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Does Crime Pay?

Is setting up in a life of crime economically viable?


Leaving aside such moral concepts such as the fact that crime is wrong and that the victims of crime suffer, there is a financial way of considering crime as a business and asking the question: Does Crime Pay?

In a basic childish sense, at first it seems as if crime must pay. After all, you're not having to work for the money, and instead you're stealing it off someone who already has the money. So, it looks like crime does pay and it's an easy way to make money. However, it's not quite as simple as that and there are things to consider. These are things which criminals often don't consider, and that's why they end up doing so badly.

Is crime an easy way to Get Rich? There is a popular myth that criminals are rich. In movies it's typical to see big-time crooks as immensely wealthy and living a life of luxury, well at least until they are shot dead as part of the plot scriptwriting.

The thing is that in the practical reality, criminals are generally not rich. Even those criminals who are not in jail are surprisingly impoverished. There is a good reason for this, which I'll explain later in the page. So, you'll just have to be patient and read the rest of it first.

Looking at crime in a sporting sense as if it's like going to the bookies and putting a wager on a horse or a football match, or even on the roulette wheel, the question is whether you're getting good odds. Risk versus reward. Supposing there's a million in cash, and you think you can steal it and get away, and there's only a 20% chance of getting caught, and the punishment is likely to be few hours community service and a fine of say ten thousand and telling-off by the judge, then the profitability can be worked out as follows:

(1,000,000 * 80/100) - (10,000 * 20/100)

ie, it's the potential gain multiplied by the chance of success, minus the penalty of being caught multiplied by the chance of being caught. In this case...

800,000 - 2,000 = 798,000 profit.

in which case crime pays, or at least it does in this theoretical example.

Except in reality most potential crimes aren't like that. For example, I know someone took a knife and threatened a shopkeeper and made off with the cash that was in the cash register. There was 300 in the cash register, and the robber probably had a 40% chance of getting away. On being caught, though, the penalty was a couple of years in jail.

So, this crime can be worked out by a similar calculation...

(300 * 40/100) - (2 * 10,000 * 60/100)

120 - 12,000 = -11,880 (a loss of 11,880).

This is calculated approximately, assuming that going to jail represents a loss of income stacking shelves in a local supermarket at a wage of 10,000 per year.

Notice how in these crime profitability calculations the potential gain has to be multiplied by the probability of getting away with it, and the potential loss has to be calculated in financial terms and multiplied by chance of getting caught.

There was a case in 2011 where two bank robbers smashed their way into three banks, small local branches of well-known highstreet banks, and they timed it just when the security guards were moving boxes of cash about. They stole half a million pounds, which was a surprisingly large amount because banks don't actually have that much cash around generally, unlike in the movies. The two robbers got away with it and escaped to Spain where they were living-it-up quite well. What they didn't realise is that the chance of being caught was starting to stack up as their presence was noticeable in Spain, and meanwhile in the UK the police were taking it seriously and piecing together bits of evidence in a proper detective work manner. As Spain and the UK are part of Europe, the countries communicated and the thieves were caught and extradited to the UK, where they were tried and put in jail for 11 years and 8 years.

Now let's suppose the chance of being apprehended was 50:50, and the money stolen was the amount stated. As there were two robbers they'd either have to share the money between them or we'd have to add the jail sentences together to compare like-for-like.

So we get a profit figure of...

(500,000 * 50/100)/2 - (J * (11+8)/2)

...where J is the theoretical equivalent value of the jail sentence as a per-year pay equivalent.

This comes to a pro-rata figure of 250,000 divided by 19 = 13,158 pounds per year. Or to put it another way, the criminals were paid thirteen thousand pounds per year on a probability basis for the crime. So in that instance, the crime just about paid. How about that, in that case crime pays!? Most crimes don't pay.

There was a thief who robbed a fuel station in Panama and was running away with a few hundred dollars, but was then shot dead. From the thief's perspective, their own life was probably worth more than a few hundred dollars divided by the reciprocal probability of being shot dead, so the crime did not pay. Crime in the UK seems much easier because the crooks have it too easy knowing the victims have no gun, and the chance of being shot dead is negligible. Also, although UK law is very tough on honest people who make mistakes, it's very lenient on criminals. However, the chance of being caught is quite high.

This, the chance of capture and conviction, is much higher than most criminals consider. Although it is sometimes possible to get away with a crime once, the probability of being caught is real. This is something they might choose to ignore, as it's not so easy to see as the real probability present in Russian Roulette where there's a bullet and a gun and a calculable one in six chance of a mishap. Repeat offenders find out the hard way, as the probability stacks up.

Anyway, let's sum this up:

For a crime to pay and to be worth committing, the amount of money to be stolen has to be sufficiently high that when the probability of success is factored in, it exceeds the cost of the punishment (from the criminal's perspective) when the probability of being caught is factored in.

So, if you're considering a life of crime, this is something which you should calculate as a matter of planning; working out if the crime pays.

However, this type of intelligent thinking-ahead is something alien to the criminal mentality.

Criminals are poor financially because the philosophy of crime is a shortcut philosophy at every level, and that of-itself ends up with multiple problems in life. It's like a building that's been built shoddily. It might look good and it might not fall down today, but sooner or later catastrophe will occur. With the criminal mindset this is not a matter of "if", but "when". So, bearing in mind that criminals will always come unstuck sooner or later, it's far better to set up an honest business. The prospects of success are much better.


It's in the interests of society for crime not to pay. Although the government might actually like there to be plenty of crime so it gives them an excuse to impose autocratic laws on everyone and it sort-of justifies all that zero-tolerance nonsense and having systems set up to allow crime to flourish and allow people to be punished, society is not the government, and society would like to remove crime from society. Crime should not pay.

In the idea of making it so crime does not pay, it needs to be set up that the punishments are severe enough to outweigh the profits of crime even when the probabilities of evasion or capture are factored in.

As well as having severe enough punishments for actual crimes where there are victims, the probability of criminals being punished is greatly improved if law is on the side of the honest people rather than something the honest people have to fear. To that effect, prohibition should be abolished. Let honest people do what they want so long as it doesn't harm others. Crime Fighting is about cracking crime, not cracking down on people for doing what they want.