What Is Crime?
by Lawrence M. Friedman
For Your Journal
How would you answer the question “What is crime?” For you, what makes some acts criminal and others not? Explain.
There is no real answer to the question, What is crime? There are popular ideas about crime: crime is bad behavior, antisocial behavior, blameworthy acts, and the like. But in a very basic sense, crime is a legal concept: what makes some conduct criminal, and other conduct not, is the fact that some, but not others, are “against the law.” Crimes, then, are forbidden acts. But they are forbidden in a special way. We are not supposed to break contracts, drive carelessly, slander people, or infringe copyrights; but these are not (usually) criminal acts. The distinction between a civil and a criminal case is fundamental in our legal system. A civil case has a life cycle entirely different from that of a criminal case. If I slander somebody, I might be dragged into court, and I might have to open my checkbook and pay damages; but I cannot be put in prison or executed, and if I lose the case, I do not get a criminal “record.” Also, in a slander case (or a negligence case, or a copyright-infringement case), the injured party pays for, runs, and manages the case herself. He or she makes the decisions and hires the lawyers. The case is entirely voluntary. Nobody forces anybody to sue. I can have a good claim, a valid claim, and simply forget it, if I want.
In a criminal case, in theory at least, society is the victim, along with the “real” victim—the person robbed or assaulted or cheated. The crime may be punished without the victim’s approval (though, practically speaking, the complaining witness often has a crucial role to play). In “victimless crimes,” there is nobody to complain; both parties are equally guilty (or innocent). Here the machine most definitely has a mind of its own. In criminal cases, moreover, the state pays the bills. It should be pointed out, however, that the further back in...
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