The most obvious distinction between organized crime and other forms of criminal conduct is that it is "organized." In general terms, it does not include random, unplanned, individual criminal acts. Instead, it focuses exclusively on planned, rational acts that reflect the effort of groups of individuals. Several efforts have been made to elicit common elements to describe and define organized crime with greater specificity.
A list of all the crimes committed by organized criminal groups would be outdated quickly as social, political and technological changes result in changing opportunities for crime in different locations. Therefore, the unit of analysis in most definitions is not the offence but the offender: an organized criminal group. A better understanding of the nature of these groups will help in developing more effective responses to them. A broad typology of organized crimes is offered in Modules 3 and 4.
There are many definitions of organized crime. Analysis reveals that several characteristics of organized crime are common among these definitions (Albanese, 2016; Finckenauer, 2005; Hagan, 1983; Maltz, 1985). These characteristics include the purpose of organized crime to financially profit through crime. Organized crime mainly responds to public demand for services. Corruption is an enabler that protects organized crime operations. Sometimes intimidation, threats and/or force are also needed to protect those operations. These elements comprise organized crime as a continuing criminal enterprise.
For the purposes of these Modules, a general definition of organized crime could read as follows:
Definition of organized crime for the purpose of these Modules
Organized crime is a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities that are often in great public demand. Its continuing existence is maintained through corruption of public officials and the use of intimidation, threats or force to protect its operations.
A general definition has limitations, however, because organized crime activity varies across countries, regions, crime-types, and nature of its organization. Therefore, it is important to know the general elements of organized crime, but greater knowledge is needed to understand how it manifests in different locations and criminal contexts.