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A crime in a broad sense is an act that violates a political or moral law. Laws are designed to regulate human behaviour but, in many nations, the governments discover that informal sanctions are ineffective to control some types of antisocial behaviour, so the state provides remedies and sanctions if the laws are broken. But not all breaches of the law are considered crimes, e.g. breaches of contract. The label of "crime" and the accompanying social stigma are usually reserved either for those activities causing more serious loss and damage to the citizens of the state, or for minor regulatory offences or infractions, e.g. where the criminal law is used to keep order on the roads.

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Definition of crime in general
Natural law theory

Definition of crime in general - Contents

The systematic study of the causes ( aetiology), prevention, control, and penal responses to crime is called criminology. For these purposes, the definition of crime depends on the theoretical stance taken. The nature of crime could be viewed from either a legal or normative perspective. A legalistic definition takes as its starting point the common law or the statutory/ codified definitions contained in the laws enacted by the sovereign government. Thus, a crime is any culpable action or omission prohibited by law and punished by the state. This is an uncomplicated view: a crime is a crime because the law defines it as such.A normative definition views crime as deviant behaviour that violates prevailing norms, i.e. cultural standards specifying how humans ought to behave. 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. These structural realities are fluid and often contentious. For example, as cultures change and the political environment shifts, behaviour may be criminalised or decriminalised which will directly affect the statistical crime rates, or changes in the way that crime data is collected and/or calculated may affect the public perceptions of the extent of the "crime problem". Equally, attitudes may change on the extent to which law should be used to enforce social norms. There are many ways in which behaviour can be controlled without having to resort to using the criminal law. In those cases where there is no clear consensus on the given norm, the use of the 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.

History - Contents

The first civilisations had codes of law, containing both civil and penal rules mixed together, though these codes were not always recorded. The first known written codes were produced by the Sumerians, and it was probably their king Ur-Nammu (who ruled over Ur in the 21st century BC) who acted as the first legislator, creating a formal system in thirty-two articles. The Sumerians later issued other codes including the "code of Lipit-Istar" (last king of the 3rd dynasty of Ur, Isin - 20th century BC). This code contains some fifty articles and has been reconstructed by the comparison among several sources.In Babylon, Driver and Mills (1952-55) and Skaist (1994) describe the code of Esnunna and the code of Hammurabi (one of the richest of ancient times), which reflected society's belief that law was derived from the will of the gods. Similarly, some codes of conduct of religious origin or reference were included in later penal codes, commonly among the theocratic states. Maine (1861) studied the ancient codes and failed to find any criminal law in the modern sense of the word. While modern systems distinguish between offences against the "State" or "Community", and offences against the "Individual", what was termed the penal law of ancient communities was not the law of "Crimes" (crimina); it was the law of "Wrongs" (delicta). Thus, the Hellenic laws (see Gagarin: 1986; and Garner: 1986) treated all forms of theft, assault, rape, and murder as private wrongs, and action for enforcement was up to the victim or their survivors (which was a challenge in that although there was law, there were no formalised courts in the earliest system). It was the Romans who systematised law and exported it to their Empire. Again, the initial rules of Roman Law were that assaults were a matter of private compensation. The significant Roman Law concept was of dominion (see Daube: 1969). The pater familias was in possession of all the family and its property (including slaves). Hence, interference with any property was enforced by the pater. The Commentaries of Gaius on the Twelve Tables treated furtum (modern theft) as if it was a tort. Similarly, assault and violent robbery were allied with trespass as to the pater's property (so, for example, the rape of a female slave, would be the subject of compensation to the pater as having trespassed on his "property") and breach of such laws created a vinculum juris (an obligation of law) that could only be discharged by the payment of monetary compensation (modern damages). Similarly, in the consolidated Teutonic Laws of the Germanic tribes (see Guterman: 1990), there was a complex system of money compensations for what would now be considered the complete range of criminal offences against the person from murder down.Even though Rome abandoned England sometime around 400 AD, the Germanic mercenaries who had largely been enforcing the the Roman occupation, stayed on and continued to use a mixture of Roman and Teutonic Law, with much written down by the early Anglo-Saxon Kings (see Attenborough: 1963). But, it was not until a more unified Kingdom emerged following the Norman invasion and the King was attempting to assert power over the land and its peoples, that the modern concept emerged, namely that a crime is not only and offence against the "individual", it is also a wrong against the "state" (see Kern: 1948; Blythe: 1992; and Pennington: 1993.). This is a common law idea and the earliest conception of a criminal act involved such events of such major significance that the "state" had to usurp the usual functions of the civil tribunals and direct a special law or privilegium against the perpetrator. All the earliest criminal trials were wholly extraordinary and arbitrary without any settled law to apply, whereas delictual law was highly developed and consistent in its operation (except where the King wanted to raise money by selling a new form of Writ). The development of the idea that it is the "state" dispensing justice in a court only emerges in parallel with or after the emergence of the concept of sovereignty. In continental Europe, Vinogradoff (1909) reports the persistence of Roman Law, but with a stronger influence from the Church (see Tierney: 1964, 1979). Coupled with the more diffuse political structure based on smaller state units, rather different legal traditions emerged, remaining more strongly rooted in Roman jurisprudence modified to meet the prevailing political climate.The entire policy of monetary compensation from the Hellenic system onwards, has been to avoid feuding between clans and families (note the concept of pater familias and the later practice of wergild in this context). If families' feelings could be mollified by compensation, this would help to keep the peace. It did not always work, but in the earliest times, the "states" were not prepared to get involved. Thus, criminal law grew out of what is now tort and, in real terms, many acts and omissions that are classified as crimes overlap civil law concepts.

Natural law theory - Contents

An alternative view of crime is derived from the theory of natural law in jurisprudence which posits that the standards of morality are derived from or constructed by the nature of the world or of human beings. 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. William Blackstone 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" (1979, 41). 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 is free to choose what he or she will do. Similarly, Hart (1961) saw the law as an aspect of sovereignty with law makers 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, the majority of natural law theorists accept that a primary function of the law is to enforce the prevailing morality. The problem with this view is that is 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 the 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 criticised in the light of the current norms. The law may be acceptable but the use of state power to coerce citizens is not. In more modern conceptions of the theory, crime is characterised as the violation of individual rights. Since rights are considered as natural, 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 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 thus distinguishes between criminality and illegality, the former being derived from human nature, the latter being derived from the interests of those in power. The two concepts are sometimes expressed with the phrases " malum in se" and " malum prohibitum". 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 and libertarians.

Trial - Contents

Participants in a criminal trial may make use these biases in order to achieve their own goals. For example, violent interracial cases that later become high profile often involve a jury with jurors of a particular race. Although the race in such juries is of a single race within any one such jury, what race such a jury "is" may vary between such juries. Also, the lawyers may exclude candidates for court approved reasons, and may exclude particular number of jury candidates for any reason. This process tends to exclude from the jury any that allow their personal beliefs to interfere with a "proper" result, thus producing an inherent bias towards belief in current law. Jurors are not informed of their legal right to acquit based on a belief that law and justice are in conflict.Since mistakes can be made by the courts and legal process, many appeal mechanisms are available to most legal decisions. The death penalty, which cannot be corrected after the fact if a mistake has occurred, has been on the decline for the past several decades. However, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 requires the execution of those that are still legally guilty despite what would otherwise be recognised as a conclusive exoneration.In general, in most western systems, the definition of a crime requires the existing intention of committing it (voluntas necandi) in the author, therefore it is usually not officially "punished" when this intention is missing or when the author is not completely sane or is under a certain age.Some underage defendants (of varying ages around the world) can sometimes be tried "as an adult" because their character is considered adult, whatever the rationale is behind this.In another example, there generally exists an insanity defense: an assumed deviant person may not officially be penally responsible for his or her actions. A defendant who uses the insanity defense may be judged guilty like a normal criminal. Defendants using this defense still run a great risk of psychiatric condemnation after running the great risk of ordinary conviction. "Involuntary treatment" is as often performed in prison as in a specialised psychiatric prison, whether the specialised prison is a ward in a hospital or a separate institution.

Reasons - Contents

Crimes are viewed as offences against society, and as such are punished by government. They can be scholastically distinguished, depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest, in crimes against:
  • Personality of the State
  • Rights of the citizen
  • Public administration
  • Administration of justice
  • Religious sentiment and the pity for dead
  • Public order
  • Public faith
  • Public economy, industry and commerce
  • Public morality
  • Person and honour
  • Patrimony
Or they can be distinguished depending on the related punishment (then, on the degree of offence that the forbidden behaviour caused), in delicts and violations.The definition of a crime generally reflects the current attitudes prevalent in a society. For example, possession of drugs was not always a crime, while the Prohibition Era made alcohol illegal.

Classification - Contents

In the United States since 1930, the FBI has annually received crime data from law enforcement agencies, which it compiles at the city, county, and state levels into the Uniform crime reports (UCR). Violations of laws, which are derived from common law, are classified as Part I (index) crimes in UCR data, and further categorized as violent and property crimes. Part I violent crimes include murder and criminal homicide (nonnegligent 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.Crimes are also grouped by severity, some common categorical terms being: felonies, indictable offences, misdemeanors, and summary offences. For convenience, infractions are also usually included in such lists although, in the U.S., they may not be the subject of the criminal law, but rather of the civil law.The following are crimes in many criminal jurisdictions:
  • Arson (not in English law)
  • Assaults
  • Battery
  • Blackmail
  • Burglary
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Counterfeiting
  • Drug possession
  • Embezzlement
  • Espionage
  • Extortion
  • Forgery
  • Fraud/ Deception offences
  • Homicide
  • Identity theft
  • Illegal gambling
  • inchoate offenses
  • Kidnapping
  • Larceny
  • Looting
  • Motor vehicle theft/ TWOC
  • Perjury
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Sexual assaults
  • Smuggling
  • Stalking
  • Tax evasion
  • Theft
  • Treason
  • Trespass (not in English law)
  • Vandalism (see Criminal Damage Act 1971 for the codified offence in English law)
  • Weapon possession
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