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Posts Tagged ‘Crime’

How big is the underground sex economy in the United States and how does it work? The Urban Institute is out with a big study today that offers some answers. Here’s a brief summary of the full study (see also the accompanying feature).

Our study focused on eight US cities— Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC. Across cities, the 2007 underground sex economy’s worth was estimated between $39.9 and $290 million. While almost all types of commercial sex venues—massage parlors, brothels, escort services, and street- and internet-based prostitution—existed in each city, regional and demographic differences influenced their markets.

Pimps and traffickers interviewed for the study took home between $5,000 and $32,833 a week. These actors form a notoriously difficult population to reach because of the criminal nature of their work. Our study presents data from interviews with 73 individuals charged and convicted for crimes including compelling prostitution, human trafficking and engaging in a business relationship with sex workers.

Pimps claimed inaccuracy in media portrayals. Most pimps believed that the media portrayals exaggerated violence. Some even saw the term “pimp” as derogatory, despite admitting to occasional use of physical abuse for punishment. Although pimps may have underreported the use of physical violence, they did cite frequent use of psychological coercion to maintain control over their employees.

Pimps manipulate women into sex work. From discouraging “having sex for free” to feigning romantic interest, pimps used a variety of tactics to recruit and retain employees. Some even credited their entry into pimping with a natural capacity for manipulation. Rarely, however, were pimps the sole influence for an individual’s entry into the sex trade.

Women, family, and friends facilitate entry into sex work. Female sex workers sometimes solicited protection from friends and acquaintances, eventually asking them to act as pimps. Some pimps and sex workers had family members or friends who exposed them to the sex trade at a young age, normalizing their decision to participate. Their involvement in the underground commercial sex economy, then extends the network of those co-engaged in the market even further.

Unexpected parties benefit from the commercial sex economy.  Pimps, brothels, and escort services often employed drivers, secretaries, nannies, and other non-sex workers to keep operations running smoothly. Hotel managers and law enforcement agents sometimes helped offenders evade prosecution in exchange for money or services. Law enforcement in one city reported that erotic Asian massage parlors would purchase the names of licensed acupuncturists to fake legitimacy. Even feuding gang members occasionally joined forces in the sex trade, prioritizing profit over turf wars. The most valuable network in the underground sex economy, however, may be the Internet.

The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade. Prostitution is decreasing on the street, but thriving online. Pimps and sex workers advertise on social media and sites like Craigslist.com and Backpage.com to attract customers and new employees, and to gauge business opportunities in other cities. An increasing online presence makes it both easier for law enforcement to track activity in the underground sex economy and for an offender to promote and provide access to the trade.

Child pornography is escalating. Explicit content of younger victims is becoming increasingly available and graphic. Online child pornography communities frequently trade content for free and reinforce behavior. Offenders often consider their participation a “victimless crime.”

The underground sex economy is perceived as low risk. Pimps, traffickers, and child pornography offenders believed that their crimes were low-risk despite some fears of prosecution. Those who got caught for child pornography generally had low technological know-how, and multiple pimp offenders expressed that “no one actually gets locked up for pimping,” despite their own incarcerations.

Policy and practice changes can help combat trafficking and prostitution.

  • Cross-train drug, sex, and weapons trade investigators to better understand circuits and overlaps.

  • Continue using federal and local partnerships to disrupt travel circuits and identify pimps.

  • Offer law enforcement trainings for both victim and offender interview techniques, including identifying signs of psychological manipulation.

  • Increase awareness among school officials and the general public about the realities of sex trafficking to deter victimization and entry.

  • Consistently enforce the laws for offenders to diminish low-risk perception.

  • Impose more fines for ad host websites.

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You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. But it has a dark underside: managing the measurement rather than actual outcomes.

Over at the New York Times, Al Baker and Joseph Goldstein recount a troubling example. To keep reported crime rates low, New York’s Finest may be under reporting the crimes that actually occur:

Crime victims in New York sometimes struggle to persuade the police to write down what happened on an official report. The reasons are varied. Police officers are often busy, and few relish paperwork. But in interviews, more than half a dozen police officers, detectives and commanders also cited departmental pressure to keep crime statistics low.

While it is difficult to say how often crime complaints are not officially recorded, the Police Department is conscious of the potential problem, trying to ferret out unreported crimes through audits of emergency calls and of any resulting paperwork.

As concerns grew about the integrity of the data, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, appointed a panel of former federal prosecutors in January to study the crime-reporting system. The move was unusual for Mr. Kelly, who is normally reluctant to invite outside scrutiny.

The panel, which has not yet released its findings, was expected to focus on the downgrading of crimes, in which officers improperly classify felonies as misdemeanors.

But of nearly as much concern to people in law enforcement are crimes that officers simply failed to record, which one high-ranking police commander in Manhattan suggested was “the newest evolution in this numbers game.”

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David Eagleman thinks that advances in neuroscience should transform our criminal justice system. Writing in The Atlantic, Eagleman emphasizes how genetic and environmental factors influence cognitive function:

We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.

Because we did not choose the factors that affected the formation and structure of our brain, the concepts of free will and personal responsibility begin to sprout question marks. Is it meaningful to say that Alex made bad choices, even though his brain tumor was not his fault? Is it justifiable to say that the patients with frontotemporal dementia or Parkinson’s should be punished for their bad behavior?

It is problematic to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone breaking the law and conclude, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that”—because if you weren’t exposed to in utero cocaine, lead poisoning, and physical abuse, and he was, then you and he are not directly comparable. You cannot walk a mile in his shoes.

The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic.

The “practical reasoner” assumption is, of course, fundamental to much of economics as well. Used thoughtfully, it’s extremely useful for examining how reflective, ends-oriented agents behave. But it’s problematic, to say the least, if we assume that everyone is always a rational actor.

Eagleman argues that the criminal justice system should be sensitive to the cognitive differences among people. Some people murder as the result of calculated, rational decisions, but others murder because brain tumors destroy their ability to control themselves. Those differences matter when thinking about deterrence, treatment, and punishment.

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