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Criminologists differ on how they define crime. One definition is a legal definition: crime is a violation of criminal law. Criminologist Edwin Sutherland calls this the conventional definition of crime because it is commonly used. He adds that it is typical to distinguish a crime from a tort. A crime is a violation against the state whereas a tort is a violation against an individual. An example of this occurred in the twentieth-century O. J. Simpson case. In criminal court Simpson was acquitted of murder but was found liable for wrongful death in civil court.
Within the legal definition of crime, crime is distinguished from delinquency by the age of the offender. In most states an offender must be 18 to be arrested and prosecuted as a criminal. Under 18 the youth is processed as a delinquent in a separate juvenile or family court and legally there is no criminal conviction.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim argues that crime is normal; even a society of saints has persons with faults that society judges and punishes. In other words, each society has a collective conscience that punishes faults so as to reinforce the common values that most members should strive to emulate. In fact, Durkheim notes, the absence of crime might be a problem. It might mean that a society is overly repressive and does not allow enough innovation. So no society should congratulate itself for completely eliminating crime.
On the other hand, criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi define crimes as ”acts of force or fraud undertaken in pursuit of self-interest” (1990: 15). So contrary to Sutherland, they see crime as ordinary and mundane, stemming from human nature which focuses on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. They see commonalities in crime, deviance, sin, and accident rather than conceptualizing them as distinct phenomena. They argue that sin and crime are often the same actions; the difference is that religion sanctions sin while the government punishes crime.
Herman and Julia Schwendinger define crime as acts against human rights. Using their definition, some could argue that various national leaders are criminals if they are violating human rights, even though as president or leader of their countries they are arguably acting lawfully.
Restorative justice, a recent perspective but one with ancient history, focuses on harms instead of ”crimes.” Contrary to the legal definition of crime, restorative justice proponents disagree that the ”state” is the aggrieved party. They argue that the definition of crime is a harm, injury, or wrong done to another individual. The response of society should be first to acknowledge the hurt and injury that has occurred. Then there should be attention to the needs of the victim and then the offender. Thus a crime is seen not simply as an occasion for the state to inflict punishment, but as an opportunity for the community to intervene and help both the victim and the offender.
Perspectives such as that of the Schwendingers and the restorative justice perspective, see the usual emphasis on crime as too narrow. Such criminologists think that the criminal justice system puts too much emphasis on street crime and not enough on crimes of the powerful. These criminologists contend that corporations can and do perpetrate ”crimes” or injuries. Jeffrey Reiman argues that while the FBI focuses on homicide, many more Americans are dying from occupational hazards at work or from hospital malpractice. But because our country protects both corporations and doctors, there is considerably less enforcement of statutes pertaining to workplace crime. The result is that ”the rich get richer and the poor get prison.”
John Hagan emphasizes that crime and our conceptions of crime are changeable. For example, in the 1920s the USA defined the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol as criminal. Today alcohol production and consumption is a vital part of our economy. Instead of pursuing bootleggers, contemporary police are pursuing drug dealers.
Two common ways of measuring crime are arrest statistics reported in the FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and victimization studies such as the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The FBI Crime Index is composed of violent and property offenses. Murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault make up the Violent Crime Index. Larceny-theft, burglary, and arson compose the Property Crime Index.
In 2007, in the USA, there were over 11.2 million offenses reported to the police for an Index Crime rate of 3,370.4 offenses per 100,000 residents. This rate was down 2 percent from 2006 and down 32 percent from 1993. Some attribute this decline to less reporting of crime to the police, more effective use of policing, increased incarceration, changes in demand for illegal drugs, especially crack cocaine, decreased availability of guns, improvement in the economy, and changes in youth attitudes. Criminologist John Conklin has done a thorough analysis of the dramatic crime decline in the 1990s. He concludes that the increased use of imprisonment was the major factor in the crime decline, followed by changes in the crack market and a switch to marijuana.
The NCVS reads descriptions of personal and property crimes to survey respondents who answer whether they have been a victim of such incidents in the past 6 months. Victimization studies have helped criminologists study crime because they allow for the analysis of crimes that do not get reported to the police, what some call the dark figure of crime. In 2006 US residents aged 12 or older experienced approximately 25 million violent and property victimizations. The rate of violent victimization decreased 44 percent from 1993 to 2006. Concerning property crime, from 1993 to 2006, the household burglary rate fell 40 percent; the rate of theft declined 40 percent; and the auto theft rate decreased 49 percent.
In summary, police, prosecutors, correctional officials, and criminologists act on the assumption that the conventional definition of crime is both generally accepted and valid. But there are other definitions of crime, especially the definitions proposed by critical criminologists and restorative justice theoreticians, that raise important questions about our understanding of crime and our reaction to it.
- Braithwaite, J. (2002) Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Conklin, J. (2003) Why the Crime Rates Fell. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA.
- Gottfredson, M. R. & Hirschi, T. (1990) A General Theory ofCrime. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
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