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Opportunity, a root cause of crime

Thursday, March 3, 2016
Marcus Felson is considered one of the world’s leading experts in the field of crime analysis.

Kevin Baldeosingh 

Nearly everyone in T&T who is concerned about crime will disagree with Felson’s and Eckert’s crime analyses. This includes both the armchair theorists like media commentators and the professionals, like police commissioners and Ministry of National Security consultants, even though Felson, 68, is considered one of the world’s leading experts in this field.

“Crime seems to march to its own drummer, largely ignoring social injustice, inequality, government social policy, welfare systems, poverty, unemployment, and the like,” Felson and Eckert write. This list alone dismissed 99 per cent of the hobby horses of T&T commentators. 

The authors also mash the favourite crime corn of the average Trinidadian or Tobagonian: “Moral attitudes do not simply produce moral behaviour...Many parents and leaders think you can teach children what’s right, then they will simply do it...if the school has kids pray and promise to be good, they will keep that promise. Very wishful thinking.” 

So what do they offer as a crime prevention approach? “Opportunity is a root cause of crime,” they say. This is Felson’s key contribution to crime analysis (which is different from criminology). 

He holds that nearly everyone is a potential or actual criminal, and opportunity determines how people act in that context. 

“This book emphasises modus operandi—who, what, when, where, and how each specific type of crime occurs,” he and Eckert write. 

“We always ask, ‘What can be done HERE and NOW to prevent crime from happening?’ The answer requires learning how the offender thinks and what the offender wants. Even violent offenders respond to practical changes in the settings where violent acts occur.” 

In order to avoid muddled thinking on crime, Felson and Eckert warn against eight fundamental fallacies: (1) Dramatic fallacy; (2) Cops-and-court fallacy; (3) Not-me fallacy; (4) Innocent-youth fallacy; (5) Ingenuity fallacy; (6) Organised crime fallacy; (7) Big gang fallacy; (8) Agenda fallacy. 

The Not-Me fallacy is the one which denies that we are all capable of criminal acts and views criminals as separate from mainstream society. The Agenda Fallacy is the one in which people assume that their particular ideology, whether religion or socialism or feminism, holds the key to reducing crime. The Big Gang Fallacy, which we experienced in T&T a few weeks ago, “greatly exaggerates the span and role of juvenile gangs.” And the Cops-and-Courts fallacy “warns us against overrating the power of criminal justice agencies, including police, prosecutors, and courts.” 

This last point is especially interesting, since Felson and Eckert make it seem as though the police in the United States are really not very different from police officers here. Indeed, the system itself seems much more similar to T&T’s than popular perception says. “The US criminal justice system does everything wrong—it punishes bad rather than rewarding good, it penalises people rarely and sporadically, it delivers its decisions and penalties after long delays,” they write. 

But not everything they write will be applicable to T&T. Still, it is hard to see how the authorities can formulate any effective crime prevention programme without reference to Felson. And this book will help ordinary citizens see through crime programmes which have more to do with politics than policing.


Crime and Everyday Life 

Marcus K Felson and Mary A Eckert 

Sage Publications, 2016.

ISBN 978-1-4833-8468-9; 185 pages. 


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