Sometimes you can get things done more efficiently by working with others. Criminals have found this form of organization works for them too.
Conspiracy punishes individuals who agree to commit a crime (often called the “target” or “object” crime). Conspiracy, then, responds to the special dangers created by group criminality: division of labor, expanded scope of potential harm, mutual encouragement, and greater likelihood the agreed-upon crime—or even future crimes not yet determined or contemplated—will be committed.
Conspiracy is an inchoate or unfinished crime because it permits the police to arrest those who have agreed to commit a crime long before they actually carry out their agreement. In fact, conspiracy sets the threshold of criminality much earlier than does attempt.
The early common law did not have a separate crime of conspiracy. It first appeared in a narrow statutory form in the early part of the fourteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century it had become a common law misdemeanor. Today, every state and the federal government have a conspiracy statute. As both criminal activity and criminal organizations have become more complex and sophisticated in modern society, conspiracy has become a more important law enforcement tool. Federal prosecutors, in particular, rely on conspiracy to prosecute crimes such as drug smuggling, transportation of illegal aliens, and other crimes, including more recently terrorism, that require planning and complex coordination of many individuals or groups.
Conspiracy is a powerful weapon for prosecutors. It allows them to take advantage of special procedural and evidentiary rules that increase their prospects for obtaining convictions. Moreover, in many jurisdictions defendants can be punished both for conspiracy and for crimes committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. This threat of increased punishment gives prosecutors tremendous leverage in obtaining plea bargains from defendants charged with conspiracy.
Critics complain that the definition of conspiracy is too vague. Historically, there was a great deal of merit to this criticism because common law definitions were very broad. However, contemporary law reforms during the second half of this century have provided narrower and clearer definitions for this crime.