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



The term “disadvantage” implies that those who produce acts of violence that count as crimes create conditions for victims, either as individuals or as collectives, that limit their opportunities, health, and/or livelihoods. With respect to violent crimes, these criminal acts limit the opportunity of the victim to be free from violence and also indicate that the form of violence may limit the individual’s opportunities to maintain their health (Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1970, 1972). This idea is easily understood with reference to traditional crimes of violence as defined by the criminal law such as homicide, rape, robbery, and assault. Individuals victimized in these ways may find their livelihood and health compromised, and as a result of that victimization, they may miss out on opportunities to improve their health and livelihood or even maintain their health and livelihood. Violent victimizations can diminish the quality of the victim’s life and disrupt it in both the short and/or long terms as a consequence of physical or psychological injury.

Forms of violence that the criminal law typically ignores can also lead to disadvantage and hence produce crime in the sense we suggest. Victims may be disadvantaged when they are injured at work after being required to work in unsafe and unhealthy workplace environments. Victims that are consumers are disadvantaged when they are exposed to harmful products. Here, we draw specific attention to workplace and environmental crimes to demonstrate how workers are disadvantaged. Workers, we argue, have a right to be safe at work and should be protected from corporate abuses related to the creation of unsafe work environments and unsafe working conditions. Under current laws, these rights are mostly recognized through noncriminal, regulatory statutes (Gunningham and Johnstone 1999). As we have argued, there is no objective reason that criminologists ought to follow the designation of these kinds of offenses as regulatory as opposed to criminal behaviors. That division is, we argue, a convenience of law and has little to do with defining crime objectively. However, this convenience is likely to reflect the power that interest groups exert on lawmakers and that is used to influence labeling these kinds of offenses as noncriminal as part of the political construction (or neglect) of harm and crime. When corporations create unsafe work environments, we assume they do so knowing that those work environments are unsafe and harmful to workers and that the creation of unsafe work environments comes as cost-cutting measures that preserve the rate of corporate profits over the rights of workers to be free from harm and violence in the workplace. This is especially true in the contemporary era, where much is known about the safety of work regiments and the chemicals used in production. Moreover, we do not believe that it is reasonable to allow corporations to employ chemicals in the workplace to which workers are exposed without having made an effort to assess the safety of those chemicals and chemical production practices. As a result, we argue that unsafe workplace conditions can disadvantage workers by forcing them into productive relations that harm them through production routines and through the exposure to toxics or other unsafe chemicals in the workplace. In response to this assertion, some may suggest that workers are free to choose their job in their marketplace—that is, they do not have to work in a facility or at an occupation that exposes them to harm. Moreover, they would argue that workers are compensated and therefore accept this risk in exchange for money. These assertions are true only in the abstract. In the modern world, we know that employment opportunities are limited and that people often have little choice but to work in order to fulfill basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. As a result, it is not always possible for workers to determine their own employment conditions and to choose from a variety of employment options. Moreover, those most able to determine their workplace conditions are likely to have more resources. Thus the issue of environmental justice is central to healthy work environments because socially and economically disadvantaged populations experience additional health disadvantages in the workplace (Bullard 2000; Pellow 2002).

When we refer to unsafe work conditions, we do not limit that concept to physical violence and harm but include conditions that can promote psychological violence and intimidation. In that regard, we include among the crimes of violence corporations can commit the production of workplace environments that condone sexual, racial, or other forms of harassment, such as those against sexual identity choices (McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone 2012). While these conditions may sometimes stem from workers themselves, it is the structural context of the corporate entity that allows them to continue and proliferate and that, perhaps, encourages the existence of those behaviors.

Preventing and Affecting Health and Livelihood

In referring to the terms “preventing” and “affecting” in this portion of the definition, we specifically mean to imply that some acts of crime specifically prevent or affect and limit victims of those acts from achieving an optimal level of health, either physically or mentally, and optimal life circumstances. Serious physical injury may limit not only the victim’s physical health but their mental health as well and may impact their ability to effectively provide for their livelihood.

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