What is criminology? Criminology is the study of crime, criminal behavior, and the criminal justice system. While this captures the essence of the discipline, there has been considerable debate about what constitutes criminal behavior and how it differs from other behaviors widely held to be socially deviant. This debate has produced five types of definitions of criminality: natural law explanations, moralistic explanations, labeling explanations, social harm explanations, and legalistic explanations.
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Natural law explanations of criminality are perhaps the oldest of the five. They are influenced by natural law theory, which suggests that some behaviors must be universally prohibited because by their nature they are so morally repugnant or detrimental to the normal functioning of society. Like natural law definitions, moralistic definitions suggest that crime, as defined by statutes and codes, is a direct reflection of society’s moral consensus. When the majority of people living in any given society finds a particular action morally reprehensible, their will, often expressed through representative legislators, becomes law.
In contrast to natural law and moralistic definitions of crime, labeling or critical definitions suggest that no behavior is intrinsically criminal, nor is the will of the majority of society members necessarily relevant to the designation of a behavior as criminal. Rather, crimes are behaviors that are defined as such by those in positions of power. In support of these claims, labeling theorists point out that affluent and powerful people are far more likely than the poor and powerless to escape criminal prosecution. In addition, when the affluent are subjected to criminal prosecution, because of their social status (which they have in common with those in positions to make law) they tend to escape being labeled as “criminal,” a designation typically reserved for the poor and minorities. Other definitions of crime have rested on more pragmatic considerations, such as social harm. Harms-based definitions suggest that crime is any behavior that infringes upon basic human rights or otherwise produces individual or social harm.
Each of these theories has influenced how crime has been defined in different eras, but the definition that most of today’s criminologists rely upon to distinguish criminal behavior from other types of social deviance is the legalistic definition. This definition suggests that a crime is any behavior that is legislatively prohibited and committed without defense or justification. When these three elements converge—an act or behavior, a statement by a legislature that these behaviors are unacceptable, and the absence of a legally valid reason for committing the act— then regardless of social harm, moral judgments, or relative power, a person has committed a crime.
One important caveat in any discussion of crime is that virtually everything people do in modern industrial and postindustrial societies is regulated by law, and most of it has nothing to do with the criminal law or crime. Contracts we enter into, nutrition labels on foods, levels of vehicle emissions, the amount of taxes we are required to pay, the methods we use in voting, the height of the buildings in which we work, and nearly everything else we do and experience in our day-to-day lives are regulated by a complex web of laws that have nothing to do with criminal law. Nonetheless, because of the personal nature of many crimes, the criminal law tends to be the most visible category of law in modern societies.
Types of Crime
For the purposes of data collection and comparison, crime data is usually divided into two broad categories: personal crimes and property crimes. Personal crimes include crimes of violence such as murder and robbery as well as any other criminal offenses that involve direct contact between a perpetrator and a victim, such as rape, aggravated assault, and battery. Property crimes are those in which personal property is the object of the offense and there is no force or threat of force used against the person to whom the property rightfully belongs. Examples of property crimes include larceny-theft, burglary, motor-vehicle theft, and arson. Property crimes occur with far greater frequency than personal crimes, making up between 85 and 90 percent of all crimes reported to U.S. law-enforcement agencies. Expressed differently, according to official data, every 23.1 seconds in the United States a crime of violence is committed, and every 3.1 seconds a property crime is committed.
Beyond the distinction between personal and property crimes, other more detailed differentiations among criminal behaviors exist. Some of the more common crime types include violent crime, white collar and corporate crime, organized crime, and “victimless” crime. Other types not discussed in this article include hate crime, environmental crime, technological crime, and political crime.
There are four major violent crimes tracked by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and most international policing agencies: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Murder/nonnegligent manslaughter involves the willful killing of one human being by another without excuse or justification. In most cases, accomplices are equally as culpable in the victim’s death as the person who directly causes the victim’s death. Forcible rape involves unlawful sexual intercourse committed against the victim’s will. In the United States the trend has been to view both force by the accused and the victim’s substantial impairment of power to appraise or control conduct as bases for prosecution for rape. Many countries also recognize statutory rape—sexual intercourse with a person (usually female) under the legal age of consent (which varies from country to country). Robbery involves taking personal property from the possession of another against his or her will by the use or threat of force. The threat of violence is what distinguishes robbery from the lesser offense of theft. Aggravated assault refers to an unlawful attack by one person on another for the purpose of inflicting severe bodily injury.
Among Western industrialized nations, the United States long has been considered a particularly violent and crime-ridden society. However, according to the International Crime Victimization Survey, U.S. victimization rates for many personal and property crimes may not be much different from other nations (Mayhew and van Dijk 1997). This survey notwithstanding, the United States continues to have rates of murder and other serious violent crimes that vastly exceed those of other high-income nations.
White Collar and Corporate Crime
The greatest economic costs to society from crime come not from those acts commonly referred to as “street crimes”—that is, the personal and property crimes that receive most of the public’s attention—but from white-collar and corporate crime. The term white-collar crime was coined by Edwin Sutherland, former president of the American Sociological Association. In his 1939 presidential address Sutherland discussed persons of the upper socioeconomic class whose criminal behavior is dealt with much less severely than that of the lower socioeconomic classes (Sutherland 1940). He defined white-collar crime as “crimes committed by a person of high respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (Rosoff et al. 2003, p. 2), distinguishing it from crime committed by persons of a lower occupational status (“blue-collar”).
Contemporary criminologists have expanded Sutherland’s definition to include other types of crimes committed in the course of someone’s legitimate occupation. These more recent definitions of white-collar crime usually contain some or all of the following elements: an illegal act, committed by nonphysical means, with concealment or guile, to obtain money or property, or to obtain a business or personal advantage. Criminologists have also begun to recognize corporate crime as a distinct form of white-collar crime, in which the immediate benefits of the criminal behavior go to a corporation rather than to any particular individual.
In the United States conservative estimates place the material costs of white-collar at more than $300 billion annually. In comparison, losses from property theft/damages, cash losses, medical expenses, and lost pay due to injuries suffered or other activities related to other types of crime cost Americans an estimated $15 to $20 billion per year (Rosoff et al. 2003). Similarly, about 16,000 people are murdered each year in the United States, but far more people die as the result of white-collar criminal activities. For example, more than 100,000 people die each year in the United States because of neglect of worker-safety requirements, on-the-job accidents, and exposure to hazardous materials in the workplace (Reiman 2003).
Organized crime refers to criminal enterprises that specialize in vice crimes such as gambling, prostitution, drug operations, and other correlated illegal activities, including money laundering and racketeering. The origin of organized crime in the United States is often traced to national Prohibition in the 1920s (Brown et al. 2004). The controversial federal ban on alcoholic beverages brought about by the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act created opportunities for criminal syndicates to flourish by illegally supplying liquor; later they were able to expand their enterprises into vice and other illicit activities. Today, in spite of international efforts to control organized crime, various sources estimate that international organized crime syndicates draw about $1 trillion in profits each year (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2006).
Victimless crime refers to illicit behaviors in which the participants do not recognize that anyone involved in the illegal transaction is directly victimized by the deed. These crimes are often referred to as “complainantless” because nobody directly involved is likely to initiate enforcement by complaining to the police. Examples of victimless crimes include prostitution, pornography, illegal gambling, and drug use. Victimless crime is a contentious label because, while none of the parties sees themselves as victims, many people argue that society itself is harmed by the prohibited behaviors. For example, it is argued that illegal drug use drives up healthcare costs for everyone, destabilizes families and communities, drains worker productivity, and leads to a number of additional social problems. Further, a meta-analysis of North American studies on prostitution found that prostitutes are very likely to become victims of violence during the course of their work (Farley and Kelley 2000).
In contrast, other theorists argue that victimless crimes should not be considered crimes at all. Rather, they are private behaviors that, when criminalized, represent an overreach of the state’s authority. In support of these latter claims, they highlight the variations in prohibitions from state to state and country to country, and societal ambivalence toward many of the prohibited activities. Toward this last point, in 2004 an estimated 19.1 million Americans aged 12 or older were current illicit drug users, spending around $100 billion on illegal drugs. Critics of the criminalization of these behaviors also refer to substances such as alcohol and tobacco that are legally available but cause greater social harm than illicit substances.
The Social Production of Crime
Perhaps the most understudied area of criminology is the role society plays in fostering certain types of crime, such as domestic abuse, hate crime, and sexual assault. Over the past century most societies have changed for the better with regard to recognizing all people as equals irrespective of characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. However, the extensive histories of inequality and violence have undoubtedly shaped how crimes are defined, and have also played a role in the types of crimes prevalent in any given society. For example, many theorists have argued that the relatively high rates of serious violent crime in the United States can be traced to the culture of violence produced during its particularly hostile settlement: African slavery, Native American genocide, and warfare related to Manifest Destiny all set the stage for a future mired by violence.
Rape presents another example of the social production of crime. For much of world history, patriarchy has been a primary principle around which societies have been structured. Many theorists have argued that this history of socially constructed male supremacy is strongly correlated with rates of male-on-female sexual assault and has shaped how sexual assault has been defined over time. Only in the latter part of the twentieth century did U.S. lawmakers pass laws against marital rape—that is, a rape committed by a husband upon his lawful wife. Before then, the legal standard in the United States was largely consistent with that expressed by Sir Matthew Hale, a chief justice in seventeenth-century England, who wrote “the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given herself in kind unto the husband which she cannot retract” (European Court of Human Rights 1995).
Tolerance for rape in marriage, as well as rape laws that historically have protected the property interests of men over the personal safety of women, may partially explain why rape is so prevalent: each year in the United States nearly 100,000 forcible rapes are reported to police. This figure does not reflect the estimated 100,000 unre-ported forcible rapes committed against women each year in the United States, nor does it capture lesser-degree sexual assaults that do not meet the reporting criteria required for a charge of forcible rape.
Predictors of Criminal Behavior
Contrary to the efforts of hard-line positivist criminologists who seek to identify biological traits that predispose people to criminal behavior, and rational-choice theorists who suggest people commit crimes of their own free will, the consensus among most criminologists is that sociological factors play a significant role in producing criminal behavior. Criminological research has shown that there is no one socioeconomic factor that has proved an accurate predictor of criminal behavior. However, there are some variables that seem to affect the likelihood, volume, and type of crimes that occur in particular countries, regions, and communities. For traditional street crimes, socioeconomic variables such as median income, educational attainment and access to education, religion, family conditions (e.g., divorce and overall family cohesion), and job availability have been correlated with criminal behavior. Population density and the degree of urbanization, the concentration of youth in a community, community stability (e.g., population turnover rates and commuting patterns), alcohol and drug use, the strength of law enforcement agencies in a particular area, community attitudes toward law enforcement, and even climate and weather have all been shown to affect the number of and types of crime that occur.
Of all of these links, the correlation between alcohol and drug use and crime receives the greatest attention from both academicians and policymakers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 35 to 40 percent of all convicted offenders under the jurisdiction of U.S. corrections agencies were estimated to have been under the influence of alcohol when they offended. Alcohol use is widespread among those convicted of public-order crimes, the most common type of offense among those in jail or on probation. Among violent offenders, about 40 percent of probationers, local jail inmates, and state prisoners, as well as 20 percent of federal prison inmates, were estimated to have been drinking when they committed the crime for which they were sentenced. Comparatively, in a recent survey of jail inmates nearly 30 percent reported drug use at the time they committed their offense, and an estimated 16 percent of convicted jail inmates committed their offenses to get money for drugs. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 40 percent of adults who were on parole, probation, or some other form of supervised release from jail were classified as drug dependents or drug abusers, compared to 9 percent of the general U.S. population (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005).
In the United States, if recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated one of every fifteen persons will serve time in a prison during his or her lifetime. However, the lifetime chances of a person being sentenced to a prison term differ based on race, ethnicity, and gender. Men stand an 11.3 percent chance of going to prison, compared to a 1.8 percent chance for women. This dramatic difference remains in spite of the significant increases in rates of female criminality since the 1970s. Of even greater concern to criminologists are the differences that exist along racial and ethnic lines. In 2001, approximately 65 percent of U.S. state prison inmates belong to a racial or ethnic minority. African Americans have an 18.6 percent chance of going to prison, Hispanics have a 10 percent chance, and whites have a 3.4 percent of serving time in a prison. Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32 percent of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic males and 5.9 percent of white males (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
Inadequacies of the U.S. Criminal Justice System
It comes as no surprise to most criminologists that the U.S. criminal justice system is not an effective tool in preventing crime. One reason for this lies in the uncoordinated structure of the system itself. As Barkan and Bryjak note in Fundamentals ofCriminal Justice, “the U.S. criminal justice system is only partly a ‘system’ as usually defined. ‘System’ implies a coordinated and unified plan of procedure. Criminal justice in the United States is only partly coordinated and unified . . . the U.S. criminal justice system is really thousands of systems” (p. 7). Another reason the criminal justice system is largely incapable of preventing crime is that law enforcement, courts, and corrections are reactive institutions; they respond to crimes already committed rather than addressing the root causes of criminal behavior before they fester into crime. This is not a condemnation of the efforts of law enforcement or corrections officers: the criminal justice system simply does not have the resources, expertise, or capabilities to deal with most predictors of criminal behavior.
Politicians and the public present another obstacle in effectively addressing crime. For many reasons, including sensationalized accounts of crime in news and entertainment media, the inability of academics to package crimi-nological research in a publicly palatable fashion, fear promoted by opportunistic political figures, and the unwillingness or inability of the public to inform themselves on crime and justice issues, the public has a distorted image of the crime problem in the United States (Reiman 2003). This distorted image leads to ill-advised, impractical, and ineffective criminal justice policies such as “three-strikes” laws (laws requiring prison terms of 25 years or more for offenders convicted of their third felony or serious crime), mandatory minimum sentencing, and the mandatory charging of juveniles as adults for certain offenses. These policies appeal to politicians because it allows them to appear to be “tough on crime” and makes the public think that the justice system is working. However, these policies represent knee-jerk responses to complex problems of crime; they divert resources from other approaches that carry a greater likelihood of success, and they take discretion away from sentencing judges and other criminal justice practitioners who have a more accurate sense of the crime problem. Ultimately, the onus falls upon members of the academic community to debunk crime myths, dispel stereotypes regarding deviant groups, and promote responsible criminal justice policy.
- Barkan, Steven E., and George Bryjak. 2004. Fundamentals of Criminal Justice. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Brown, Stephen E., Finn-Aage Esbensen, and Gilbert Geis. 2004. Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context. 5th ed. Dayton, OH: Anderson Publishing.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. http://www.bjs.gov/
- Catalano, Shannan M. 2005. Criminal Victimization 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
- European Court of Human Rights. 1995. S.W. v. The United Kingdom -20166/92  ECHR 52 (22 November 1995). http://www.worldlii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/1995/52.html
- Farley, Melissa, and Vanessa Kelly. 2000. Prostitution: A Critical Review of the Medical and Social Sciences Literature. Women and Criminal Justice 11: 29—63.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. About Organized Crime. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/organizedcrime/organized_crime
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2005. Crime in the United States 2004. http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_04/
- Mayhew, Pat, and Jan J. M. van Dijk. 1997. Criminal Victimisation in Eleven Industrialised Countries: Key Findings from the 1996 International Crime Victims Survey. The Hague, Netherlands: Ministry of Justice. http://www.unicri.it/services/library_documentation/publications/icvs/publications/summary162.PDF.
- Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2000. What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs, 1988—1998. https://www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/publications/pdf/spending_drugs_1988_1998.pdf
- Reiman, Jeffrey. 2003. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Rosoff, Stephen M., Henry N. Pontell, and Robert H. Tillman. 2003. Profit Without Honor: White Collar Crime and the Looting of America. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Sutherland, Edwin H. 1940. White Collar Criminality. American Sociological Review 5: 1—12.
- Sutherland, Edwin H. 1949. White Collar Crime. New York: Dreyden Press.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2005. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2004. Washington, DC. http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/SAMHDA/studies/4373