Posted: June 24th, 2021

What is Crime?

The Oxford English dictionary defines crime as “an act punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare, an evil act; an offence, a sin, -an act can only be considered a crime when identified as such by law. An act was defined a crime in the old testament with the creation of the Ten Commandments. This was when it was literally set into stone that numerous acts became a crime against God, the first rules of the world.
Crimes are now defined as crimes with the help of the legal system and certain pieces of legislature and cannot always necessarily be traced back to the Ten Commandments. Crime now has abundant definitions, the most obvious being crime as criminal law violation. The Hg Worldwide Legal Directories website delineates criminal law as encompassing, ‘the rules and statutes written by Congress and state legislators dealing with any criminal activity that causes harm to the general public, with penalties.’ Therefore to violate criminal law, the individual would be engaging in behaviour that is prohibited by the criminal law. However it has recently become extremely difficult to determine what is now perceived as a crime.
Crime has no universal or objective existence but is relative to the subjective contingencies of social and historical circumstance, this is crime as historical intervention. For example, causing death of another individual, whether by neglect or with full intention is a crime, however it is almost justifiable and on many occasions heroic when practised in warfare. This is reiterated with the recent poaching ban, poaching only became criminalised through the convergence of new class and power interests in the 18th Century. James Treadwell argues this point as a criminologist and indicates that specific acts that were once socially acceptable are now becoming criminalised, ‘crime is not static or fixed, it constantly changes.

Things that once were not criminalised become so, such as paedophiles ‘grooming’ victims on the internet. . .similarly, activities, which were illegal, may become legal, such as consenting homosexual behaviour between men’. These arguments make it hard to define what crime is as the ‘rules’ of crime are ever-changing. The BBC published an online article that illustrates the extent to which crime is uneasily defined, ‘a hundred years ago you could buy opium and cocaine over the counter at Harrods. Acts which are perfectly legal here may be serious crimes in other countries and vice versa.’ To help us understand what makes a crime a crime, Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist introduced to the idea of positivism, the social reaction to classicism.
Classicism is the theory that the punishment for a crime should reflect the severity of said crime. This concept was developed during the transition from feudalism to capitalism and is a strong believer that each individual chooses whether to commit a crime or not as every person is raised in society that outlines the difference between right and wrong. The criticism for this concept is argued that at what age do you become criminally responsible, for example the horrific act of the two young boys that committed a severe crime when kidnapping and torturing Jamie Bulger.
The boys were eleven at the time, therefore as children they unfortunately served half the period of time that an adult would have if they had committed this crime due to the legal system believing they were not fully responsible as they had been raised in broken homes. The contrasting theory to this is that of Positivism, the scientific approach to crime. This concept developed by Lombroso attempts to look at the genetic or biological explanation for a criminal gene. This concept is harshly criticised as many members of the public deem this as treating criminality as an illness.
Lombroso published a book in which he makes sever references to the concept of positivism and argues that people are wrong to fear that, ‘positivism encourages communistic ideas and even worse criminal behaviour’. This became the birth of criminology. Treadwell discusses Lombroso’s work and informs us that his work is still being studied to the modern day, ‘Lombroso’s work could be placed under the heading of biological criminology, investigations of the causes of criminality using more sophisticated research methods. . .have continued to be developed in the twentieth century’.
Tim Newburn wrote that Edwin Sutherland defined criminology as, ‘the study of the making of laws, the breaking of laws, and of society’s reaction to the breaking of laws’. Crime can also be defined as social harm. For example, we ask the question are tobacco companies selling harmful products that are in turn, effectively killing us, murderers. Is this a crime? This is known as the crime of violation to human rights, therefore a further definition could be health and safety issues in the workplace. This is reiterated when we discuss ‘white collar crime’.
We struggle to define crime as crime is an act that breaches the criminal law, however many of the people we put in charge of running our countries or deciding these criminal laws are in fact themselves committing crimes. If this is so, why are these crimes socially acceptable? The offences of these crimes tend to be ‘invisible’ or painfully difficult to trace. They are often committed by persons of high social status and respectability therefore they find it easier to evade persecution. ‘White collar crime’ is often broken down into, embezzlement, breaches of health and safety and environmental crimes. Bhopal was identified as one of the worst industrial ‘accidents’ this world had witnessed.
The 1984 incident that killed 8000 people instantly and injuring a further 200’000 was believed an accident due to the lethal gases leaking from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory. For 20 years after this tragedy, an estimated 30 people a month were believed to have died from lung disease, brain damage, cancer, all linking to the gas leak of 1984. This accident was contested in court yet the people involved have yet to receive a settlement fee and not one person was held responsible for this mass homicide. Newburn records Bhopal as a crime and a ‘major industrial disaster’ in his book as he files it under the heading, ‘environmental crime’. This helps us to define crime as a class issue due to crimes of the powerful having greater potential to cause more harm than crimes of the less powerful.
Newburn furthermore analyses hidden crimes within criminology, ‘Criminology has been regularly, roundly and rightly criticised for this preoccupation: a concern with the crimes of the powerless rather than the powerful, with the ‘crimes of the streets’ rather than the ‘crimes of the suites’. The Marxist concept of this is crime as an ideological censure, that acts would only be defined a crime when in the interest of the ruling classes at that period of time. These crimes remain hidden for various reasons. The diffusion of responsibility means that is extremely difficult to legally and morally identify a persecutor, secondly a lot of the crimes the general public hear about are in the media and corporate crime simply does not sell. Media coverage creates moral panic and fear of ‘crime’.
To define crime we often look to the media to decipher their reaction on a specific incident. However, although crime consumes an enormous amount of media space as both entertainment and news, concepts of crime are mediated by profit margins. Due to only crimes that are considered to grasp the attention of the general public being reported, this effects what we as an individual define as a crime. Treadwell argues that, ‘most media institutions seek to attract as wide an audience as possible to maximise their profits. . .to attract and retain audiences media products have to entertain, be dramatic or exciting, and sometimes cause outright shock’. Therefore as crime is seemingly a troubling aspect of our life this would seem the most appropriate topic to cover.
Treadwell labels this concept, ‘newsworthiness’. He goes on to discuss that, ‘Today, crime stories are increasingly selected and ‘produced as media events on the basis of their visual . . . as well as their lexical-verbal . . . potential’. There is a vivid and highly complex relationship between the media and the criminal justice system. A further more obvious way in which we can define crime is by the Home Office statistics. The Home Office websites defines themselves as, ‘the lead government department for immigration and passports, drugs policy, crime, counter-terrorism and police’. The two main methods of collecting the criminal data that feature in the Home Office are victim surveys and statistics recorded by the police force. However, only particular offences, ‘serious crimes’ are reported by the police to the Home Office statistics, not the summary offences that are heard in the Courts.
Police are also under the instruction to record every allegation they hear and many police officers do not believe a number of allegations or there may be a lack of evidence and many times the victims decide to not press charges therefore they see it unfit to record it as a ‘crime’. Furthermore a crime is only a crime when ‘officially’ recorded and since most victims do not report crimes there is a ‘dark figure’ of crime that remains unknown. The reasons to why victims fail to report their crimes can be broken down into three categories: embarrassment, unworthiness and failure to realise. If a victim has been sexually abused or raped they may fail to report this as they may be overwhelmed with a feeling of embarrassment or in certain religious cultures it may bring shame upon a family.
Some victims also feel the nature of their crime isn’t worthy of police time, such as rowdy neighbours or petty theft. Finally, if a person is a victim of identity theft, nine times out of ten they fail to realise and therefore have nothing to report. In conclusion, a crime only seemingly exists when society perceive it as a crime or a great reaction to an act therefore labels it as one. An act is often acceptable until labelled as morally wrong by a social group.
At some time or another, some society somewhere has defined almost all forms of behaviour that we now call ‘criminal’ as desirable for the functioning of that society, (Williams (1964:46)), this would be crime as a violation of moral codes. In the BBC article written by Mark Easton, he reiterates that, ‘one cultures crime is another cultures social norm’. This concept is crime as a social construct. In 1963 Becker created the ‘Labelling Theory’ which illustrated that crime is dependent upon social reaction and that the societal consensus is regularly challenged.
At the beginning of my essay I provided the Oxford dictionary definition for crime and after studying the wide range of criminal concepts I have reached the conclusion that there is no right or wrong answer to define crime. The dictionary defines crime as punishable by law yet also defines crime as a sin. A person will be prosecuted for an act that does not abide by the legislation set up by the criminal justice system, however an individual may go to church to repent a sin that is only deemed as a crime within their religious culture.
Crime will forever be surrounded by questions of social order, it will always be contested and people will always wonder how it can be perceived due to the fact that society’s vision of crime changes with the growth and development of society. Crime is elusive, contested and an ever moving concept that is tied to our social processes.

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