Almost everyone experiences a criminal career (Moffitt, 43). The onset begins during adolescence and involves a series of petty crimes. The amount of crimes committed during the criminal career at any given time is the rate at which the offender offends. What differentiates the “career criminal” from the person who had a “criminal career” is this; Whereas the latter by-and-large discontinues their crimes by the time they are in their mid-20s, those who are career criminals will persist with their offending at a high rate during their life course (Moffitt, 41). One theory put forth argues that the reason that people continue to commit crimes is that they have “neuropsychological defects” (Moffitt, 37). However, the life course and activities of Charles “Lucky” Luciano would suggest otherwise.
Charles Luciano was born “Salvatore Lucania” on November 24, 1897 in Lercara Friddi, Sicily. The Lucania family was impoverished and his father, Antonio, worked in a sulfur mine to support the family. With the quality of life being dire in Sicily the Lucania family decided to relocate to America. The Lucania family arrived in America in November 1906 and moved into an apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The arrival seemingly acted as a catalyst for Salvatore’s criminal career. The onset of his criminal career began in 1907 when he was arrested for shoplifting. Entering the criminal justice system at seven years of age he precedes 97% of youth in their criminal career onsets (Hirschi and Gottfredson, 576).
Salvatore would continue to commit petty crimes at a steady rate throughout his childhood. As Salvatore aged and entered adolescence signs of escalation began to appear. “The pattern young Salvatore followed as he grew up was no different from that of maybe seven of every ten boys…shoplifting from neighborhood stores…and then as boys grow more experienced, (stealing) loot that can be ‘fenced’” (Feder and Joesten, 42). These crimes, however, were still considered petty and are not highly atypical for an adolescent boy.
Despite these delinquent behaviors, Salvatore’s fate as a career criminal had not yet been sealed. At age sixteen Salvatore acquired a job at a hat factory. However, the benefits of acquiring “adult” social roles would not act as a means of desistence for Salvatore. The job would give Salvatore a modest living; one that provided a steady income of seven dollars a week.
It was on a Friday on his way home from work that Salvatore’s life-course would take a turn for the worse; Not by bad luck but by a stroke of good luck. Salvatore gambled his seven-dollar weekly wage and wound up winning $244 in a game of alley craps. In turn Salvatore adopted the nickname “Lucky” and, instead of going to work the next day, Luciano would go to the alleys.
A far cry from shoplifting and gambling, Lucky’s criminal career began to show a good deal of escalation by his mid teens. When an oppurtunity arose and it meant fiscal gains Lucky would take it. Up to this point all that had been available was petty crimes (e.g. theft and gambling), but drugs provided him the opportunity of a higher standard of living. The change of environment led to a dramatic shift in the crimes he would commit frequency at which he would commit them, and led to a greater deal of specialization. Luciano’s daily routine found him fraternizing with the criminal element. The escalation that followed was a “typical” example of “the continuity of antisocial behavior” according to Moffitt. “Typical” being, “biting and hitting at age 4, shoplifting and truancy at age 10, selling drugs and stealing cars at age 16” (Moffitt, 679). It should come as no surprise then that Lucky began selling drugs as a means of income. At 16 he started to sell heroin and earned from “between ten and thirty dollars a day”.
Lucky would be incarcerated for six months in jail when he sold some heroin to an undercover police officer thus bringing him back into the criminal justice system. It was his first case of recidivism, but the crime this time was of a much more serious nature than petty theft.
The time in jail did not serve as a deterrent however. Upon release Lucky moved to Little Italy and re-entered the network that sought crime as a viable means to make a living. Luciano remarked, “Who wants to be a crum?” A “crum” being defined as “anyone who works for an honest dollar” (Feder and Joesten, 44). This opinion directly reflects the notion that adolescent offenders view life-course persistent offenders as having managed “success in attaining adult rewards e.g. more stuff (from theft)” (Macmillan, Lec.3). The notion of a “crum” also regards a nine-to-five job as unfulfilling or unrewarding. This opinion is blatant strain theory. A theory that asserts that crime results because “society establishes goals toward which all strive, but at the same time the social structure makes it difficult or impossible for everyone for everyone to achieve these goals” (Merton, 187).
Thus Luciano entered the world of “organized crime” when he came to the attention of Joe “The Boss” Masseria. Joe Masseria was highly enmeshed in rum running, racketeering, and extortion. Luciano was appointed the overseer of Manhattan’s rum-running operations.
The concept of “organized crime”, which Luciano participated in, reinforces strain theory. The Mafia was known as “Cosa Nostra” in Italy. The translation of “Cosa Nostra” is literally “our thing”. The “Cosa Nostra” is composed of a group of offenders that have rejected conventional societal allotments and standards of living. Instead they created their own societal network. This re”organized” society is in actuality a cohort of victims of strain. People unable to attain their goals given conventional methods.
As Lucky aged into his twenties and thirties his crimes reached a period of stasis. The types of crimes he committed were radically different from ones he had committed as an adolescent. Instead of theft or drug dealing Charles Luciano had escalated to narcotics, racketeering (through olive oil, artichoke, grape, and wine imports), rum-running, black-mail, tax fraud, and industrial extortion (Feder and Joesten, 105). By 1933 he had executive authority over the world of “organized crime”. Charles Luciano had created the “National Syndicate” after having Joe Masseria killed (Feder and Joesten, 87).
The motivation at this point in Luciano’s criminal career was finance. Petersilia et al. found that the main reasons for adults committing crimes was to maintain a degree of “high living” (reason stated in 36.6% of respondents surveyed) and “financial needs” (reason cited in 31.8% of cases) (Petersilia et al., 76). Luciano’s lifestyle was indeed lavish and provided him many luxuries. He lived in the famed Waldorf-Astoria Towers and his female companionship consisted of prostitutes that worked in one of his many criminal rings.
The explanation for his persistence in committing crimes is that he had become accustomed to his lavish life and wanted to maintain his high-times lifestyle. Petersilia et al. found that in addition to high-times being a motive to commit crimes it is also a motive to continue offending. Criminals viewed the high-times lifestyle as “somewhat important” in 22% of the cases and an additional 47% viewed it as “very important” (Petersilia et al., 78). Thus 69% of criminals feel that the high-times lifestyle is not only an advantaged one but also a needed one.
The crimes Luciano was involved in were highly complex and extremely sophisticated. The following excerpt describes the amount of planning involved in his drug network:
“The gang lord who was a founding father of the National Crimes Syndicate stands apart from the ladder, surveying, manipulating, directing-and untouched.
He knows everybody, from the Turkish and Iranian exporter to the Yugoslav official who can be bribed to let a shipment over the border, to the North Italian processor, to the smuggler, to the distributor.
He puts X in touch with Y; has Y meet Z. He may be exiled and watched and guarded, but he still manipulates. He is Boss.” (Feder and Joesten, 302)
Instead of being a neuropsychologically malformed nitwit Luciano is a highly intelligent individual willingly committing his crimes. The level of sophistication used supports Petersilia’s hypotheses that: “The more skilled the offender, the greater his illicit profit will be” and “The more experienced the offender, the more skilled he is in avoiding arrest and conviction” (Petersilia et al., 59).
The only period of desistence in offending for Luciano came during a latent period. A period when, in 1936, Charles “Lucky” Luciano was incarcerated on sixty-two counts of extortion and racketeering in relation to his overseeing of some 200+ brothels in New York. Dozens of prostitutes testified against him as well as a primary associate who plea bargained. The sentence was for 30-50 years in a New York state penitentiary. Ten years later however, his sentenced was commuted when a judge showed clemency and Luciano was deported to Naples, Italy.
While in Italy he did not desist but recidivated with “Cosa Nostra” using his overseas contacts. His criminal career was still flourishing in and out of America in 1954, the year of the books publication, due to the many criminal associations he had networked.
What Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s criminal history suggests to us about the nature of offending is that criminals, when adolescents, start offending as the result of a sort of hero worship. “In his world, the guys with the flashy clothes, the big cars, and the folding money never work” (Feder and Joesten, 44). Offending is not the result of being in dire straits and having neuropsychological deficits, rather it is a chosen lifestyle.
The nature of Luciano’s crimes also suggest that more elaborate crimes hinder arrest and provide more benefits. Escalation served as a way to escape criminal prosecution. The prostitution case withstanding, Luciano was convicted for minor crimes such as shoplifting and drug dealing, but for more severe ones the networks were either too complex or did not provide sufficient evidence to permit prosecution.
Age was of little importance as a means of social control in Luciano’s criminal career. Age at no point in his life served as a means of informal social control and offending was not hindered by an “attachment to the labor force and cohesive marriage (which)- explain variations in criminal behavior independent or prior differences in criminal propensity” (Sampson and Laub, 245).
In fact, in this case, Luciano’s nature and onset was the direct result of rebellion against the social institutions, which are supposed to provide social control according to Sampson and Laub. He forfeited his job to seek out a more extravagant life; to live in the high-society that Petersilia described.
The onset of Luciano’s criminal career is best described with strain theory. Luciano’s goals were not being met when he was working and carrying an “adult” social role. His prospects for the future were bleak and did not provide him with the luxuries he desired. The whole concept of a “crum” is based on the premise that a working class lifestyle is not desirable and that the pressure to succeed is never relieved through these means. Lucky himself aimed to “prove that society alone was to blame for his life of crime” (Feder and Joesten, 308).
Upon entering the realm of “organized crime” it was Luciano’s associations that provided him with the ability to attain his goals. Differential association perpetuated and advanced his criminal career. His associations landed him his job selling drugs and would later allow him to live in high-society. Luciano used tremendous agency and planning by learning ways of undermining conventional society.
Differential association theory is also supported by the fact that he escalated. The escalation resulted when he learned new forms of crime and made the necessary associations with other criminals to execute them. The associations grew to the point that they shielded him. Luciano remarked, “They talk about me and never come up with evidence. It’s all politics and I’m the victim. It’s about time to stop rapping me for all the bad things that happen in the US and in Europe.” (Feder and Joesten, 312). Despite the great amount of prosperity that Luciano attained with differential association he always viewed himself as a victim of circumstance. Thereby ironically lamenting an argument of strain, that society could provide nothing but persecution and defeat.
Feder, Sid and Joesten, Joachim. (1954). The Luciano Story. New York: De Capo Press.
Hirschi, Travis and Gottfredson, Michael. (1983) “Age and the Explanation of Crime.” American Journal of Sociology. 89: 552-584.
Macmillan, Ross. (2001) “Explaining Adolescent Limited Offender” Lecture 3.
Merton, Robert. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Moffitt, Terrie. (1993) “Adolescence and Life-Course Persistent Antisocial Behavior.” Psychological Review. 100(4): 674-701.
Petersilia, Joan. (1978) “Part V: Criminal Sophistication.” Criminal Careers of Habitual Felons. US Department of Justice, pp. 59-71.
Sampson, Robert and Laub, John. (1995) “Understanding Variability in Lives through Time: Contributions of Life Course Criminology.” Studies in Crime and Prevention. 4(2): 242-258.