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as either mala in se (evil in and of itself) or

mala prohibita (proscribed by law). Additionally,

under the legalistic approach, for a crime to

occur, it must have three elements. The first feature

of any crime is that of a guilty act (actus reus).

The second feature is that of a guilty mind (mens

rea). Finally, both of these must concur — the criminal

act must converge with a culpable mental


Crimes are generally categorized as felonies,

misdemeanors, and acts of treason. Felonies are

the more serious transgressions and are usually

punishable by imprisonment for over a year. Misdemeanors

are considered less serious and punishments

range from community-based sanctions

through to jail time for less than one year. Treason

is an act against the state, thus reflected in

Federal Law, although some state constitutions

and statutes do contain treason definitions and


While seemingly accurate, the legalistic perspective

does not address the complexities and

intricacies of the conceptual problems surrounding

crime. Therefore the reliance on the legalistic

aspect only tells a partial story.

The conduct norm model for defining crime

is perhaps best described in Thorsten Sellin’s

Culture Conflict and Crime (1938). He postulated

that the norms and values of the dominant social

class are reflected in criminal law. There is, as a

result, a built-in opportunity for disagreement

and conflict between the dominant group and

subordinate sections of society. Frequently, splinter

groups emerge that are based on racial or

ethnic criteria of membership, and as a result

they formulate their own subcultures. From this

situation, a set of conduct norms evolve based

on their own values, beliefs, and interests. Therefore,

society can be regarded as a collection of

diverse groups that compete for scarce resources

because they possess conflicting interests and politics.

The perspective is built around a division

between the conflicting interests and resources

of dominant elites and those of marginalized

social groups, thus setting the stage for constant


Closely aligned to the conflict school of criminology,

definitions of crime within the conduct

norm perspective are constructed in the interests

of the dominant class. In other words, the group

exercises power in such a manner as to construct

criminal laws to reflect their economic and social

position and interests. Furthermore, laws are unevenly

applied in society. The poor and the underclass

are most susceptible to unequal and unfair

practices and treatment before the law. Examples

of this inequality are the harsh treatment and

punishments handed down for street crime, traditionally

attributed to offenders from the poor

and the underclass segments of society. Whitecollar

offences, such as embezzlement and insider

trading, have far-reaching fiduciary losses and

long-term implications for their victims, but they

carry with them relatively minor penalties in comparison

to street crimes. However, the treatment

of professional and business leaders in the Enron

accounting scandals in the United States may

suggest a change in legal attitudes towards such

business crimes.

According to the conduct norm perspective, definitions

of crime are controlled by the wealthy

and powerful people of position, not from the

broad consensus of society. Therefore, crime is a

political concept designed to protect the powerful

members of the ruling class. According to this

perspective, “real” crimes include economic and

political domination, poor and inadequate working

conditions, violations of human rights as reflected

by racism, sexism, and imperialism, and

inadequate opportunities for education, housing,

and health care, and unequal participation in

the political process.

Along with the conflict and conduct norm perspectives,

the symbolic interactionist perspective

began to challenge the legalistic perspective from

the 1970s. The interactionist perspective in defining

crime has its roots in the works of George

Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and

William I. Thomas. The tenets of this intellectual

tradition hold that people act in accordance to

their subjective interpretation of social reality,

through which they assign meaning to things

and events. Individuals learn the meaning of reality

based on the ways in which others react, either

negatively or positively, towards those social definitions.

From this reaction, a person re-evaluates

and interprets his or her own behavior in

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accordance with the meaning and symbols they

have learned from others.

The definition of crime reflects the preferences

and opinions of people who hold social power

in a given area. These individuals use their influence

to impose definitions of “right” and “wrong,”

“acceptable” or “unacceptable,” on the rest of the

population. As a result, criminals are those whom

society labels as undesirable or as outcasts. The

reason for this label is that they have behaved

in a manner counter to the norms and values of

the rest of the group. Crimes are outlawed because

society or the group defines them as such,

not necessarily because they are evil in and of


The interactionist perspective is similar to the

conflict tradition in that people of influence determine

the boundaries of acceptable conduct.

However, unlike the conflict school, the interactionists

in criminology do not assume that the

exploitative relations of capitalist society are the

chief determinant of the disparity. By contrast,

interactionists argue that the boundaries of behavior

are determined by moral crusaders, and

when morality shifts, so too do the criminal

laws. Larry Siegel sums up the interactionists’ definition

of crime in Criminology (2000: 20) by concluding

that “[c]rime is a violation of society rules

of behavior as interpreted and expressed by a

criminal legal code created by people holding

social and political power.”

Hagan in Modern Criminology (1987) identifies

several additional ways in which the term crime

can be defined. These definitions include: the

formal legal; social harm; cross-cultural universal

norm; labeling; human rights; and human diversity.

In line with the legalistic perspective, the

formal legal definition holds that whatever

the state defines as being criminal constitutes a

crime. Social harm, according to Hagan, includes

both civil wrongs (disputes between individuals)

and criminal actions (disputes between the state

and the individual). The universalistic interpretation

of crime assumes that there is no variation

in different societies. For example, the crime of

murder is a universal violation in all societies. A

crime can only exist when a society reacts to the

repulsiveness of its consequences. The foundation

of the labeling perspective therefore regards social

reaction to the offensive action as the most critical

issue. The most comprehensive way to define

crime is Hagan’s human rights perspective, in

which any action that violates an individual’s

human rights would constitute a crime. This

would include acts of oppression, sexism, and

racism. Finally, Hagan defines crime via a human

diversity approach. Related to the human rights

perspective, an action is a crime as a consequence

of the social deprivations that arise from

oppressive and discriminatory situations.

The determination of what exactly constitutes

a crime has far-reaching consequences. It is not

just the philosophical considerations that are

taken into account when trying to set the boundaries

for acceptable and unacceptable social behavior.

The process of defining a behavior as

criminal is left to the legal scholars and criminologists

to determine. However, the practical ramifications

are important for policymakers. How a

society decides to respond to and enforce the laws

is somewhat dependent on the perceived legitimacy

of the existing law. For example, laws that

prohibit the personal use of marijuana have not

been enforced to the full extent that law permits.

Rather, the law enforcement community, in some

areas, has been implicitly tolerant of the infraction,

thus giving it a degree of legitimacy.

The study of crime has captured the attention of

many different academic fields. Many schools of

criminology have emerged over the past decades,

and in the social sciences the study of crime is

multidisciplinary, including sociology, psychology,

biology, economics, ecology, and law. In

historical terms, criminology is a new member of

the social sciences. Within these social sciences,

countless research programs have been conducted

over the decades in order to understand the process

of criminality, and how and why crime occurs.

The search for causal answers to the existence of

crime has covered free-will arguments, biological

and genetic causes, psychological and sociological

variables, and more recently environmental


Eugene McLaughlin, John Muncie, and Gordon

Hughes in Criminological Perspectives (2005: 8–9)

claim that crime is a “social fact.” Crime is a

product of free will, meaning that offenders

make rational choices when deciding to engage

in specific criminal behaviors. This viewpoint is

compatible with the classical school of criminology’s

founding fathers. Cesare Beccaria (1738–94),

a utilitarian philosopher, believed that people

exercise free will when they choose to engage in

any form of behavior, including criminal actions.

He also argued that people’s choices could be

influenced by the level of the corresponding punishment,

which should be proportionate, swift,

severe, and certain. Another juridical philosopher,

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) postulated

that humans considered several factors before

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engaging in a particular behavior. Specifically, the

hedonistic or “felicific calculus” measured various

aspects of pleasure and pain, thus providing a

framework for decisionmaking. Simply stated, if

the pleasure gained from engaging in the activity

outweighs the pain associated with it, the person

will engage in the crime. Derek Cornish and

Ronald V. Clarke in The Reasoning Criminal: Rational

Choice Perspectives on Offending (1986) further developed

the idea of a rational criminal by exploring

the decisionmaking process of contemporary

offenders. Deciding on whether or not to engage

in crime, the person considers personal circumstances

and motivations, such as the need for

money, revenge, in relation to situational constraints

or opportunities, for example the degree

to which a target is protected, secure, or monitored.

The decision to commit the crime will

take into account the risks of apprehension and

the threat of punishment against the benefits

of partaking in the activity. It is a matter of personal

choice, given the availability of attendant


Since the earliest foundations of criminology,

biological causes of crime have also been assessed,

especially in the debate about “criminal types.”

Cesare Lombroso (1836–1909) studied physical attributes

of offenders in Italian prisons and concluded

that there were indeed “born criminals.”

Other biologically related studies included works

by Enrico Ferri (1856–1929) and William Sheldon

(1898–1977). In contemporary criminology, there

is a renewed interest in turning to genetics in the

explanation of crime. In particular, studies have

focused on chromosomal abnormalities, chemical

imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies among

offenders. The research results of this approach

are mixed and inconclusive in their findings, but

the resurgence in biological theories has been significant

in modern criminology. The search for a

“criminal gene” is perhaps the most prominent

feature of this resurgence.

Psychological approaches to the study of crime

examine how and why the mind operates and

therefore influences individuals to commit crime.

Historically, the ideas of Sigmund Freud were influential

in suggesting a variety of conditions,

such as the weakened ego or superego structures,

that fail to contain the urges of the id, in the

explanation of criminal behavior. In addition to

the psychoanalytical approach, cognitive theories

approach crime slightly differently. Cognitive

theorists believe that crime occurs as a result

of a particular pattern of thinking, which

often includes short-term, self-indulgent, and

self-gratifying actions in the absence of thoughts

about how the behavior may affect others.

The sociological approach to crime is by far the

most common and popular among those available.

These sociological approaches evolved out

of the weakness of biological and psychological

theories in their ability to describe and explain

fully the occurrence of crime. Jay Albanese in

Criminal Justice (2002) categorizes the sociological

approaches to crime into four types: learning theories;

blocked opportunity theories; social bond

theories; and choice-based theories, which have

been discussed previously. Edwin H. Sutherland

in Principles of Criminology (1934) first posited that,

along with all other forms of behavior, crime is

learned. Individuals learn how to behave by watching

others or through role modeling. In essence,

those who commit crime have interacted with

others who have committed crime, thus learning

the process of committing the particular offense,

including ways of eluding police, or improving

their criminal technique. Theories highlighting

blocked opportunities developed during the

1940s–1950s, resulting eventually in the classic

work of Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin

in Delinquency and Opportunity (1960). Crime, according

to these theories, occurs as a result of individuals

encountering structural barriers that

prohibit them from achieving culturally acceptable

goals through legitimate means. Travis

Hirschi in his seminal research on the social

bond in Causes of Delinquency (1969) found that

the degree to which a person is “tied” to society

directly reflects the probability of committing

crime. In other words, someone who has a great

deal of attachment to a community, including

feelings of commitment to others, to conventional

activities, and to a sense of moral values, is less

likely to commit a crime.

A final approach to the study of crime is the

environmental perspectives. According to Jacqueline

Schneider in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

(2006), environmental criminology is a

theoretical tradition that examines crime in relation

to its physical setting. Anthony Bottoms and

Paul Wiles in “Environmental Criminology,” in

the Oxford Handbook of Criminology (2002), also

claim that environmental criminology, rooted

theoretically in human and social ecology, studies

crime, criminality, and victimization in relation

to place, space, and the interaction between the

two. Of particular concern to environmental criminologists

is the manner in which criminal opportunities

are generated by the characteristics

and attributes of the physical setting. The overall

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aim is to identify methods by which to alter these

spatial characteristics in order to reduce criminal

opportunities at various points in time. Although

environmental criminology has been historically

under-utilized within mainstream criminology,

the perspective has been gaining prominence

since the 1970s.

Pat Brantingham and Paul Brantingham in Environmental

Criminology (1991) observe that crime

has four determinants: law; offenders; targets;

and places. Classical criminology has focused on

the legal aspects, while the positivists have concentrated

their work on the offenders and their

motivations. Environmental criminology addresses

the last two determinants, targets and


criminal justice system

This refers to a set of legal and social institutions

established to enforce the criminal law in accordance

with defined procedural rules and limitations

in any one country, society, or subdivision

of a society.

There are generally four key elements in a criminal

justice system: (1) law enforcement – involving

the police, prosecution, and defense, which deal

with offenders from the stage of reporting of a

crime and arrest to prosecution in court; (2) the

courts – which normally make decisions about pretrial

detention, adjudicate on the guilt of offenders,

and decide on sentences for those convicted; (3) the

penal system(or department of corrections) – which

involves fine enforcement through the courts, and

the delivery of penalties through community-based

penalties and intermediate sanctions such as

supervision, probation, and prisons, jails, or reformatories.

In addition, parole agencies or boards

determine whether or not offenders might be released

from custody early and under what conditions;

(4) the fourth element of criminal justice

concerns crime prevention – which, in addition to

the agencies already mentioned, often involves a

local or regional unit of government and a wider

group of agencies which address broad social and

structural conditions that may lead to crime

(for example, drug addiction help sources and

housing advisory services). In addition, there are

numerous other agencies whose work involves

criminal law enforcement: vehicle licensing agencies,

tax authorities, and transport authorities, for


The criminal justice system in each jurisdiction

undergoes periodic change, most often following

a change in government and ideological direction,

or following media attention to a miscarriage of

justice or a moral panic regarding particular

crimes. The shape of the criminal justice system

may also be influenced by business and publicemployee

organizations, which have a major stake

in criminal justice issues. Although legislators and

other elected officials are not involved in individual

cases, they are involved in the formulation of

criminal laws and criminal justice policy, and this

necessarily has a major impact on the way in

which a system functions.

Other institutions may also affect the operations

and policy of criminal justice. In Europe,

for example, the European Court of Human Rights

serves to protect the rights and liberties of individuals

within Europe. In this sense, the European

Court serves as a final appeal court for those dealt

with within European criminal justice systems.

There have been longstanding debates about

how far agencies of the criminal justice system

cooperate, how far they have a shared vision, and

how far they might be said to serve as a smoothfunctioning

system rather than as a series of

loosely connected agencies. In this sense, we may

distinguish between agency-specific functions and

the goals of the system as a whole. Existing

systems include some ancient components (for

example, jury trials) and some which are of recent

origin (for example, specialized drug courts).

There are many variations in criminal justice

systems around the world. Crime, guilt, and

punishment are conceived and dealt with very

differently according to the laws and cultures

of different countries. The operation of any one

criminal justice system inevitably raises issues of

fairness and equality, rights, and responsibilities.

Crime control (with a focus on repressing criminal

conduct) and due process (with a focus on the

inviolability of legal rules and procedures so as

to protect the offender and victim from the arbitrary

exercise of power) have been presented as

alternative models of criminal justice by Herbert

Packer in The Limits of the Criminal Sanction (1968) as

if systems are one or the other, but often criminal

justice systems are a mixture of these values or

completely different.

In Australia and New Zealand, for example,

crimes are perceived as community conflicts and

resolved outside the formal criminal justice

system via local restorative justice mechanisms

which involve local families and communities

meeting to resolve the conflicts and find informal

ways of repairing the harm done. Such approaches

(sometimes known as family-group conferencing)

are commonly used by indigenous populations.

Increasingly, criminal justice systems across the

criminal justice system criminal justice system


world are expressing interest in the possibility of

adopting and adapting elements of this approach

as an adjunct to the formal system.


criminal statistics

– see crime.


The study of crime has a longstanding and rich

history. In its earliest days, criminology was

thought to encompass any study that pertained

to the problem of crime. This simple description

was born out of a fundamental desire to know

more about deviant behavior, those actions that

violated social norms and mores. Today, criminology

is an advanced theoretical field of study

pertaining to crime, criminal events, the actors —

offenders, victims, and those who respond to

crime – the etiology of crime, legal foundations

and parameters, and societal reactions to crime.

However, the definition, while accurate, is somewhat

misleading and seemingly uncomplicated.

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