Crime | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Crime in modern societies can be defined officially as acts or omissions prohibited by law and punishable by sanctions. Although crime is sometimes viewed broadly as the equivalent of antisocial, immoral and sinful behaviour or as a violation of any important group standard, no act is legally a crime unless prohibited by law. Conceptions of crime vary widely from culture to culture; only treason (disloyalty to the group) and incest are condemned virtually universally, but they were not always treated as crimes.

Criminal Law

Laws generally reflect dominant group interests and serve to prohibit acts they fear will harm their structure; eg, heresy is labelled criminal by theocracies and other states where civil and religious codes of behaviour are not clearly distinguished from each other; totalitarian regimes make political dissent criminal, and capitalist societies proliferate statutes to protect private property (see Property Law).

Much behaviour defined as crime is morality-based, and as morals change, definitions of crime will vary over time. Adultery, fornication, Prostitution, Homosexuality and other disapproved forms of sexual activity sometimes fall under the Criminal Code of various contemporary societies and sometimes do not.

The killing of a human being, a crime in all civilized societies, may in primitive societies be considered a private matter to be settled within kin groups. In such societies, conduct is largely governed by custom and standards shared by all members. Infractions are treated as private wrongs rather than crimes, there is less concern with the state of mind or intention of the offender (see Mens Rea) and guilt is usually collectively assessed.

In nation states, where political and legal institutions are codified, crime is defined as violation of criminal law enforced by the state. The criminal codes of modern nations, however, are complicated, growing bodies of written rules.

History of Crime

The earliest comprehensive laws extant, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1900 BC), are apparently based on retribution - eg, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - but most early laws allow compensation of the value of an eye or a tooth or any other thing, including life. All codes reflect social class differences. Under Mosaic law the Ten Commandments have no punishment attached as such, but severe punishment is threatened for the breaking of all kinds of rules, many of them ritual in nature.

Their application, however, was limited by rules of procedure and evidence which were almost insurmountable as far as establishing a crime was concerned. The Greeks, too, allowed compensation; the word "punishment" in Greek meant harm money. After Solon, in the 6th century BC, all Athenian citizens had the right to initiate prosecutions. In Rome, civil law developed into a coherent system but Criminal Law remained largely a matter of local custom.

In medieval England, crime was not at first distinguished from what are now known as civil wrongs (tort), and even killing could be compensated by wergilt (man-money). Only the body of the king was excepted, and this exception is now the rule as "the King's peace" - a crime is still charged as having been committed against the Crown. A distinctive body of criminal law developed only after the Norman conquest.

Under the influence of Christianity, concepts such as guilt ("guilt" derives from geld-money paid for a fine) and sentence (first used in conjunction with excommunication) entered the law. Torture was used for extracting confessions, and punishments were harsh, but their application varied. Criminal prohibitions were increasingly used as a means of social control, as they are now.

In Canada offences are set out in the Criminal Code, numerous other federal statutes, provincial statutes and municipal bylaws. It has been estimated that there are about 40 000 offences, not counting those in municipal bylaws, for which Canadian citizens can be prosecuted. Ignorance of these offences is no defence. In addition, most of the more recent offences are ones of "absolute" liability, meaning that commission of an act (actus reus) alone constitutes guilt, without necessary proof of a mental element such as intent, recklessness or negligence (see Torts) or "strict" liability where the commission of the actus reus leads to the presumption of guilt unless an accused can rebut that presumption by proving that he or she took all necessary precaution to avoid committing the act.

Measurement and Statistics

Information about crime is generally derived from statistics coupled by a variety of official agencies and a Uniform Crime Reporting system was established in Canada in 1962. Such "official" statistics are known to have limitations and a variety of supplemental collection activities such as self-report and victim surveys are utilized in attempts to shed light on "dark" or unreported criminal activity.

Some crime, especially that involving sexual and physical assault between family members, tends to be underreported and it is thus difficult to establish whether incidents such as wife beating and Child Abuse are increasing or whether they are more frequently detected, reported and prosecuted.

Serious problems continue to plague the collecting and processing of national data and, as a result, in 1981 the National Justice Statistics Initiative was formed with shared responsibility between federal, provincial and territorial departments responsible for the administration of justice. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics develops and implements the statistical surveys and disseminates the information. More reliable and useful data is now being collected, although national surveys in all of the major justice sectors will still take years to implement.

Causes and Explanations of Crime

Contemporary literature on causes of crime is linked with literature in anthropology, psychiatry, social psychology and sociology. Criminologists have studied how people become criminals and the relation of crime rates to culture and social organization. Little systematic theoretical research on crime was conducted until the 20th century; before that, this subject was generally treated by theologians, physicians and reformers.

During the past 100 years, crime has been blamed on the biological constitution and heredity of offenders, their psychological makeup and social conditions. It has also been seen as an expression of political power. Offenders are a selected group identified by official agencies, but many other people actually commit crimes.

Also, crime involves so many different situations and acts that it is difficult to generalize. The definition of crime is not static but contextual; eg, the overrepresentation of native people in Canadian prisons may reveal more about cultural differences and social deprivation than about criminal behaviour as such. The 2 territories have consistently a much higher crime rate and imprisonment rate than any of the provinces

It is now generally agreed that what is defined and measured as crime reflects the values and judgements of powerful interest groups in a society. Changes in crime patterns express social stresses, social change and uncertainties. One of the recent crime waves, the use of prohibited drugs, is a case in point (see Drug Use, Nonmedical).

Classification of Offences

Offences and offenders can be classified in many ways. The most common, but not necessarily the most helpful, are groupings of charges according to the various statutes; eg, Criminal Code offences, which include offences against the person (now more frequently referred to as offences of violence, although actual violence may or may not have occurred), offences against property, sex offences and others.

Property offences are by far the most common in criminal statistics, although, judging from the business of the courts, offences involving motor vehicles are even more common and no less serious, as there is more loss of life, limb and property damage caused by motor vehicles than by traditional street crimes.

Social scientists now classify criminal activity according to the discernible behaviour systems of those who practise it (although such classification does not necessarily correlate with crime statistics): violent personal crime (eg, murder, sexual assault, child molesting); property crime (shoplifting, cheque forgery); occupational crime (see White-Collar Crime); political crime (treason, sedition, espionage); public-order crime (drunkenness, vagrancy, gambling, drug addiction); conventional crime (Robbery, larceny); Organized Crime (racketeering); and professional crime (confidence games, forgery, counterfeiting). General offence classifications, however, tell us little about when and where crime occurs and who is involved. It is often assumed that violence takes place mainly in public places and is committed by strangers, but the opposite is true. With an offence such as theft, which is classified by whether the value of the stolen article(s) was under or over $1000, there is no way of knowing whether the thief picked pockets, shoplifted, stole cars or stole from cars, or was involved in corporate or white-collar crimes. Almost every legitimate activity has its criminal counterpart and there are grey areas in between which are often the most profitable (see Underground Economy). It is important that the bewildering variety of crimes be appreciated if we are to avoid simplistic solutions - the greatest problem with anticrime measures.

Control of Crime

"Keeping the peace" has become the "war against crime." Veritable armies of Law Enforcement and correctional officers have grown phenomenally since the 1960s, not only in manpower but in programs and technical sophistication. In 1991-92 there were over 56 774 Police and 28 233 correctional personnel in Canada. Expenditures for correctional services (see Prison) alone were $1.9 billion in 1991-92, a 37% increase over 1985-86.

The private security industry is larger in many places than the official police force. More attention is paid to housing design, street lighting and security installations, measures that unfortunately also encourage the creation of a fortress mentality.

Punishment, however, is still the basic response to crime. The threat of punishment is supposed to deter the population from committing crime (general deterrence) and accordingly the imposition of punishment is supposed to deter offenders (specific deterrence). There is no conclusive evidence that punishment does deter crime, a fact recognized long before actual studies threw doubts on its effectiveness.

Measures such as penitence, work, education and treatment have also been discredited as deterrents. Crime is now seen predominantly as a social and political problem, but class differences and Poverty cannot be solved by anticrime agencies.

The growing recognition that crime is an expression of human conflict is reflected in new approaches to its solution which attempt, at least, to reduce the vicious circles of accusation, conviction and punishment. Demands are being made to decriminalize certain forms of behaviour, especially victimless crimes. Diversion programs are being instituted to provide alternative options for offenders (see Probation and Parole).

Interventions such as penitence, work, education and various treatment programs do not appear to reduce recidivism significantly. Crime is increasingly viewed as a social and political problem and the criminal justice system may not be the appropriate institution to deal with such matters of class difference and poverty.

The formal crime control effort, including large expenditures of manpower and money, has not reduced the crime problem and may even have exacerbated it. In response, new initiatives such as victim assistance and compensation programs reflect a shift from the state to the victim as the aggrieved party. Sentences involving restitution and community service orders mark attempts both to make offenders directly responsible for their actions and to involve citizens and communities in the crime control response.

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