Crime, or behaviour which goes against the criminal law, covers a very wide variety of acts, from the relatively trivial, such as possessing class C drugs to the very serious such as murder.
A definition of Crime
A simple, starting point definition of crime is:
Crime – the term used to describe behaviour which is against the criminal law. Crime is law-breaking behaviour.
What counts as criminal behaviour thus varies depending on what the laws of a society deem to be illegal. What is legal in one country may not be legal in another.
(A closely related concept to crime is deviance which is rule-breaking behaviour which fails to conform to the norms and expectations of a particular society or social group. Criminal behaviour is usually also deviant behaviour, but there is a lot of deviant behaviour which isn’t criminal.
This post focuses on the questions of what crime and criminal behaviour are (for deviance please see this post). It has been written primarily as an introduction to the Crime and Deviance module for A-level sociology students.
The social Construction of Crime
Newburn (2007) suggests that crime is basically a label that is attached to certain forms of behaviour which are prohibited by the state (government), and have some legal penalty against them. While crime therefore seems easy to define, as the law states what a criminal act is, there is no act that is criminal in itself. An act only becomes a crime when agents of the state label that act as criminal in a particular context. For example, killing someone with a knife during a fight outside a pub in the UK is a criminal offence, but killing an armed combatant during wartime with a knife is not.
Criminal law also varies from country to country, and criminal law changes over time within one country, which reinforces the idea that there is no such thing as an inherently criminal act.
If we examine how the law differs from country to country, it shows us the extent to which ‘crime is socially constructed’.
One example is the variations in the laws surrounding homosexuality – which is punishable by death in 12 countries, but in the United Kingdom and many other European countries it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality.
A second example is that women in Saudi Arabia are still effectively banned from wearing clothes which ‘show off their beauty’ (according to this article in The Week, January 2020), however this is open to interpretation, and some resistance from women flouting the rules, as the case from 2017 below demonstrates…
Discussion Question: why might the law (and thus the nature and extent of ‘crime’) vary so much across countries?
The Law in England and Wales
While you don’t need an in-depth understanding of the legal system it is useful to know something about it because it will help you understand where the law comes from and thus how the law changes, and consequently how crime changes over time.
There are two main sources of law in England and Wales
- Common Law, which evolves through decisions made by judges at trials, which set precedents for future trials.
- Statute Law, which comes about through an Act of Parliament – typically through bills proposed by members of parliament which are debated and modified, often over several months, which then become acts of law.
The Gradual Evolution of Common Law in England and Wales
English criminal law derives its main principles from common law. The main elements of a crime are the actus reus (doing something which is criminally prohibited) and a mens rea (having the requisite criminal state of mind, usually intention or recklessness). A prosecutor must show that a person has caused the offensive conduct, or that the culprit had some pre-existing duty to take steps to avoid a criminal consequence. The types of different crimes range from those well-known ones like manslaughter, murder, theft and robbery to a plethora of regulatory and statutory offences. Today it is estimated that in the UK, there are 3,500 classes of criminal offence.
Parliamentary Acts and Changes to Law in England and Wales
Over the last two centuries, many new laws have been introduced through over 4500 Acts of Parliament which have responded to various social changes, one of the most recent being the ‘Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016 which made it illegal to supply a number of so called ‘legal highs’.
One single act can also make a number of behaviors illegal – such as with the 2010 equality act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate against Transgender people and pregnant women.
NB – The fact that there are so many acts of Parliament demonstrates the extent to which crime is socially constructed. Since 2010 there have been more than 200 new Acts of Parliament.
The gradual evolution of the law and thus crime can be illustrated by some examples outline in this blog post: the social construction of crime.
The main categories of crime in England and Wales
Today, The Crown Prosecution Service recognises eleven classes of criminal offence, ranging from very serious (class A) through to Miscellaneous lesser offences (class I).
- Class A: Homicide and related grave offences. E.g. Murder
- Class B: Offences involving serious violence or damage, and serious drugs offences. E.g. kidnapping, armed robbery.
- Class C: Lesser offences involving violence or damage, and less serious drugs offences – e.g. possession of firearm without certificate.
- Class D: Sexual offences, and offences against children – e.g. sexual assault.
- Class E: Burglary etc. – Domestic and Non-Domestic and ‘going equipped to steal’.
- Class F- K: Theft and Fraud etc. – e.g. possession of articles for use in frauds; counterfeiting notes and coins.
- Class H: Miscellaneous lesser offences – e.g. – Possession of Class B or C drug.
- Class I: Offences against public justice and similar offences –e.g. Intimidating Witnesses
- Class J: Serious sexual offences, offences against children – e.g. Trafficking out of UK for sexual exploitation
A quick look at a snapshot of the Crown Prosecution’s categories of offences demonstrates how crime is socially constructed – More acts become criminal as the law evolves. The table below shows how a whole raft of behaviours suddenly became ‘constructed’ as criminal following the 1998 criminal justice act, such as breaching an ASBO (ASBOs didn’t exist prior to 1998!).
The Criminal Justice System (FYI)
For those that are charged, they will either appear in Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.
Virtually all criminal cases start in the Magistrates’ courts. The less serious offences are handled entirely in the magistrates’ court. Over 95% of all cases are dealt with in this way. The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, to be dealt with by a judge and jury.
Magistrates mainly deal with
- Summary offences. These are less serious cases, such as motoring offences and minor assaults, where the defendant is not entitled to trial by jury and
- Either-way offences. As the name implies, these can be dealt with either by the magistrates or before a judge and jury at the Crown Court. Such offences include theft and handling stolen goods. A suspect can insist on their right to trial in the Crown Court. Similarly, magistrates can decide that a case is sufficiently serious that it should be dealt with in the Crown Court – which can impose tougher punishments.
If a case is to be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court, the defendant will have to enter a plea.If they plead guilty or if they are later found to be guilty, the magistrates can impose a sentence of up to six months imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000. If the defendant is found not guilty (if they are ‘acquitted’), they are judged innocent in the eyes of the law and should be free to go – provided there are no other cases against them outstanding.
Because of the seriousness of offences tried in the Crown Court, these trials take place with a judge and jury. The Crown Court deals with Indictable-only offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery or less serious offences that are too complex for the magistrate’s court
If the defendant is found not guilty, they are discharged and no conviction is recorded against their name. If the defendant is found guilty, they are sentenced and the courts can impose four levels of sentence, depending on the seriousness of the offence:
- Community sentences
When deciding what sentence to impose, magistrates and judges have to take account of both the facts of the case and the circumstances of the offender.
A sentence needs to:
- Protect the public;
- Punish the offender fairly and appropriately;
- Encourage the offender to make amends for their crime;
- Contribute to crime reduction by stopping reoffending.