What is crime? In Introduction to Criminological Thought, Pavlich (2000) suggests that the word “crime” comes from the Latin word crimen which is used simultaneously with other words like culpa, accusare, offensa and ignominia which mean fault, to call someone to account for their actions, offence, and scandal respectively. There are many controversial topics surrounding the definition of crime.
How is Crime Defined in the Modern Context?
Is a crime only a crime if the culprit gets caught? There are laws that prohibit the smoking of tobacco in certain areas. Is it a crime to smoke in the public library? Academics Muncie and McLaughlin suggested that crime is simply the what the law defines it as. By abolishing the law, crime is abolished. Behavior in society would not have changed, but the label has. It can then be argued that law is the formal cause of crime.
According to the noted US academics Reese Walters and Trevor Bradley in their 2008 book (Introduction To Criminological Thought), Tappan (1947) argued that there can be no crime until an offender is identified, arrested, tried, found guilty and punished. This exemplifies that no behavior can be considered criminal until formally adjudicated by the criminal justice system. A large number of offences and offenders are either not reported or not caught by the justice system. Does this mean that these offenses are not crimes and their perpetrators are not criminals?
There is crime, and there are others that are morally offensive. A good example of this would be the sex industry. Prostitution is legalized in 40% of the countries in the world. According to the article updated on April 8, 2010, Procon.org “100 Countries And Their Prostitution Policies,” both prostitution and brothel ownership is legal in Columbia, but pimping is not.
This brings to question why certain behavior can be singled out and defined as criminal while other equivalent behaviors, often creating even more harm, are left out of the justice system. Why is marijuana illegal while the consumption and possession of drugs like “alcohol” are legal even though studies have shown marijuana to be far less addictive and toxic than alcohol?
Crime is Time Specific in a Given Society
According to Sonia Farid in the June 17, 2010, Al Arabiya News Channel, article “Saudi Activists Outraged As Man Marries 11 Yr Old”, an 11 year old girl’s father allowed his daughter to marry to an 80 year old man. In Saudia Arabia, a man is legally qualified to marry a girl if he has the authorization of the child’s parents. In New Zealand and other western countries, the husband would be convicted of breaching marriage laws and possible child molestation. Hence in one country he is a father and in another he is a criminal.
Apartheid laws in South Africa in 1948 meant the institutionalizing of race laws which affected every aspect of social life including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites and the prohibition of “white- only” jobs. This may be morally unacceptable but was a law at the time until 1990 when Mandela was released from prison and a ban was placed on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organizations.
Crime is a Label that is Both Socially and Culturally Constructed
Crime is a socially constructed label. There is no act or behaviour that is, in itself, fundamentally criminal. Every society has different societal norms and problems.
For example, the problem of young people causing trouble is visible in western societies. Most youth are not criminals but as a result of their age, they are denied access from places of adult entertainment, thus seeking their recreation and social existence in public places. Once the teenagers are constructed as a “problem” legislation is promptly executed to control their behavior. As a result, criminalization is the creation of a successful labeling process.
Crime is a label that is culturally constructed. Law is created by those who have the capacity and capability to translate their interests into public code. The formation of white-collar crimes and corporate crimes remain a controversial affair. According to Catherine Rampell in the July 9, 2009, New York Times article “Sotomayor: Tough On White-Collar Crime”, white collar crime is estimated to cost the United States more than $300 billion annually.
As Brett Michael Dykes reported in the August 3, 2010, Yahoo News article “BP Oil Spill Officially Largest On Record”, the BP oil spill has led to the death of 11 people, contamination of an expansive area of the United States marine environment and continues to have a serious ramifications on wildlife, the local fishing industry and regional tourism. While it is seen as unethical, it is not a crime.
What is and is not offensive in society can be found in the cultural framework of lived experience and existence. As a result, the law provides inconsistencies when defining crime. These inconsistencies reflect inequalities in society and uphold the interests of those with the power to define what is “culture” and what is “crime”.
Muncie, John, and Eugene Mclaughlin. The Problem of Crime. London: Sage, 2001.
Walters, Reese, and Trevor Bradley. Introduction to Criminological Thought. Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand, 2008.