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Measuring the Legal Definition of Crime and Its Consequences

We now turn our attention to the translation of the legal definition of crime into an empirical measure to discuss the problems that emerge in this process. If we designate Y as the empirical measure of the violation of law, we have two choices to make. That choice is defining Y in relation to the number of legal violations that occur, which we shall identify as Y1, or the number of laws that are violated, which we shall identify as Y2. In terms of explaining crime, these two measures might make a difference in the empirical tests or even the derivation of an explanation of crime. In the first, the assumption is made that the causes of crime are invariant with respect to the type of offending—that is to say, the causes of crime are universal, and it does not matter what laws are violated, only that some law has been violated. In this case, the explanation of crime is not law specific and the causes of crime can be said to be general. With respect to Y2, however, we can posit that there are different kinds of offenders in the world who violate different kinds of laws, and hence, the need to measure the number of laws violated is relevant to the effort to predict whether there are certain kinds of offenders and to ascertain whether the causes of crime may vary by the type of offender.

There are additional problems that both approaches encounter. One problem relates to the distribution of and Y2, and that distribution may be complicated by factors that need to be considered in devising and testing explanations of crime. The lower bounds of Yj and Y2 at the individual level are both zero, since it is possible that an individual does not violate any law. The upper bounds of Yt and Y2 are empirical outcomes of measuring crime, and we can only ascertain these after we measure crime. How we measure crime will affect the upper bound of crime and its distribution between that upper boundary and zero.

Further, the distribution of crime for both Yt and Y2 is affected by the definition and measurement of crime. Therefore, how crime is defined has a great deal to do with how much crime is recorded, which for specific violations of law included how crimes are distributed in relation to their definition. As a result, changes in the definition of crime change crime’s distribution across a population. Once again, we arrive at the conclusion that the distribution of crime varies, not necessarily because criminal behavior varies, but because the law does.

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