11 posts from April 2009

April 02, 2009

Differential Opportunity for Criminal Behavior

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Jocelyn Addison, Nia McBrayer, and Jenniffer Watson are three college-aged women who needed some money. They could get a job, but that would probably cramp their style—with work hours and all. They could have asked their parents or family, but maybe they felt shy or had done that a lot before. So, instead, they decided to rob a Dollar Store in Bedford, Ohio. (Now that raises red flags right there. Is a Dollar Store the best place to find a lot of money? Why not go rob the Two-Dollar Store and double your take?).

They walked in with masks and a BB gun (in case the store was defended by a small bird?) and demanded money. The manager claimed that she couldn’t open the safe, (got to watch those crafty Dollar Store employees), and so the three young ladies left empty-handed. The manager called the police, who apprehended them about a mile away from the store, and each woman was charged with robbery.

Now, it might sound like these three novice criminals didn’t know what they were doing, but, to the contrary, when the police searched their car, they found a printed document, downloaded from the web, entitled: “How to Commit Armed Robbery in Six Easy Steps.” This document, downloaded 12 hours before the crime (so that they had enough time to learn the subtleties of robbery), spelled out exactly what a prospective robber should do, and they had followed some of its advice.

clip_image001The funny thing is that this guide was written as a joke. For example, the first step advises the reader to get appropriate gear, such as a mask or sunglasses. A ski mask “gives you a badass look as well as conceal your appearance.” The website promises good things with the mask, for wearing one will reduce “your chances of being caught… by .001%.” Next you need a big bag for carrying all the loot that you’ll get. The website recommends one with a dollar sign printed on its side, like in cartoons. After that, the website offers valuable guidance on picking partners, planning the robbery, executing it, and getting away.

What’s the point of this true-but-funny story? It illustrates that not everyone has the same access to crime—a line of thinking developed by sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin. As the story about the Dollar Store robbers suggests, some people, don’t have the knowledge needed to pull of crimes successfully. They don’t have family members or friends to teach them how to do it, and some crimes require special knowledge. Okay, robbing a Dollar Store might be pretty straightforward, but what about opening a safe or embezzling someone or creating counterfeit money? Some crimes take a certain amount of expertise, and many people do not have that expertise.


Other people do not have the opportunities to commit certain crimes. Some crimes need a person to have access to specific people and situations. Do you want to defraud stockholders? Well, you should probably have a job in a stock-trading company. Want to commit white-collar crime? It helps to have a white-collar job.

This differential access to crime compliments an idea that most of us are familiar with, and has been studied a lot in sociology--differential access to conventional gain, such as schooling and employment. Not everyone can pay for college or knows how to get into good colleges. Not everyone has the connections or experience needed to land a good job. In a way this makes the world unfair, for those who have can get more.

This discussion makes one wonder about the role of the internet. I don’t know if you’ve tried lately, but you can find information about just about anything online. I once challenged a colleague to come up with some human activity that wasn’t represented on-line, and he guessed “elbow fetish.” Well, it turns out that there are plenty of people who live in appreciation of the well-turned elbow. Go figure.

There is plenty of information on-line on the techniques of criminal behavior. For proprietary sake, I won’t list the sites here, but they are out there. So it’s possible that the advent of the web might give more people more ability to commit crimes more effectively. I just suppose that you have to be careful about which advice you follow.

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