Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Future-Oriented Gang Members? Gang Finances and the Theory of Present-Oriented Criminals

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Future-Oriented Gang Members? Gang Finances and the Theory of Present-Oriented Criminals

Article excerpt



NUMEROUS ARTICLES APPEARING OVER THE LAST DECADE (including, among others, Hay 2001; Wright et al. 2001; Paternoster and Brame 1998; Dean, Brame, and Piquero 1996; Nagin and Paternoster 1994) have discussed and evaluated the theories of individual "criminal propensity" formulated by Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) and Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990). These theories attempt to understand criminal behavior within a rational choice framework. One prominent element common to both theories is an emphasis on criminals' "present orientation," or lack of "self-control." As summarized by Nagin and Paternoster (1994: 584), "individuals who commit crimes place little weight on the future consequences of their actions." The supposed present orientation of criminals helps explain why individuals might commit crimes even if the pecuniary rewards from crime are low (Wilson and Abrahamse 1992). As long as the gains from crime are immediate while the costs of crime are delayed, present-oriented individuals will commit crimes that are not obviously lucrative.

Present orientation finds some support as a theory of crime. A theory of stable individual differences, such as present orientation, helps resolve some puzzles regarding criminal activity, such as the prevalence of repeat offenders (Nagin and Paternoster 1994; Dean, Brame, and Piquero 1996) and the frequently low financial returns to crime. (1)

The association between criminality and present orientation also finds some empirical backing. In Nagin and Patemoster (1994), for example, a student questionnaire revealed that present orientation (as defined by several questions) is highly associated with the likelihood of committing a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Dean, Brame, and Piquero (1996) note that several findings from a statistical analysis of a cohort of North Carolina offenders support the theory that stable individual differences such as present orientation are an important cause of crime. Paternoster and Brame (1998) utilize several survey variables from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development to define "self-control" in eight- to nine-year-olds. They observe that children with low self-control disproportionately turn to crime and other present-oriented behaviors, such as smoking and drinking. This finding supports the notion that stable individual differences, such as present orientation, cause crime, rather than more specific and idiosyncratic factors.

Not all empirical research supports the theory of present-oriented criminals. All the studies cited in the paragraph above, for example, report some findings that are inconsistent with the theory. (On balance, however, these studies clearly do support the theory.) Tremblay and Morselli (2000) question the notion that crime does not pay. Using the data set employed by Wilson and Abrahamse (1992) to suggest that criminal earnings are low, they find, by contrast, that for some individuals crime is quite lucrative. While this finding does not directly contradict the self-control theory, it does suggest that crime can be consistent with rational, nonpresent-oriented criminals.

This research note questions the validity of the notion of present-oriented criminals. It discusses a unique data set described and analyzed by Levitt and Venkatesh (2000) that details the economics of a drug-selling criminal gang. Broadening and reinterpreting some of Levitt and Venkatesh's findings and data, this note posits that the economics of the gang under study is starkly dissonant with the notion of present-oriented criminals. In brief, the gang's compensation structure is highly skewed, requiring gang members to "rise through the ranks" before earning high wages. As described below, this wage structure is exceedingly unlikely where individuals are present oriented. While gang members are not necessarily representative of all street criminals, these results suggest that the broader theory of stable individual differences should be treated with greater skepticism. …

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