The widespread use of the term ‘Crime’ makes it important to define the boundaries which construct it; however, doing so is not simply a matter of common sense. There are a number of complex political and economic forces which help to define crime in practice within a specific society. The most commonly accepted definition of crime is ‘an act that is capable of being followed by criminal proceedings’, (Williams, 1955, p.107) which provides us with a wide classification of the term in that the only common element of crime is that previous legal proceedings have outlined it as such.
The idea of the need for punishment is a common element to defining crime; however it may also include any action or omission which causes harm to person or property or in any way violates the criminal law. The concept of crime often, but not necessarily, involves violation of moral codes followed by some level of social disapproval but is it important to recognise that not all crimes are disapproved of by all people. (Sammons, n.d.) This highlights one of the difficulties associated with defining crime as smaller incidences such as stealing office stationary would not be objected by the majority of the population and would often not result in legal action, however by law this is still considered a crime despite not having such qualities. Dictionary definitions of the term generally add a more evaluative element by describing it as ‘an evil … act’ and therefore applying some level of malice. (Oed.com, n.d.) This malicious view of crime is one which is regularly presented in the media, such portrayals are often ‘associated with personal terror and fear [and] violence is seen as central’ (White and Haines, 2000, p.7), in addition, crime is often seen to be of a random nature and committed by those with no connections to the victim. Therefore, media plays a large part in shaping the public’s definition of crime, ignorant to the differences between this view and the real nature of crime.
It is possible to determine four main frameworks in which it is possible to make sense of the ways crime can be defined, although each demonstrates noticeable difficulties associated with defining the concept of crime. (Morrison, 2009) The first of these is crime as a social construction; this poses a difficulty for creating a general definition of crime as it varies across cultures. Media and its portrayal of crime within a specific society help to enhance this difficulty as public awareness of crime is mostly gained through the electronic and print media and therefore has a great impact on how crime is defined in society. In addition to this, crime works as ‘a label created in social interaction, but once created it has both a symbolic and practical reality’ (Morrison, 2009, p.12) and as a result crime becomes the product as opposed to the object of criminal policy. (Morrison, 2009, p.13) In such circumstances, criminal policy acts to define and create crime rather than to prevent it and so makes it challenging to apply a general definition before a crime has taken place.
The second framework is crime as defined by religious doctrine or authority; within this context there is both a conflict between what would be considered a crime by society and religion but also between religions themselves. Although less prominent in modern day society, a crime can be defined as an action that goes against the law of God. This is a clear and strict definition however disagreements occur between religions that have different ideas and interpretations regarding what the law of God actually entails. In such cases, there is again a similar difficulty in defining crime across religions as there is across societies; each has a separate idea of what constitutes law and therefore also of what acts would violate this law. (Morrison, 2009, p.14) Perhaps more importantly than this is the instances in which religious law differentiates from the law of the state in which it exists; when religion allows for something which the state does not. Honour killings and domestic abuse are examples of behaviour which may be sanctioned within a particular religion but would disagree with basic state law, most commonly in westernised societies. The state would often not view a person’s religion as justification for carrying out such crimes and thus clearly illustrates the difficulty in defining the concept of crime with the existence of differing views.
Crime can also be understood as a reflection of the law of a particular nation-state; an act can only be defined as criminal in accordance to the laws of the state in which it was committed. This creates a difficulty in defining crime as what may be considered a criminal action in one state or country may not be viewed the same way in another. Therefore, we must look at the particular laws of a society in order to determine whether or not an act is considered a crime in that instance. Wayne Morrison proposed that it is possible to overcome this problem by eliminating the term “crime” and replacing it with “deviance”; deviance is a concept that can be recognised globally as it takes into account the specific conditions of each separate society. (2009, p.12) Doing so would help to eradicate the issue of crime being defined in accordance to an individual’s particular world perspective and instead create a more widely applied definition.
Finally, more recently, concepts of crime have emerged that are formed beyond the constraints of specific nation-state laws from general social and political theory. In most western societies, crime is of individualistic responsibility and so places blame on individuals rather than the systems they are contained within. However, by viewing crime in relation to social and political theory it is possible to look at the causes of a person’s behaviour which may render them irresponsible for their actions and also to define actions as crimes which may not be considered so within the society itself. For example, during the reign of Hitler in Nazi Germany, the systematic slaughter of the Jewish race was not considered criminal; however, when viewed in retrospect, the Holocaust is considered to be the ‘greatest crime in history’. (Fackenheim, 1985, p.512) Regardless of German legislature at the time, it is widely agreed that the Holocaust was criminal, however, when it came to trial, only a small number of officers were named as personally responsible. (Finch, 1947) This is because it was decided that many of those involved could not be charged as they were simply following the instructions issued to them by their superiors and so did not willingly commit the crimes. Here we can see another difficulty emerging which affects the definition of crime which goes beyond the action itself and looks at the situation and individuals involved.
In most Western societies, the law states that in order for an action to qualify as a crime it must involve some degree of intention to violate the law and knowledge that it would do so and be carried out voluntarily. (Sammons, n.d.) This creates difficulty in defining the concept of crime as any action in isolation cannot be considered a crime without first looking at the circumstances surrounding it. Therefore, the same action could be classed as a crime in one instance and not in another depending on the mental state or situation of the persons involved. Another difficulty is related to the law itself; the law is socially created and therefore varies over time as social opinion changes. As a result, what is considered a crime in one period of time may not be the same for another. (White and Haines, 2000, p.6) Furthermore, there are often a number of political and social factors which may influence how an act is perceived and treated by the criminal justice system. (White and Haines, 2000, p.5) An example of this is soldiers at war; although what is essentially being committed is mass murder, it is not treated as so because it is carried out for the good of the country.
Overall, it can be argued that no action in itself is criminal; it is the consequences that follow which define it as being so. An act cannot be classed as a crime until the offender is caught and punished, in the absence of a public authority to do so, there is no crime. (Morrison, 2009, p.12, 15) From this we can see that there exist great difficulties associated with defining the concept of crime ranging from social and historical context to individual and personal circumstances. It is unlikely that a general definition of crime which would satisfy all possible elements of crime in all environments is reachable and so it is important to take into account such specific details when attempting to create a more specific, socially and historically bound definition of what constitutes a crime.