Many democracies are threatened by increasingly effective organized crime; in developing countries it is sometimes difficult to discriminate between politicians and criminals. Our sense of justice is violated when the judicial system over-emphasizes the rights of criminals at the expense of law-abiding citizens. In Finland around 85 % of the serious assault and murder cases are solved.
The several manifestations of organized crime reveal the vulnerability of
large democratic societies to vindictive gangs who have the insolence to impose
their own perverted morality on the hapless victims of intimidation and
extortion. In a residential area, rife with robbery and burglary, it seems
natural to organize a self-defence force if the police are either unable or
unwilling to maintain order. Anyone who refuses to join or pay his way may be
subject to reprisals, and so the groups of vigilantes gradually fall into the
protection and blackmail racket. Demonstrations of brutality persuade unwilling
clients of the foolishness of suspending payments, and rival organizations watch
jealously over their territories. Thus commendable civic initiatives can
degenerate into cancerous exploitation; the Sicilian mafia was originally a
popular resistance movement against oppressive Spanish overlords.
Nevertheless, organized crime is a real threat against society in many countries. The southern parts of Italy are still economically depressed due to the paralyzing presence of the mafia, the camorra and the ‘ndrangheta. In Russia, the criminal gangs became a plague after the fall of communism but their influence has gradually diminished. Japan is famous for its law-abidance but the local yakuza leagues are said to count about 100,000 members, even if they do avoid provoking the police. And in the United States the Federal Bureau of Investigation has for decades been fighting organized crime in the major cities.
Many democracies are threatened by increasingly effective organized crime; in developing countries it is sometimes difficult to discriminate between politicians and criminals. New born democracies, too, may be vulnerable. In Mexico the rule of law is still very weak, despite reforms, and most violent crimes remain unsolved. International drug trafficking and terrorist organizations globalize criminality and call for an appropriate response. A further intensification of police cooperation at the European Union level and through Interpol is needed.
Successful criminal organizations have a strong internal morale, often based on ethnicity and long traditions. They are hard to penetrate; there are few witnesses and those at hand tend to disappear before the trial. Supported by high-class lawyers, the leaders could usually escape a conviction. In 1970, the U.S. congress passed the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) which was directly aimed at the mafia. Leadership is criminalized and carries heavy penalties. Money laundering by legal activities is included in the crime classification and triple damages can be imposed.
The respect for the rules of the game must be maintained to preserve the
plus-sum game. Punishment has primarily a preventive purpose; crime must not be
profitable. Recurrent relapses indicate that the disincentives are insufficient.
Alternatively, the culprit is not capable of controlling his impulses and should
anyhow be excluded from free intercourse with other people. The old argument
that hunger and distress drives the indigent onto the path of crime does not
hold up today.
The persistence of criminality in our welfare societies has been a disappointment for the spokesmen of socialism. Independent of the political system, the law-breakers seem to form a permanent underclass and constitute a major challenge for scientists, as well as for well-wishers of all categories. The lack of insight is reflected in the dearth of dependable methods for rehabilitation. Prison sentences could, at best, act as a kind of conditioning therapy, but more often it is the first step on the path to professional crime.
Social pressure is much more effective than any judiciary in maintaining a reasonable level of security and holding the cynics in check. This requires a strong sense of community, something which has come under severe strain as a result of extensive urbanization and the accompanying atomization of communal bonds.
The abuse of the defendant’s right to a fair trial is widely resented and is draining the respect for the law. At home we learned that any misdeed should be promptly confessed whereas in court bare-faced lying pays off handsomely. For the common man, justice is all about perfidy punished and honesty rewarded. When the administration of law is perceived as arbitrary or grossly unfair, a breach of the explicit rules becomes quite acceptable while the exploitation of legal loopholes is denounced as fraud.
A functional and impartial judiciary is indispensable for any sustainable societal plus-sum game. It is easy to criticize discrete failings and to underestimate the value of ethical norms which for generations have maintained satisfactory law and order in the democratic countries. But the citizens are after all customers. In the long term, their views cannot go unheeded. Spotless procedures do not exclude unjust sentences, while judicial perfectionism may prevent tackling nascent terrorism and organized or habitual crime; the means must not trump the aims in absurdum. As Adam Smith says “mercy for the guilty is cruelty to the innocent”. In summary, the best can be the enemy of the good.