April 26, 2007

Scams Away

This story was published about two weeks ago, so apologies if you've already seen it on a million other blogs, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did some rooting around and discovered that the FBI's new focus on counterterrorism has forced it to cut back its resources devoted to white-collar crime. "We realized we were going to have to pull out of some areas," one official said. "Bank fraud, investment fraud, ID theft--cases that protect the financial infrastructure of the country."

Congress never bothered to pay to put new agents on the fraud and embezzlement beat, so prosecutions dipped and scams went up. Civil rights investigations into hate crimes and police abuse have also dipped. Since many of these crimes affect lower-income and elderly people, no one raises a fuss. Also, I assumed that the FBI would've found some way to keep prosecuting drug cases (because what's more important than that?), but no, according to a 2004 GAO report, they've lost drug agents too. In fact, 55 percent of all agents now work on counterterrorism or counterintelligence, with only 41 percent doing criminal investigations.

Anyway, I'm all for fewer drug investigations, but not so hot on letting fraud and embezzlement go unchecked. Not a terribly interesting opinion, I know. But it does bring up a question I've always had. Is white-collar crime more deterrable than other sorts of crimes? I mean, I've always assumed that instituting the death penalty for, say, Ken Lay-type behavior would have far more of a deterrence effect than death sentences for, say, murder. The idea here is that Lay is a rational actor who will respond to incentives, in a way that a drug addict on a shooting spree might not. Or something. But is that true? Not that I'm suggesting the death penalty. I'm just curious.
-- Brad Plumer 1:44 AM || ||