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Home arrow Law arrow Defining Crime: A Critique of the Concept and Its Implication

In Sum

In this chapter we have examined a number of reasons the criminal- law definition of crime lacks scientific objectivity. These reasons include the following:

  • 1. The connection between the construction of the criminal law and political and economic interests
  • 2. Variations that occur in the definitions of crime found in the criminal law across time and place and the effect of those variations on what criminologists measure and interpret as crime
  • 3. The lack of clear, predefined criteria in the criminal law for identifying the nature of the behaviors that the criminal law ought to address
  • 4. The absence of a predefined, empirically relevant indicator that assesses the claim that the criminal law represents public opinion
  • 5. The effect of external influences on the structure and content of the criminal and noncriminal law and how that impacts the legal definition of crime
  • 6. The relationship between the criminal law and class control
  • 7. The fact that the same kind of behavior is defined differently under different types of law, and that the law itself, therefore, cannot objectively distinguish when a harm is a crime or not simply by assessing the characteristics of the behavior in question

These are significant definitional, outcome, and process issues that challenge the idea that the criminal law is an objective construct and a measure of crime. These criticisms suggest that the criminal law is a poor starting point for a definition of crime and an insufficient basis for grounding criminology.

To this point, none of these criticisms has been specifically stated in ways that limit their application to microlevel criminology and tests of microlevel explanations of crime. We can find some microlevel studies that address some of these concerns. These kinds of studies would include research performed by Sally Simpson and Nicole Piquero (2002; Piquero, Exum, and Simpson 2005; Piquero, Tibbets, and Blankenship 2005) that examine the individual-level causes of corporate and white-collar crime. It is no accident that white-collar and corporate crime researchers address these issues. Researchers in these areas are well acquainted with the criticism of the criminal-law definition of crime and hence make the effort to address at least some of the concerns associated with the criminal- law definition of crime.

In this chapter, we have demonstrated that there are empirical conditions that threaten the validity of tests of explanations of crime based on the criminal-law definition of crime. While we have detailed some of these objections, we will elaborate upon these issues with respect to the definition of criminal law in the next two chapters.

It is our goal to point out that there needs to be an objective measure of crime that separates the criminal-law definition of crime from the criminological concept. The absence of independence between the concept and measurement of crime constitute a classic threat to the validity of the orthodox concept of crime typically employed by criminologists.

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