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Crime: Definition

Civil And Criminal Divide, The Positivistic Approach, Nonpositivist Approaches, Bibliography, Cases

A crime is an act proscribed by law and subject to punishment. It can also be an omission instead of an act, namely a failure to act where the law imposes a duty to act. Traditionally, crimes have been restricted to acts and omissions that harm the interests of others. Sometimes, however, a legislature will criminalize an act or omission because it is harmful to the perpetrator himself, or because the conduct is morally reprehensible. Such criminal provisions are known as "victimless" crimes. The possibility of a victimless crime underscores the central difference between criminal and civil law: a crime is an offense against public welfare, whereas a civil wrong is an offense against private interests. While civil damages are awarded to compensate a victim for harm he has suffered at the injurer's hands, criminal punishment is inflicted to allow the state to vindicate its interest in the common good.

In our history, the concept of the public wrong emerged after the Norman Conquest, replacing what was essentially a system of private plea-bargaining under the Anglo-Saxons. Prior to the conquest, an injurer would pay his victim a sum of money in order to buy off the latter's right to revenge. These payments, known as wer, wíte, and bót, were not determined by law, but instead depended on what injurer and victim could negotiate. We can already discern the concept of a public harm at this time, however, in the fact that some injuries were bóteás, or beyond monetary redemption, and for these a man might be put to death. A later possible source of the offense against the state may be the jurisdictional concept of the "king's peace." Under this concept, the Crown reserved the right to control for violent acts that might occur along any route on which the king traveled. Finally, while an even later development, the advent of a public police force made the concept of a public wrong institutionally feasible.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law