Thought I’d upload this discussion point before the lesson…..a post that’s actually directly related to the A2 Crime and Deviance syllabus for once… On what is crime – relating to lesson one of the SCLY4 Crime and Deviance Module – this is just an extract from one of the class handouts we’ve used, lovingly published in Adobe format and available on the college Moodle system for those fortunate enough to have access…
What makes an act criminal?
A brief analysis of the types of crime and the maximum penalties judges can award for these crimes suggests that there are some general principles that make an act criminal, and that make one particular act ‘more criminal’ than another and thus potentially open to more severe form of punishment.
Firstly, and absolutely central to the notion of criminality is the concept of harm. It seems that the law supports a generally held view (a consensus view) that it is basically wrong to harm to other people, especially vulnerable people in society. Generally speaking, the greater the degree of harm that is done to victims and the wider community, society – the greater the sentence – personal physical harm is seen to be the worst kind – worse than threats of violence and intimidation; on a par with these are crimes of child abuse, even if not physical – the thought of the drawn out manipulation of the vulnerable individual for self-gain is seen as wrong by nearly everyone. Having one’s property stolen (burglary, robbery, theft) isn’t generally regarded as traumatic as being the victim of violent crime – but someone who steals from us is doing us harm – there are emotional as well as economic consequences of property crime. People are also punished in our society for harming the environment – there are thousands of prosecutions each year for vandalism and increasing attention is being paid to environmental crimes (dumping waste, air pollution), although such crimes often don’t carry as severe penalties as violent crimes directly against people.
Secondly, and importantly, the degree of malicious focused intent to do harm to people influences how bad we think a crime is – and the severity of the penalty one could potentially receive. Acts that are purely and deliberately done to harm others have tougher penalties than acts that might harm others but where the primary motive wasn’t just to hurt someone. Having said this you can still be prosecuted for harming someone unintentionally – those who commit deaths by drunk driving sometimes get harsh penalties.
Thirdly, if you are the immediate perpetrator, the person wielding the knife, or the head of the organized criminal gang pulling the strings, you can probably expect a harsher sentence if prosecuted than if you are lower down the criminal pecking order. However, you don’t have to be immediately and directly involved in a socially harmful act directly to be prosecuted either – you can be prosecuted for carrying a knife, even if it’s for someone else, or handling stolen goods – so you can be prosecuted for helping others to harm other people. The law seems to prevent us from engaging in socially harmful acts even as a third party.
Fourthly and finally, there is also a general conception that crimes are worse when a victim is vulnerable or helpless – crimes against children or the elderly are typically seen as appalling – suggesting that we don’t like it when the powerful exploit the powerless for their own gain.
Now think about this question -Are there any exceptions to the general rule that the intent to harm others, especially the weak and powerless is wrong (and hence criminal) and that such acts should be punished? You think as globally as you like!
We will discuss this in the first lesson of the Crime and Deviance course in a few days time! Advanced comments welcome below…..