Classify Crime

Table Of Contents


The purpose of this lecture is to introduce the Professional Crime Fighter to the complexity of the business end of the criminal justice system. Namely, Crime Control. To understand crime control, we must first understand crime. The definition of crime given in most text books is:

An act or commission that is in violation of The Law, which is punishable by The State.

This type of definition is known as a legalistic definition of crime. Definitions of crime that appear in criminal statutes typically include reference to both a behavior (action or inaction) and a mental state (intention). The behavior component of crime is known as the actus reus. The mental state component of crime is known as the mens rea. It is necessary for The State to establish the existence of both elements of an offense in order to obtain a conviction.

The word conviction is an old Biblical Greek word which derives from the Latin for   " convince all of the truth of a matter...."     Some statutes define behaviors as criminal in such a way as to assume that the offender had the necessary intent. That is, The State does not have to prove a mental condition. These types of crimes are called strict liability offenses because persons who engage in the prohibited behavior are srictly liable under the criminal laws, regardless of their intent to break The Law. An example of this sort of crime is the Drunken Manslaughter Statute in Texas, which states that an individual who while in an inebriated state is involved in a traffic accident which results in a fatality is guilty of nonnegligent homicide, regardless of whether or not they intended to cause harm.


Legislative action is necessary to define a behavior as criminal. The criminal justice system responds to violations of the law. Without law there can be no crime.

In Amnerican Society, a wide variety of behaviors have been defined as crimes, so it is important not only to know what makes actions or inactions criminal, but also to organize the large number of crimes in a policy-relavent fashion. That is to say, given almost infinite variety of behaviors that are criminal, as well as the large numbers of crimes, how do agents of the Criminal Justice System choose the crimes on which to focus attention?

Different crimes receive different priorities in terms of juestice system response. These priorities are the result of classifying crimes. So, how are crimes classified?

Methods Of Classifying Crime

By Legislative Definition

Several methods of classifying crimes exist. Perhaps the most common and easiest way to rank crimes is by legislative definition. Criminal offenses can be classified from least serious to most serious, as violations, misdemeanors, or felonies. Similarly, distinctions have been drawn between ordinary and aggravated or dangerous crimes. Generally, agents of the justice will give more attention to serious and dangerous offenses than to less serious or ordinary crimes.

By Concensus Definition

Another method of differentiating among crimes is according to how widespread agreement is amongst the population that the prohibited behavior is indeed criminal. Offenses that most people believe are--or ought to be--criminal are called mala en se (inherently wrong from their very inception).

Examples of these types of crimes are traditional street crimes such as robbery, rape, murder, burglary, and child pornography. Other offenses are of a more regulatory nature. They are crimes because the legislature has defined them to be so. These ofenses are calld mala prohibita (forbidden wrongs). Examples of these crimes include tax evasion, failure to register for the draft, the possession of controlled substances, and sodomy offenses.

There tends to be wide public acceptance of mala en se crimes as appropriate targets of criminal justice efforts. There is generally less consensus about mala prohibida offenses. Because there is a clear mandate for intervention, based upon The Voice Of The Public, agents of the criminal justice system are more likely to focus on mala en se offenses.

Methods Of Classifying Criminals

As it is with definitions of behaviors that are criminal, there is a large number of criminals in our Society. Moreover, criminals exhibit wide variation. Just as agents of criminal justice must organize crimes to direct their crime control efforts, they must also distinguish amongst types of criminals.

Many Categorizations To Choose From

Criminals are classified in a number of ways. Methods of classification include offense seriousness (status offenders, misdemeanants, and felons) and danger to the Public (non-threatening, threatening, potentially harmful, or harmful). Criminals are also classified as first-time offenders, repeat offenders, or career offenders. Also, they can be classified based upon the types of offenses that they commit (burglar, rapist, thief, con artist, shoplifter, hatchet murderer, serial sniper, etc.).

Focusing On Career Criminals

Attention has been focused on those persons identified as career offenders. This is because they constitute a continuing threat against Social Integrity. These are people who routinely engage in a large number of relatively serious offenses. More recently, criminologists have begun to consider life-course criminality, how people engage in or refrain from crime throughout the various stages of their lives.

For Your Consideration

A review of justice system reactions to career criminals illusrates the importance of classifying crimes and criminals to organize criminal justice actions.

Programs designed to identify and control career criminals exist in all three components of the criminal jsutice system:

These programs demonstrate how the justice system reacts to selet specific offenses and ofenders for attention, and, therefore, they illustrate crime control priorities in action.

That career criminal programs operate in all parts of the justice process further indicates the systemic nature of criminal justice. Each of the components of the process have reacted to a demand that something be done about the most troublesome of offenders.


Contemporary thinking has recently begun shifting toward a more geographic focus on crime control. There is renewed interest in crime prevention through environmental design. Other contextual approaches to crime prevention and control that grow from routine activities theory are also gaining popularity. The laest developers in crime control policies have taken a situational approach to crime. They seek to understand what CRIME is about: Why do certain situations makes them more likely to be crime-producing? This question is examined closely in the next lecture, Measuring Crime.

Table Of Contents