnít consciously following a logical progression in his decision making; rather, his decision is partly subconscious.
But when you break it down, hereís what the dropout may be thinking right before he beats up the smart kid:
✓ I never liked that kid.
✓ He thought he was so smart.
✓ I felt dumb around him.
✓ Iím bigger and tougher than him.
✓ Now that weíre out of the classroom, I want him to know what I felt like.
✓ Iím going to kick his butt.
The reward for committing this crime of assault is primarily a feeling of superiority and dominance over the smart kid. Of course, in making a rational decision, the aggressive teen must also consider the costs or risks involved. For instance, if heís caught, he may be arrested for assault. But what if there were no costs? Imagine a society without criminal laws. Everyone would have to fend for himself, and the only law would be survival of the fittest. The dropoutís only fear would be that the smart kid may use his smart prowess to get even.
In modern society, however, the existence of criminal laws provides the most likely risk or cost to the teen aggressor So before he decides to beat up the smart kid, he probably looks around for a teacher or other adult who could turn him in. Seeing no one, he assesses the risk as minimal and proceeds with the beating. If he has a knowledge of the law, he may also know that because heís under 18, the justice system canít treat him as an adult, so not much can happen to him even if he is caught. In essence, the dropout gets to feel dominant over the smart kid without much risk of negative consequences ó at least in the short run.
Although the dropoutís rational thought process is partly subconscious, rational choice theorists believe that a lot of crime involves the actual conscious weighing of risks and rewards.
Choosing the type and place of crime
Part of choosing to engage in crime is rationally choosing the type of crime to commit. For example, wanting to assert dominance over the smart kid, the dropout from the previous example doesnít just randomly start committing crime against anyone. He doesnít choose to burglarize the smart kidís house or steal his skateboard. Instead, he consciously chooses to commit assault.
Deciding where and when to commit a crime requires a lot of thought, too ó perhaps more thought than deciding whether to commit the crime in the first place. After all, if youíre going to commit a crime, you want to be successful. So burglars choose vulnerable homes or stores. Street-level thugs and drug dealers pick locations where customers are readily available and police are visible from a distance (so they can run before the cops get to them). Car thieves choose cars that are easy to take and can be sold (either whole or in parts) for the highest profit.
Choosing the time and place of a crime may be based on improving the reward of the crime or reducing the risk of being caught. For example, a robber usually chooses a location near his own home because he knows all the escape routes and, therefore, can reduce his risk of being caught. At the same time, however, the robber also wants the crime to be fairly easy to commit. Itís a well-known secret that most criminals are extremely lazy and unwilling to make extra efforts, even when those efforts may mean increased rewards.
Factoring in Personality and Skills
Obviously, the personal characteristics of a criminal are tremendously important in influencing the decision to commit crime. For example, the ability to delay gratification often divides criminals from law-abiding citizens. Two people may equally desire an LCD television. One may choose to work for six months and save money to buy the TV. The other person, who canít stand to delay gratification so long, may decide to run the risk of being caught and steal the TV now.
Some people not only have personality traits that influence their criminal decisions but also develop skills that make criminal choices easier. For example, a significant problem with putting a bunch of criminals in prison is that they learn new criminal skills from each other, which they can use when they are released. A serial car thief may spend two years in prison, sharing a cell with a drug trafficker. During those two years, the car thief may learn how to conceal drugs in vehicles. When heís released, the car thief may decide to start trafficking heroin and cocaine.
Meeting the offenderís needs
Basically, the benefit the criminal hopes to receive from a particular crime determines which type of crime he chooses to commit and how he decides to commit it. People who want goods or money generally commit property crime. For instance, if I simply want an Ipad or a Blackberry, I can steal it from my friendís backpack. But if I want an Ipad and I want to show my friends that Iím fearless, I may go into an electronics store, grab one, and run out.
In contrast, people who want to feel dominance over others are more likely to commit violent crimes. Someone who wants status in a street gang may look for an opportunity to use his gun against a rival gang, for example. Generally, people who commit property crime donít cross over and commit violent crime because the punishment for violent crime is usually much higher. So property criminals, making rational calculations, choose to commit offenses that are less likely to cost them significant prison sentences. For example, a property criminal can choose to commit armed robbery (theft by force) of a jewelry store, or he can choose to break into the store at night and commit burglary. Because robbery is considered a violent crime with a much greater punishment, the property offender is likely to opt for burglary. Robbers, on the other hand, often want more than just property ó they want the thrill, excitement, and danger of sticking a gun in someoneís face.
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Amit Sen, a commercial pilot by training, has over 15 years experience in the space of corporate investigations, handling Copyright & Trademark infringement cases, Pre – employment verification Industrial Espionage investigations, Asset & Net – Worth assessment assignments and vendor / supplier verification cases, among others. Co-founder of Alliance One Detectives – which is the best crime investigation agency in Mumbai, Amit has also successfully completed corporate investigation assignments in a wide range of sectors, including the machine tools industry, pharmaceutical industry, hospitality sector, specialized equipment (Oil & natural gas sector, aviation industry etc.), telecom industry & the IT & ITes sectors. These cases have all involved both offline and online investigations.
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