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darkly shaded painting of two winged angels chasing a man who runs away from a fallen, naked man attacked and subdued for his clothing
Justice and Divine Vengeance in pursuit of Crime— 1808 oil-on-canvas by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Crime is the breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority (via mechanisms such as legal systems) can ultimately prescribe a conviction. Individual human societies may each define crime and crimes differently. While every crime violates the law, not every violation of the law counts as a crime; for example: breaches of contract and of other civil law may rank as " offences" or as " infractions". Modern societies generally regard crimes as offences against the public or the state, as distinguished from torts (offences against private parties that can give rise to a civil cause of action).

When informal relationships and sanctions prove insufficient to establish and maintain a desired social order, a government or a state may impose more formalized or stricter systems of social control. With institutional and legal machinery at their disposal, agents of the State can compel populations to conform to codes, and can opt to punish or attempt to reform those who do not conform.

Authorities employ various mechanisms to regulate (encouraging or discouraging) certain behaviours in general. Governing or administering agencies may for example codify rules into laws, police citizens and visitors to ensure that they comply with those laws, and implement other policies and practices which legislators or administrators have prescribed with the aim of discouraging or preventing crime. In addition, authorities provide remedies and sanctions, and collectively these constitute a criminal justice system. Legal sanctions vary widely in their severity, they may include (for example) incarceration of temporary character aimed at reforming the convict. Some jurisdictions have penal codes written to inflict permanent harsh punishments: legal mutilation, capital punishment or life without parole.

The sociologist Richard Quinney has written about the relationship between society and crime. When Quinney states "crime is a social phenomenon" he envisages both how individuals conceive crime and how populations perceive it, based on societal norms.

The label of "crime" and the accompanying social stigma normally confine their scope to those activities seen as injurious to the general population or to the State, including some that cause serious loss or damage to individuals. Those who apply the labels of "crime" or "criminal" intend to assert the hegemony of a dominant population, or to reflect a consensus of condemnation for the identified behaviour and to justify any punishments prescribed by the State (in the event that standard processing tries and convicts an accused person of a crime).

Usually a natural person perpetrates a crime, but legal persons may also commit crimes. Conversely, nonpersons such as dogs cannot commit crimes.


The word crime, from the root of Latin cernō = "I decide, I give judgment". Originally the Latin word crīmen meant " charge" or "cry of distress."


A normative definition views crime as deviant behaviour that violates prevailing norms – cultural standards prescribing how humans ought to behave normally. 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 changing definitions of crime and the form of the legal, law-enforcement, and penal responses made by society.

These structural realities remain fluid and often contentious. For example: as cultures change and the political environment shifts, societies may criminalise or decriminalise certain behaviours, which will directly affect the statistical crime rates, influence the allocation of resources for the enforcement of laws, and (re-)influence the general public opinion.

Similarly, changes in the collection and/or calculation of data on crime may affect the public perceptions of the extent of any given "crime problem". All such adjustments to crime statistics, allied with the experience of people in their everyday lives, shape attitudes on the extent to which the State should use law or social engineering to enforce or encourage any particular social norm. Behaviour can be controlled and influenced in many ways without having to resort to the criminal justice system.

Indeed, in those cases where no clear consensus exists on a given norm, the drafting of criminal law by the group in power to prohibit the behaviour of another group may seem to some observers an improper limitation of the second group's freedom, and the ordinary members of society have less respect for the law or laws in general — whether the authorities actually enforce the disputed law or not.

Legislatures can pass laws (called mala prohibita) that define crimes which violate social norms. These laws vary from time to time and from place to place: note variations in gambling laws, for example, and the prohibition or encouragement of duelling in history. Other crimes, called mala in se, count as outlawed in almost all societies, ( murder, theft and rape, for example).

English criminal law and the related criminal law of Commonwealth countries can define offences which the courts alone have developed over the years, without any actual legislation: common law offences. The courts used the concept of malum in se to develop various common law offences.


One can view criminalization as a procedure deployed by society as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to anyone proposing to engage in the behaviour causing harm. The State becomes involved because governing entities can become convinced that the costs of not criminalizing (through allowing the harms to continue unabated) outweigh the costs of criminalizing it (restricting individual liberty, for example, in order to minimize harm to others).

Criminalization may provide future harm-reduction at least to the outside population, assuming those shamed or incarcerated or otherwise restrained for committing crimes start out more prone to criminal behaviour. Likewise, one might assume that criminalizing acts which in themselves do not harm other people (" victimless crimes") may prevent subsequent harmful acts (assuming that people "prone" to commit these acts may tend to commit harmful actions in general). Some see the criminalization of "victimless crimes" as a pretext for imposing personal, religious or moral convictions on otherwise productive citizens or taxpayers.

Some commentators may see criminalization as a way to make potential criminals pay or suffer for their prospective crimes. In this case, criminalization becomes a way to set the price that one must pay to society for certain actions considered detrimental to society as a whole. An extreme view might see criminalization as State-sanctioned revenge.

States control the process of criminalization because:

  • Even if victims recognize their own role as victims, they may not have the resources to investigate and seek legal redress for the injuries suffered: the enforcers formally appointed by the State often have better access to expertise and resources.
  • The victims may only want compensation for the injuries suffered, while remaining indifferent to a possible desire for deterrence.
  • Fear of retaliation may deter victims or witnesses of crimes from taking any action. Even in policed societies, fear may inhibit from reporting incidents or from co-operating in a trial.
  • Victims, on their own, may lack the economies of scale which might allow them to administer a penal system, let alone to collect any fines levied by a court. Garoupa & Klerman (2002) warn that a rent-seeking government has as its primary motivation to maximize revenue and so, if offenders have sufficient wealth, a rent-seeking government will act more aggressively than a social-welfare-maximizing government in enforcing laws against minor crimes (usually with a fixed penalty such as parking and routine traffic violations), but more laxly in enforcing laws against major crimes.
  • As a result of the crime, victims may die or become incapacitated.


The idea of crime has a long history. Some religious communities regard sin as a crime; some may even highlight the crime of sin very early in legendary or mythological accounts of origins — note the tale of Adam and Eve and the theory of original sin. What one group considers a crime may cause or ignite war or conflict. However, the earliest known civilizations had codes of law, containing both civil and penal rules mixed together, though not always in recorded form.

The Sumerians produced the earliest surviving written codes. Urukagina (reigned c .2380 BC–2360 BC, short chronology) had an early code that has not survived; a later king, Ur-Nammu, left the earliest extant written law-system, the Code of Ur-Nammu (c .2100-2050 BC), which prescribed a formal system of penalties for specific cases in 57 articles. The Sumerians later issued other codes, including the "code of Lipit-Ishtar". This code, from the 20th century BCE, contains some fifty articles, and scholars have reconstructed it by comparing several sources.

The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his King, his superior, or his equal. No wonder that the Sumerians were the first to compile laws and law codes.
— Kramer

Successive legal codes in Babylon, including the code of Hammurabi (c. 1790 BC), reflected Mesopotamian society's belief that law derived from the will of the gods (see Babylonian law). Many states at this time functioned as theocracies, with codes of conduct largely religious in origin or reference.

Sir Henry Maine (1861) studied the ancient codes available in his day, 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", the so-called penal law of ancient communities did not deal with "crimes" (Latin: crimina), but with "wrongs" (Latin: delicta). Thus the Hellenic laws treated all forms of theft, assault, rape, and murder as private wrongs, and left action for enforcement up to the victims or their survivors. The earliest systems seem to have lacked formal courts.

The Romans systematized law and applied their system across the Roman Empire. Again, the initial rules of Roman Law regarded assaults as a matter of private compensation. The most significant Roman Law concept involved dominion. The pater familias owned all the family and its property (including slaves); the pater enforced matters involving interference with any property. The Commentaries of Gaius (written between 130 and 180 AD) on the Twelve Tables treated furtum (in modern parlance: "theft") as a tort.

Similarly, assault and violent robbery involved trespass as to the pater's property (so, for example, the rape of a slave could become 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 only the payment of monetary compensation (modern " damages") could discharge. Similarly, the consolidated Teutonic laws of the Germanic tribes, included a complex system of monetary compensations for what courts would now consider the complete range of criminal offences against the person, from murder down.

Even though Rome abandoned its Britannic provinces around 400 AD, the Germanic mercenaries – who had largely become instrumental in enforcing Roman rule in Britannia – acquired ownership of land there and continued to use a mixture of Roman and Teutonic Law, with much written down under the early Anglo-Saxon Kings. But only when a more centralized English monarchy emerged following the Norman invasion, and when the kings of England attempted to assert power over the land and its peoples, did the modern concept emerge, namely of a crime not only as an offence against the "individual", but also as a wrong against the "State".

This idea came from common law, and the earliest conception of a criminal act involved 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 English criminal trials involved wholly extraordinary and arbitrary courts without any settled law to apply, whereas the civil (delictual) law operated in a highly developed and consistent manner (except where a King wanted to raise money by selling a new form of writ). The development of the idea that the "State" dispenses justice in a court only emerges in parallel with or after the emergence of the concept of sovereignty.

In continental Europe, Roman law persisted, but with a stronger influence from the Christian Church. Coupled with the more diffuse political structure based on smaller feudal units, various different legal traditions emerged, remaining more strongly rooted in Roman jurisprudence, but modified to meet the prevailing political climate.

In Scandinavia the effect of Roman law did not become apparent until the 17th century, and the courts grew out of the things — the assemblies of the people. The people decided the cases (usually with largest freeholders dominating). This system later gradually developed into a system with a royal judge nominating a number of the most esteemed men of the parish as his board, fulfilling the function of "the people" of yore.

From the Hellenic system onwards, the policy rationale for requiring the payment of monetary compensation for wrongs committed has involved the avoidance of feuding between clans and families. If compensation could mollify families' feelings, this would help to keep the peace. On the other hand, the institution of oaths also played down the threat of feudal warfare. Both in archaic Greece and in medieval Scandinavia, an accused person walked free if he could get a sufficient number of male relatives to swear him unguilty. (Compare the United Nations Security Council, in which the veto power of the permanent members ensures that the organization does not become involved in crises where it could not enforce its decisions.)

These means of restraining private feuds did not always work, and sometimes prevented the fulfillment of justice. But in the earliest times the "state" did not always provide an independent policing force. Thus criminal law grew out what 21st-century lawyers would call torts; and, in real terms, many acts and omissions classified as crimes actually overlap with civil-law concepts.

The development of sociological thought from the 19th century onwards prompted some fresh views on crime and criminality, and fostered the beginnings of criminology as a study of crime in society. Nietzsche noted a link between crime and creativity – in The Birth of Tragedy he asserted: "The best and brightest that man can acquire he must obtain by crime". In the 20th century Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish made a study of criminalization as a coercive method of state control.

Natural-law theory

Justifying the State's use of force to coerce compliance with its laws has proven a consistent theoretical problem. One of the earliest justifications involved the theory of natural law. This posits that the nature of the world or of human beings underlies the standards of morality or constructs them. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century: "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). He regarded people as by nature rational beings, concluding that it becomes 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 and coercing people to conform to that law is morally acceptable. In the 1760s William Blackstone (1979: 41) described 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."

But John Austin (1790–1859), an early positivist, applied utilitarianism in accepting the calculating nature of human beings and the existence of an objective morality. He denied that the legal validity of a norm depends on whether its content conforms to morality. Thus in Austinian terms 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 remains free to choose what he or she will do. Similarly, Hart (1961) saw the law as an aspect of sovereignty, with lawmakers 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 simply involved internal logic and consistency, and that the state's agents used state power with responsibility. Ronald Dworkin (2005) rejects Hart's theory and proposes that all individuals should expect the equal respect and concern of those who govern them as a fundamental political right. 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, despite everything, the majority of natural-law theorists have accepted the idea of enforcing the prevailing morality as a primary function of the law. This view entails the problem that it makes any moral criticism of the law impossible: if conformity with natural law forms a necessary condition for legal validity, all valid law must, by definition, count as morally just. Thus, on this line of reasoning, the legal validity of a norm necessarily entails its moral justice.

One can solve this problem by granting some degree of moral relativism and accepting that norms may evolve over time and, therefore, one can criticize the continued enforcement of old laws in the light of the current norms. People may find such law acceptable, but the use of State power to coerce citizens to comply with that law lacks moral justification. More recent conceptions of the theory characterise crime as the violation of individual rights.

Since society considers so many rights as natural (hence the term " right") rather than man-made, what constitutes a crime also counts as natural, in contrast to laws (seen as man-made). Adam Smith illustrates this view, saying that 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 therefore distinguishes between "criminality" (which derives from human nature) and "illegality" (which originates with the interests of those in power). Lawyers sometimes express the two concepts with the phrases malum in se and malum prohibitum respectively. They regard a "crime malum in se" as inherently criminal; whereas a "crime malum prohibitum" (the argument goes) counts as criminal only because the law has decreed it so.

This view leads to a seeming paradox: one can perform an illegal act without committing a 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.


Religious sentiment often becomes a contributory factor of crime. 1819 anti-Jewish riots in Frankfurt where rioters attacked Jewish businesses and destroyed property

Governments criminalise antisocial behaviour — and treat it within a system of offences against society — in order to justify the imposition of punishment. Authorities make a series of distinctions depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest(s), in crimes against:

  • honour
  • the administration of justice
  • law and order
  • patrimony
  • the person
  • personality of the State
  • personality rights
  • public administration
  • public economy, industry, and commerce
  • public morality
  • religious sentiment and faith
  • rights of the citizen

Or one can categorise crimes depending on the related punishment, with sentencing tariffs prescribed in line with the perceived seriousness of the offence. Thus fines and noncustodial sentences may address the crimes seen as least serious, with lengthy imprisonment or (in some jurisdictions) capital punishment reserved for the most serious.


Researchers and commentators may classify crime into categories, including:

  • property crime
  • public order crime
  • violent crime

Analysts can also group crimes by severity, some common category-terms including:

  • Federal crimes (US, Canada, and Australia)
  • felonies (US and previously UK)
  • indictable offences (UK)
  • infractions (US)
  • misdemeanors (US and previously UK)
  • summary offences (UK)

U.S. classification

In the United States since 1930, the FBI has tabulated Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) annually from crime data submitted by law enforcement agencies across the United States. Officials compile this data at the city, county, and state levels into the Uniform crime reports (UCR). They classify violations of laws which derive from common law as Part I (index) crimes in UCR data, further categorised as violent or property crimes. Part I violent crimes include murder and criminal homicide (voluntary manslaughter), forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery; while Part I property crimes include burglary, arson, larceny/theft, and motor-vehicle theft. All other crimes count come under Part II.

For convenience, such lists usually include infractions although, in the U.S., they may come into the sphere not of the criminal law, but rather of the civil law. Compare tortfeasance.

Booking- arrests require detention for a time-frame ranging 1 to 24 hours.

Crimes in international law

Crimes defined by treaty as crimes against international law include:

  • crimes against peace
  • crimes of apartheid
  • genocide
  • piracy
  • slavery
  • waging a war of aggression
  • war crimes

From the point of view of State-centric law, extraordinary procedures (usually international courts) may prosecute such crimes. Note the role of the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Popular opinion in the Western World and Former Soviet Union often associates international law with the concept of opposing terrorism — seen as a crime as distinct from warfare.

Religion and crime

Different religious traditions may promote distinct norms of behaviour, and these in turn may clash or harmonise with the perceived interests of a state. Socially accepted or imposed religious morality has influenced secular jurisdictions on issues that may otherwise concern only an individual's conscience. Activities sometimes criminalized on religious grounds include (for example) alcohol-consumption ( prohibition), abortion and stem-cell research. In various historical and present-day societies institutionalized religions have established systems of earthly justice which punish crimes against the divine will and against specific devotional, organizational and other rules under specific codes, such as Islamic sharia or Roman Catholic canon law.

Military jurisdictions and states of emergency

In the military sphere, authorities can prosecute both regular crimes and specific acts (such as mutiny or desertion) under martial-law codes that either supplant or extend civil codes in times of (for example) war.

Many constitutions contain provisions to curtail freedoms and criminalize otherwise tolerated behaviors under a state of emergency in the event of war, natural disaster or civil unrest. Undesired activities at such times may include assembly in the streets, violation of curfew, or possession of firearms.

Employee crime

Two common types of employee crime exist: embezzlement and sabotage.

The complexity and anonymity of computer systems may help criminal employees camouflage their operations. The victims of the most costly scams include banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and other large financial institutions.

Most people guilty of embezzlement do not have criminal histories. Embezzlers tend to have a gripe against their employer, have financial problems, or simply an inability to resist the temptation of a loophole they have found. Screening and background checks on perspective employees can help in prevention; however, many laws make some types of screening difficult or even illegal. Fired or disgruntled employees sometimes sabotage their company's computer system as a form of " pay back". This sabotage may take the form of a logic bomb, a computer virus, or creating general havoc.

Some places of employment have developed measures in an attempt to combat and prevent employee crime. Places of employment sometimes implement security measures such as cameras, fingerprint records of employees, and background checks. Although privacy-advocates have questioned such methods, they appear to serve the interests of the organisations using them. Not only do these methods help prevent employee crime, but they protect the company from punishment and/or lawsuits for negligent hiring.

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