Asset-focussed interventions (AFIs) refer to a variety of measures that target the assets and/or financial resources gained from organised criminal activity and which may be intended for use in future crimes. AFIs seek to reduce the financial resources available to individuals involved in organised crime thereby reducing organised crime itself. AFIs include cash seizure, detention and forfeiture; asset confiscation; civil recovery of assets; recovering unpaid tax on criminal earnings that will not have been previously declared for tax purposes; and seizure and removal of property, including vehicles.
This narrative focuses on one review that conducted a realist synthesis of 105 studies that reported on the reduction of organised crime associated with the use of AFIs. A realist synthesis follows a systematic approach to identifying relevant research and focusses on identifying the causal mechanisms through which an intervention (here AFIs) is expected to work, and under which conditions. A meta-analysis was not conducted as no studies were identified which used quantitative methods to assess the effectiveness of AFIs on organised crime.
The majority of the literature included in the realist synthesis focussed on specific European countries or Europe in general (68 studies, 35 of which focussed on the UK/England and Wales specifically). A further 25 studies focussed on non-European countries or a mixture of European and non-European countries including Australia, the US, South Africa, Hong Kong and Canada. The remaining studies were international in focus or general commentaries.
The review did not find any studies which used quantitative methods to assess the effectiveness of AFIs on organised crime. As a result, the effectiveness of AFIs in reducing organised crime remains unclear.
The studies included in the review were found generally to either assume (or propose) crime reduction outcomes following the implementation of AFIs or alternatively presented intermediate outcome measures. An example of the latter is economic research, discussed below, which calculated the amount recovered following the use of AFIs versus implementation costs. These kinds of measures are calculations of how efficiently the system is working rather than any real-world crime reductive effects associated with AFIs.
The evidence is taken from a systematic review covering 104 studies which demonstrated a high quality design in terms of the search strategy. However, as the review did not find any studies eligible for meta-analysis and statistical analysis from individual studies is not reported, many of the other quality criteria used within the EMMIE framework do not apply.
AFIs are presumed to reduce crime by:
The above assumptions were not empirically tested in the original studies.
The Review notes that the effect of AFIs might differ by context. These differences were not empirically tested, however. Moderating factors assumed to influence the effectiveness of AFIs are:
The Review emphasises that for AFIs to be an effective deterrent to those engaged in organised crime, offenders must believe that the risk of being negatively impacted by AFIs is high enough to be taken seriously. The absence of such a perception among offenders may be due to implementation challenges for these interventions, among other factors. Some of these challenges are summarised below.
While ‘fighting’ organised crime is considered core to the police mission, the skills and knowledge required to successfully implement AFIs in this area of law enforcement have been viewed as a specialist function within policing. Despite calls for greater investment, the mainstreaming and routinisation of financial investigation and AFIs within policing and law enforcement agencies remains a significant challenge in contemporary practice.
Illustrating problems that are seen to a greater or lesser extent across the variety of types of AFI, Compensation Orders have been criticised as lacking a coherent overall strategy with clear agreed success measures. The amount of outstanding debt on these Orders which is thought to be unrecoverable in practice is considerable. Implementation problems include a lack of good performance data on which to base decision-making, outdated systems, poor attempts at joined-up working between partner agencies, and ineffective sanctions for non-payment.
Overall, implementation poses a number of challenges for AFIs.
Accurate cost-benefit analyses of AFIs would need to take account of a reduction in organised crime as the ‘benefit’ being assessed. The Review found that this type of analysis is rare, and the few available cost-benefit analyses instead considered the ‘benefit’ to be the amount or value of criminal assets and finance recovered. This could be considered an indirect indicator of potential crime reduction. One study estimated that for every £3.73 spent on anti-money laundering and asset recovery activities in the UK, £1 was recovered. This indicates much higher costs to run such interventions than the monies recovered.
Another UK study estimated that in the year 2012-13 for every £100 of criminal proceeds, 26 pence was recovered through Confiscation Orders. This increased to 35 pence if all other asset recovery measures were included. A follow-up study then found that for every £1 spent on Confiscation Orders in England and Wales in 2012-13, £9 was actually recovered. Although the Review emphasises that the only costs considered in this study were related to enforcement, and that investigation and court costs had not been included in the calculation.
Cost-benefit estimates in the literature present a range of interpretations of the AFI system, from those which see it as making a substantial loss (i.e. expenses significantly outweigh takings) to others which see it as being in credit (i.e. takings are greater than costs). Close analysis of the methodologies of each study is necessary to make sense of the economic data in appropriate context.
The Review discovered an absence of reliable evidence on the effectiveness of AFIs on organised crime. Systematic searches of the published and unpublished literature identified no impact evaluations. A synthesis of the available evidence suggested that AFIs might reduce organised crime through deterrence, disruption and diminution, albeit it was not possible to quantitatively examine these processes in this Review. There exist many contextual factors that may moderate the effectiveness of AFIs including the type of criminal and offence, the intervention itself, agency capacity and partners outside of the police. Recommendations for implementation of AFIs include ensuring that criminals think there is a real risk that their assets may be seized, ensuring law enforcement practitioners have the required specialist skills, enabling AFIs to become mainstream and routine, and having a clear strategy and success measures. Robust cost benefit analyses measuring organised crime outcomes linked to AFIs was not found as part of the Review, indicating that further research is needed in this area. The evidence that was found on cost benefit presented a mixed picture including overall financial losses in some studies.
Atkinson, C., Mackenzie, S., Hamilton-Smith, N. (2017) What Works: Crime Reduction Systematic Review Series. No.9 'A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Asset-Focussed Interventions Against Organised Crime'.
This narrative was prepared by UCL Jill Dando Institute and was co-funded by the College of Policing and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ESRC Grant title: 'University Consortium for Evidence-Based Crime Reduction'. Grant Ref: ES/L007223/1.Uploaded on 21/09/17