What will thugs do when a thug life doesn't pay?

image credit: West Midlands Police

I had dinner a few weeks ago with crime policy expert Mark Kleiman, who pointed out something I hadn’t realized: stealing cars is getting a lot harder.

Later model cars have electronic security systems designed to thwart thieves, and although they’re not impossible to bypass, doing so is difficult and expensive. This is one reason that the lists of most-frequently-stolen cars are topped mostly by elderly mass-market cars, rather than the newly minted luxury models you’d think would be the most valuable.

Other forms of crime are also getting less lucrative. “Small-time marijuana dealer” is no longer a viable career option in several states. Robbery is also getting tougher. As credit card transactions have come to dominate cash, the potential return from mugging someone, or knocking over a gas station, has fallen dramatically.

Even burglars are facing some challenges: Expensive televisions are now too big to carry unless you bring a dolly and a truck, home theater systems are often wired into the wall, and at least in my circles, women don’t wear as much fancy jewelry or mink as they used to. For a while, small electronics made up the cash gap for burglars, muggers, and purse snatchers, but cell phone manufacturers are putting in “kill switches” starting in 2015, which will torpedo that market.

Obviously, the bright e-future is not going to make crime impossible. Some late-model cars do still get stolen. And of course, the Internet has created new ways to commit crimes like credit card theft.

The teenagers who used to boost cars, however, won't simply segue into new forms of crime. Hacking a credit card network is a different skillset from hot-wiring a car; the person who does one can't necessarily transition easily to the other. The low-skilled young men who choose crime as an alternative to low-wage work may simply find themselves with fewer viable ways to make money through criminal activity. So what happens to them?

No, I am not about to argue that we need some sort of social program for poor displaced criminals who are no longer able to practice their beautiful ancient craft. I’ll be very happy if a lot of major forms of crime are thwarted. Yet I’m also interested in the empirical effects that this will have.

The most obvious one is an improvement in the quality of life in high-crime areas. There is something especially corrosive about violent crime, the fear that you cannot be safe on your streets, or in your home or place of business. Dramatically reducing that sort of crime would be a huge boon to its targets, and the communities they live in. As I say, I’m all for it.

I still wonder, though: Are the criminals better or worse off?

I can tell the story either way. Crime doesn’t pay very well, but for teenagers who don’t see much in the way of life prospects, it may seem more enticing (and attractive to the opposite sex) than popping chicken tenders into the deep fry at Popeyes, even if the earnings are the same. Over the long run, of course, working steadily at a low-skilled job probably offers a better payoff than stealing cars until you get sent to jail. But since when have teenagers been good at considering the long run?

Reducing the monetary rewards of crime might force more teenagers to focus on jobs that deliver a steady, legal paycheck. That ultimately means fewer people struggling to find steady employment while dragging a felony conviction behind them.

Of course, that assumes that those at-risk teenagers will choose the fast-food job. They might just turn to another form of crime -- flooding into the drug market, say, which would drive the already-low returns to drug dealing even lower and eventually strand them with a felony conviction anyway. Or they might be unable to get and keep a minimum wage job. Sure, they won’t have a felony conviction, but they also won’t have any cash.

Both stories seem plausible. Unfortunately, the only way to tell which one is true is to observe what happens if crime continues to become less lucrative for low-skilled men. I’m hoping that this happens for all sorts of reasons. But I’m also hoping we can study the results.

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