How might we define crime?

What is crime? It might seem simple enough to explain for we all know have some idea of what is legal and what is not. Crime has been described as a ‘violation of the criminal law’ (Heidensohn. F, 1989) which links crime with law breaking. There are many different ways to define crime; many different groups have their own definitions of crime. There is the dictionary definition, which is how most people would define crime. This is a broad definition for there are several areas that are not clearly determined with in these definitions. There are categories that can determine crime in more detail; these others include a legal definition of crime, which is determined uncritically by criminologists. Also the human rights and social harms definition of crime that looks at activities that may violate the code of human rights. The social process approach can also help in defining crime for incorporates the idea that laws are determined society’s views and fears of criminal acts. Each is a fundamental part of society and cannot be separated easily from the way that society operates. Any attempt to make the separation would undoubtedly forget critical issues that aid in the understanding of crime.

A dictionary definition of crime is broad and does not provide a useful definition. For example the Macquarie Dictionary definition tells us:


1. an act committed or an omission of duty, injurious to the public welfare, for which punishment is prescribed by law, imposed in a judicial proceeding usually bought in the name of the state.

2. serious violation of human law: steeped in crime

3. any offence, esp one of grave character

4. serious wrongdoing; sin

5. colloq a foolish or senseless act: it’s a crime to have to work so hard”

Although these dictionaries are used throughout the world they do not provide a useful definition, for it leaves many questions, if a crime is an act punishable by law, are there no crimes that are not punishable by law? (Israel. M, 2003) Ideas about sins can be so controversial, define a sin. Who decides what is a grave or a senseless act? For example in today’s society people have a wide range of views of when is it or not acceptable for a women to have an abortion. If an unmarried girl falls pregnant under unfortunate circumstances and wishes to terminate the pregnancy, this may seem perfectly acceptable to her peers but also may be frowned upon by people from an older generation. Due to her circumstances is it a sin? There fore is it a crime?

The legal definition of crime contains several elements that can be traced back to the twelfth century English common law. First of all a crime must be prohibited by criminal law, therefore a punishment must be provided for a crime. The formal purpose of criminal law was to protect the public from the wrongdoing of others. The criminal law categorizes crime in two ways. First, crimes are either mala in se or mala prohibita. Mala in se or acts that are evil in themselves, these acts are ‘so inherently evil that they are universally considered evil’ (Beirne. P, 1995) an example of a mala in se type of offence is homicide. Mala prohibita are acts prohibited by law, the list of which changes as society evolves. For example offences such as drug abuse or gambling are considered criminal because society seeks to regulate these particular types of behaviour. Such offences often drift in and out of legal codes, their status determined by current public opinion, custom, or religious standards. In an ideal world the punishment for crimes should be scaled according to the severity of the offences. For example murder is widely considered an offence worthy of the death penalty or life imprisonment. Some harmful offences however do not result in such serious punishments as others. White-collar offences for example often involve large sums of money and affect large groups of people. They usually have shorter terms of imprisonment than such offences as armed robbery or burglary. A reason for this inequality is usually determined by the social status of the offender. For example a bank president who has embezzled bank funds is not usually viewed as a common