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Crime is the breach of a rule or law for which some governing authority or force may ultimately prescribe a punishment. The word crime originates from the Latin crimen (genitive criminis), from the Latin root cernō and Greek κρινω = "I judge". Originally it meant "charge (in law), guilt, accusation".

When society deems informal relationships and sanctions insufficient to create and maintain a desired social order, there may result more formalized systems of social control imposed by a government, or more broadly, by a State. With the institutional and legal machinery at their disposal, agents of the State can compel individuals to conform to behavioural codes and punish those that do not. Various mechanisms are employed to regulate behaviour, including rules codified into laws, policing people to ensure they comply with those laws, and other policies and practices designed to prevent crime. In addition are remedies and sanctions, and collectively these constitute a criminal justice system. Not all breaches of the law, however, are considered crimes, for example, breaches of contract and other civil law offences. The label of "crime" and the accompanying social stigma are normally reserved for those activities that are injurious to the general population or the State, including some that cause serious loss or damage to individuals. The label is intended to assert an hegemony of a dominant population, or to reflect a consensus of condemnation for the identified behavior and to justify a punishment imposed by the State, in the event that an accused person is tried and convicted of a crime. Usually, the perpetrator of the crime is a natural person, but in some jurisdictions and in some moral environments, legal persons are also considered to have the capability of committing crimes.


A normative definition views crime as deviant behavior that violates prevailing norms  – cultural standards prescribing how humans ought to behave normally. This approach considers the complex realities surrounding the concept of crime and seeks to understand how changing social, political, psychological, and economic conditions may affect the current definitions of crime and the form of the legal, law enforcement, and penal responses made by society. These structural realities remain fluid and often contentious. For example, as cultures change and the political environment shifts, behavior may be criminalised or decriminalised, which will directly affect the statistical crime rates, determine the allocation of resources for the enforcement of such laws, and influence the general public opinion. Similarly, changes in the way that crime data are collected and/or calculated may affect the public perceptions of the extent of any given "crime problem". All such adjustments to crime statistics, allied with the experience of people in their everyday lives, shape attitudes on the extent to which law should be used to enforce any particular social norm. There are many ways in which behaviour can be controlled without having to resort to the criminal justice system. Indeed, in those cases where there is no clear consensus on the given norm, the use of criminal law by the group in power to prohibit the behaviour of another group may be considered an improper limitation of the second group's freedom, and the ordinary members of society may lose some of their respect for the law in general whether the disputed law is actively enforced or not.

Legislatures pass laws (called mala prohibita) that define crimes which violate social norms. These laws vary from time to time and from place to place: note variations in gambling laws, for example. Other crimes, called mala in se, are nearly universally outlawed, such as murder, theft and rape


Main article: Criminalization
  • One can view criminalization as a procedure intended as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to those proposing to engage in the behavior causing harm. The State becomes involved because they usually believe costs of not criminalizing (i.e. allowing the harms to continue unabated) outweigh the costs of criminalizing it (i.e. restricting individual liberty in order to minimize harm to others).
  • Criminalization may provide future harm-reduction even after a crime, assuming those incarcerated for committing crimes are more likely to cause harm in the future. [clarify]

  • Criminalization might be intended as a way to make potential criminals pay for their crimes. In this case, criminalization is a way to set the price that one must pay (to society) for certain actions that are considered detrimental to society as a whole. In this sense criminalization can be viewed as nothing more than State-sanctioned revenge.

States control the process of criminalization because:

  • Even if victims recognize their own role as victims, they may not have the resources to investigate and seek legal redress for the injuries suffered: the enforcers formally appointed by the State have the expertise and the resources.
  • The victims may only want compensation for the injuries suffered, while being indifferent to a possible desire for deterrence (see Polinsky & Shavell (1997) on the fundamental divergence between the private and the social motivation for using the legal system).
  • Fear of retaliation may deter victims or witnesses of crimes from taking any action. Even in policed societies, fear may inhibit reporting or co-operation in a trial.
  • Victims alone may lack the economies of scale which might allow them to administer a penal system, let alone collect any fines levied by a court (see Polinsky (1980) on the enforcement of fines). Garoupa & Klerman (2002) warn that a rent-seeking government has as its primary motivation to maximize revenue and so, if offenders have sufficient wealth, a rent-seeking government will act more aggressively than a social-welfare-maximizing government in enforcing laws against minor crimes (usually with a fixed penalty such as parking and routine traffic violations), but more laxly in enforcing laws against major crimes.
  • As a result of the crime, victims may die or become incapacitated.

Natural-law theory

Justifying the State's use of force to coerce compliance with its laws has proven a consistent theoretical problem. One of the earliest justifications involved the theory of natural law. This posits that the nature of the world or of human beings underlies the standards of morality or constructs them. Thomas Aquinas said: "the rule and measure of human acts is the reason, which is the first principle of human acts" (Aquinas, ST I-II, Q.90, A.I), i.e. since people are by nature rational beings, it is morally appropriate that they should behave in a way that conforms to their rational nature. Thus, to be valid, any law must conform to natural law and coercing people to conform to that law is morally acceptable. William Blackstone (1979: 41) describes the thesis:

"This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original."

But John Austin, an early positivist, applied utilitarianism in accepting the calculating nature of human beings and the existence of an objective morality, but denied that the legal validity of a norm depends on whether its content conforms to morality, i.e. a moral code can objectively determine what people ought to do, the law can embody whatever norms the legislature decrees to achieve social utility, but every individual remains free to choose what he or she will do. Similarly, Hart (1961) saw the law as an aspect of sovereignty with lawmakers able to adopt any law as a means to a moral end. Thus, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of a proposition of law were simply that the law was internally logical and consistent, and that State power was being used with responsibility. Dworkin (2005) rejects Hart's theory and argues that fundamental among political rights is the right of each individual to the equal respect and concern of those who govern him. He offers a theory of compliance overlaid by a theory of deference (the citizen's duty to obey the law) and a theory of enforcement, which identifies the legitimate goals of enforcement and punishment. Legislation must conform to a theory of legitimacy, which describes the circumstances under which a particular person or group is entitled to make law, and a theory of legislative justice, which describes the law they are entitled or obliged to make.

Indeed, despite everything, the majority of natural-law theorists have accepted the idea of enforcing the prevailing morality as a primary function of the law. This view entails the problem that it makes any moral criticism of the law impossible in that, if conformity with natural law is a necessary condition for legal validity, all valid law must, by definition, be morally just. Thus, on this line of reasoning, the legal validity of a norm necessarily entails its moral justice. The solution to this problem is to admit some degree of moral relativism and to accept that norms may evolve over time and, therefore, the continued enforcement of old laws may be criticized in the light of the current norms. The law may be acceptable but the use of State power to coerce citizens to comply with that law is not morally justified. In more modern conceptions of the theory, crime is characterized as the violation of individual rights. Since so many rights are considered as natural, hence the term "right", rather than man-made, what constitutes a crime is also natural, in contrast to laws, which are man-made. Adam Smith illustrates this view, saying that a smuggler would be an excellent citizen, "...had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."

Natural-law theory therefore distinguishes between "criminality" (which derives from human nature) and "illegality" (which originates with the interests of those in power). Lawyers sometimes express the two concepts with the phrases malum in se and malum prohibitum respectively. A crime malum in se is argued to be inherently criminal; whereas a crime malum prohibitum is argued to be criminal only because the law has decreed it so. This view leads to a seeming paradox, that an act can be illegal that is no crime, while a criminal act could be perfectly legal. Many Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and the American Founding Fathers subscribed to this view to some extent, and it remains influential among so-called classical liberals[How to reference and link to summary or text] and libertarians[How to reference and link to summary or text].


File:Ahmedabad riots1.jpg

Governments criminalise antisocial behaviour — and treat it within a system of offences against society — in order to justify the imposition of punishment. A series of distinctions are made depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest(s), in crimes against:

Or one can categorise crimes depending on the related punishment with sentencing tariffs prescribed in line with the perceived seriousness of the offence with fines and noncustodial sentences for the least serious, and (in some States) capital punishment for the most serious.


Researchers and commentators may classify crime into categories, including violent crime, property crime, and public order crime.

U.S. classification

In the United States since 1930, the FBI has tabulated Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) annually from crime data submitted by law enforcement agencies across the United States.[1] Officials compile this data at the city, county, and state levels into the Uniform crime reports (UCR). Violations of laws which derive from common law are classified as Part I (index) crimes in UCR data, and further categorised as violent and property crimes. Part I violent crimes include murder and criminal homicide (voluntary manslaughter), forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery, while Part I property crimes include burglary, arson, larceny/theft, and motor vehicle theft. All other crimes are classified as Part II crimes.

Analysts can also group crimes by severity, some common categorical terms including:

For convenience, such lists usually include infractions although, in the U.S., they may not be the subject of the criminal law, but rather of the civil law. Compare tortfeasance.

Crimes against international law

Crimes defined by treaty as crimes against international law include:

From the point of view of State-centric law, extraordinary procedures (usually international courts) may prosecute such crimes. Note the role of the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Religion and crime

Socially accepted or imposed religious morality has influenced secular jurisdictions on issues that may otherwise concern only an individual's conscience. Examples of activities that have been criminalized on religious grounds include alcohol-consumption (prohibition), abortion and stem cell research. In various historical and present-day societies institutionalized religions have established systems of earthly justice which punish crimes against the divine will and specific devotional, organizational and other rules under specific codes, such as Islamic sharia or Roman Catholic canon law.

Military jurisdictions and states of emergency

In the military sphere, authorities can prosecute both regular crimes and specific acts (such as mutiny or desertion) under martial-law codes that either supplant or extend civil codes in times of war.

Many constitutions contain provisions to curtail freedoms and criminalize otherwise tolerated behaviors under a state of emergency in the event of war, natural disaster or civil unrest. Such undesired activities may include assembly in the streets, violation of curfew, or possession of firearms.

Employee crime

Two common types of employee crime exist: embezzlement and sabotage.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The complexity and anonymity of computers may help sinister employees camouflage their crimes. The victims of the most costly scams include banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and other large financial institutions.[2] Most people guilty of embezzlement do not have criminal histories. It is more likely that they have a gripe against their employer, have financial problems, or simply can't resist the temptation of a loop-hole they have found. Screening and background checks on perspective employees can help; however, many laws make some types of screening difficult or even illegal. Fired or disgruntled employees sometimes sabotage their company's computer system as a form of 'pay back'.[2] This sabotage may take the form of a Logic bomb, a computer virus, or creating general havoc.

Some places of employment have developed measures in an attempt to combat and prevent employee crime. Places of employment sometimes implement security measures such as cameras, fingerprint records of employees, and background checks.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Although privacy-advocates have questioned such methods, they serve a good purpose to the companies using them. Not only do these methods help prevent employee crime, but they protect the company from punishment and/or lawsuits for negligent hiring.[3][verification needed]

Particular offences studied by psychologists

See also



  1. FBI: Uniform Crime Reports
  2. 2.0 2.1 Sara Baase, "A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing and The Internet. Third Ed. 'Employee Crime'" (2008)
  3. includeonly>Therolf, Garrett, Jack Leonard. "L.A. County failed to act on employee crime checks at King-Harbor: Inaction on medical workers with past offenses could result in discipline", Los Angeles Times, 2008-07-15. Retrieved on 2008-08-09.


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