Crime is the breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority (via mechanisms such as legal systems) can ultimately prescribe a conviction. Individual human societies may each define crime and crimes differently. While every crime violates the law, not every violation of the law counts as a crime; for example: breaches of contract and of other civil law may rank as "offences" or as "infractions".
When informal relationships and sanctions prove insufficient to establish and maintain a desired social order, a government or a sovereign state may impose more formalized or stricter systems of social control. With institutional and legal machinery at their disposal, agents of the State can compel populations to conform to codes, and can opt to punish or to attempt to reform those who do not conform.
Authorities employ various mechanisms to regulate (encouraging or discouraging) certain behaviors in general. Governing or administering agencies may for example codify rules into laws, police citizens and visitors to ensure that they comply with those laws, and implement other policies and practices designed to prevent crime. In addition, authorities provide remedies and sanctions, and collectively these constitute a criminal justice system. Legal sanctions vary widely in their severity, they may include (for example) incarceration of temporary character aimed at reforming the convict. Some jurisdictions have penal codes written to inflict permanent harsh punishments: legal mutilation, capital punishment or life without parole.
The label of "crime" and the accompanying social stigma normally confine their scope to those activities seen as injurious to the general population or to the State, including some that cause serious loss or damage to individuals. Those who apply the labels of "crime" or "criminal" intend to assert the hegemony of a dominant population, or to reflect a consensus of condemnation for the identified behavior and to justify any punishments prescribed by the State (in the event that standard processing tries and convicts an accused person of a crime).
The word crime originates from the Latin crīmen (genitive: criminis), from the root of Latin cernō = "I decide, I give judgement" and Greek κρινω = "I judge". Originally the Latin word crīmen meant "charge (in law), guilt, accusation".
A normative definition views crime as deviant behavior that violates prevailing norms – cultural standards prescribing how humans ought to behave normally. This approach considers the complex realities surrounding the concept of crime and seeks to understand how changing social, political, psychological, and economic conditions may affect changing definitions of crime and the form of the legal, law-enforcement, and penal responses made by society.
These structural realities remain fluid and often contentious. For example: as cultures change and the political environment shifts, societies may criminalise or decriminalise certain behaviours, which will directly affect the statistical crime rates, influence the allocation of resources for the enforcement of laws, and (re-)influence the general public opinion.
Similarly, changes in the collection and/or calculation of data on crime may affect the public perceptions of the extent of any given "crime problem". All such adjustments to crime statistics, allied with the experience of people in their everyday lives, shape attitudes on the extent to which the State should use law or social engineering to enforce/encourage any particular social norm. One can control/influence behaviour in many ways without having to resort to the criminal justice system.
Indeed, in those cases where no clear consensus exists on a given norm, the drafting of criminal law by the group in power to prohibit the behaviour of another group may seem to some observers an improper limitation of the second group's freedom, and the ordinary members of society have less respect for the law or laws in general — whether the authorities actually enforce the disputed law or not.
Legislatures can pass laws (called mala prohibita) that define crimes which violate social norms. These laws vary from time to time and from place to place: note variations in gambling laws, for example, and the prohibition or encouragement of duelling in history. Other crimes, called mala in se, count as outlawed in almost all societies, (murder, theft and rape, for example).
One can view criminalization as a procedure deployed by society as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to anyone proposing to engage in the behavior causing harm. The State becomes involved because governing entities can become convinced that the costs of not criminalizing (through allowing the harms to continue unabated) outweigh the costs of criminalizing it (restricting individual liberty, for example, in order to minimize harm to others).
Criminalization may provide future harm-reduction at least to the outside population, assuming those shamed or incarcerated or otherwise restrained for committing crimes start out more prone to criminal behaviour. Likewise, one might assume that criminalizing acts which in themselves do not harm other people ("victimless crimes") may prevent subsequent harmful acts (assuming that people "prone" to commit these acts may tend to commit harmful actions in general). Some see the criminalization of "victimless crimes" as a pretext for imposing personal, religious or moral convictions on otherwise productive citizens or taxpayers.
Some commentators may see criminalization as a way to make potential criminals pay or suffer for their prospective crimes. In this case, criminalization becomes a way to set the price that one must pay to society for certain actions considered detrimental to society as a whole. An extreme view might see criminalization as State-sanctioned revenge.
States control the process of criminalization because:
The idea of crime has a long history. Some religious communities regard sin as a crime; some may even highlight the crime of sin very early in legendary or mythological accounts of origins — note the tale of Adam and Eve and the theory of original sin. What one group considers a crime may cause or ignite war or conflict. However, the earliest known civilizations had codes of law, containing both civil and penal rules mixed together, though not always in recorded form.
The Sumerians produced the earliest surviving written codes. Urukagina (reigned ca. 2380 BC–2360 BC, short chronology) had an early code that has not survived; a later king, Ur-Nammu, left the earliest extant written law-system, the Code of Ur-Nammu (ca. 2100-2050 BC), which prescribed a formal system of penalties for specific cases in 57 articles. The Sumerians later issued other codes, including the "code of Lipit-Ishtar". This code, from the 20th century BCE, contains some fifty articles, and scholars have reconstructed it by comparing several sources.
The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his King, his superior, or his equal. No wonder that the Sumerians were the first to compile laws and law codes.— Kramer
Successive legal codes in Babylon, including the code of Hammurabi (ca. 1790 BC), reflected Mesopotamian society's belief that law derived from the will of the gods (see Babylonian law). Many states at this time functioned as theocracies, with codes of conduct largely religious in origin or reference.
Sir Henry Maine (1861) studied the ancient codes available in his day, and failed to find any criminal law in the "modern" sense of the word. While modern systems distinguish between offences against the "State" or "Community", and offences against the "Individual", the so-called penal law of ancient communities did not deal with "crimes" (Latin: crimina), but with "wrongs" (Latin: delicta). Thus the Hellenic laws treated all forms of theft, assault, rape, and murder as private wrongs, and left action for enforcement up to the victims or their survivors. The earliest systems seem to have lacked formal courts.
The Romans systematized law and applied their system across the Roman Empire. Again, the initial rules of Roman Law regarded assaults as a matter of private compensation. The most significant Roman Law concept involved dominion. The pater familias owned all the family and its property (including slaves); the pater enforced matters involving interference with any property. The Commentaries of Gaius (written between 130 and 180 AD) on the Twelve Tables treated furtum (in modern parlance: "theft") as a tort.
Similarly, assault and violent robbery involved trespass as to the pater's property (so, for example, the rape of a slave could become the subject of compensation to the pater as having trespassed on his "property"), and breach of such laws created a vinculum juris (an obligation of law) that only the payment of monetary compensation (modern "damages") could discharge. Similarly, the consolidated Teutonic laws of the Germanic tribes, included a complex system of monetary compensations for what courts would now consider the complete range of criminal offences against the person, from murder down.
Even though Rome abandoned its Britannic provinces around 400 AD, the Germanic mercenaries – who had largely become instrumental in enforcing Roman rule in Britannia – acquired ownership of land there and continued to use a mixture of Roman and Teutonic Law, with much written down under the early Anglo-Saxon Kings. But only when a more centralized English monarchy emerged following the Norman invasion, and when the kings of England attempted to assert power over the land and its peoples, did the modern concept emerge, namely of a crime not only as an offence against the "individual", but also as a wrong against the "State".
This idea came from common law, and the earliest conception of a criminal act involved events of such major significance that the "State" had to usurp the usual functions of the civil tribunals, and direct a special law or privilegium against the perpetrator. All the earliest English criminal trials involved wholly extraordinary and arbitrary courts without any settled law to apply, whereas the civil (delictual) law operated in a highly-developed and consistent manner (except where a King wanted to raise money by selling a new form of writ). The development of the idea that the "State" dispenses justice in a court only emerges in parallel with or after the emergence of the concept of sovereignty.
In continental Europe, Roman law persisted, but with a stronger influence from the Christian Church. Coupled with the more diffuse political structure based on smaller feudal units, various different legal traditions emerged, remaining more strongly rooted in Roman jurisprudence, but modified to meet the prevailing political climate.
In Scandinavia the effect of Roman law did not become apparent until the 17th century, and the courts grew out of the things — the assemblies of the people. The people decided the cases (usually with largest freeholders dominating). This system later gradually developed into a system with a royal judge nominating a number of the most esteemed men of the parish as his board, fulfilling the function of "the people" of yore.
From the Hellenic system onwards, the policy rationale for requiring the payment of monetary compensation for wrongs committed has involved the avoidance of feuding between clans and families. If compensation could mollify families' feelings, this would help to keep the peace. On the other hand, the institution of oaths also played down the threat of feudal warfare. Both in archaic Greece and in medieval Scandinavia, an accused person walked free if he could get a sufficient number of male relatives to swear him unguilty. (Compare the United Nations Security Council, in which the veto power of the permanent members ensures that the organization does not become involved in crises where it could not enforce its decisions.)
These means of restraining private feuds did not always work, and sometimes prevented the fulfillment of justice. But in the earliest times the "state" did not always provide an independent policing force. Thus criminal law grew out what 21st-century lawyers would call torts; and, in real terms, many acts and omissions classified as crimes actually overlap with civil-law concepts.
The development of sociological thought from the 19th century onwards prompted some fresh views on crime and criminality, and fostered the beginnings of criminology as a study of crime in society. Nietzsche noted a link between crime and creativity – in The Birth of Tragedy he asserted: "The best and brightest that man can acquire he must obtain by crime". In the 20th century Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish made a study of criminalization as a coercive method of state control.
Justifying the State's use of force to coerce compliance with its laws has proven a consistent theoretical problem. One of the earliest justifications involved the theory of natural law. This posits that the nature of the world or of human beings underlies the standards of morality or constructs them. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century: "the rule and measure of human acts is the reason, which is the first principle of human acts" (Aquinas, ST I-II, Q.90, A.I). He regarded people as by nature rational beings, concluding that it becomes morally appropriate that they should behave in a way that conforms to their rational nature. Thus, to be valid, any law must conform to natural law and coercing people to conform to that law is morally acceptable. In the 1760s William Blackstone (1979: 41) described the thesis:
But John Austin (1790–1859), an early positivist, applied utilitarianism in accepting the calculating nature of human beings and the existence of an objective morality. He denied that the legal validity of a norm depends on whether its content conforms to morality. Thus in Austinian terms a moral code can objectively determine what people ought to do, the law can embody whatever norms the legislature decrees to achieve social utility, but every individual remains free to choose what he or she will do. Similarly, Hart (1961) saw the law as an aspect of sovereignty, with lawmakers able to adopt any law as a means to a moral end.
Thus the necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of a proposition of law simply involved internal logic and consistency, and that the state's agents used state power with responsibility. Ronald Dworkin (2005) rejects Hart's theory and proposes that all individuals should expect the equal respect and concern of those who govern them as a fundamental political right. He offers a theory of compliance overlaid by a theory of deference (the citizen's duty to obey the law) and a theory of enforcement, which identifies the legitimate goals of enforcement and punishment. Legislation must conform to a theory of legitimacy, which describes the circumstances under which a particular person or group is entitled to make law, and a theory of legislative justice, which describes the law they are entitled or obliged to make.
Indeed, despite everything, the majority of natural-law theorists have accepted the idea of enforcing the prevailing morality as a primary function of the law. This view entails the problem that it makes any moral criticism of the law impossible: if conformity with natural law forms a necessary condition for legal validity, all valid law must, by definition, count as morally just. Thus, on this line of reasoning, the legal validity of a norm necessarily entails its moral justice.
One can solve this problem by granting some degree of moral relativism and accepting that norms may evolve over time and, therefore, one can criticize the continued enforcement of old laws in the light of the current norms. People may find such law acceptable, but the use of State power to coerce citizens to comply with that law lacks moral justification. More recent conceptions of the theory characterise crime as the violation of individual rights.
Since society considers so many rights as natural (hence the term "right") rather than man-made, what constitutes a crime also counts as natural, in contrast to laws (seen as man-made). Adam Smith illustrates this view, saying that a smuggler would be an excellent citizen, "...had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."
Natural-law theory therefore distinguishes between "criminality" (which derives from human nature) and "illegality" (which originates with the interests of those in power). Lawyers sometimes express the two concepts with the phrases malum in se and malum prohibitum respectively. They regard a "crime malum in se" as inherently criminal; whereas a "crime malum prohibitum" (the argument goes) counts as criminal only because the law has decreed it so.
This view leads to a seeming paradox: one can perform an illegal act without committing a crime, while a criminal act could be perfectly legal. Many Enlightenment thinkers (such as Adam Smith and the American Founding Fathers) subscribed to this view to some extent, and it remains influential among so-called classical liberals and libertarians.
Governments criminalise antisocial behaviour — and treat it within a system of offences against society — in order to justify the imposition of punishment. Authorities make a series of distinctions depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest(s), in crimes against:
Or one can categorise crimes depending on the related punishment, with sentencing tariffs prescribed in line with the perceived seriousness of the offence. Thus fines and noncustodial sentences may address the crimes seen as least serious, with lengthy imprisonment or (in some jurisdictions) capital punishment reserved for the most serious.
Researchers and commentators may classify crime into categories, including:
Analysts can also group crimes by severity, some common category-terms including:
In the United States since 1930, the FBI has tabulated Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) annually from crime data submitted by law enforcement agencies across the United States. Officials compile this data at the city, county, and state levels into the Uniform crime reports (UCR). They classify violations of laws which derive from common law as Part I (index) crimes in UCR data, further categorised as violent or property crimes. Part I violent crimes include murder and criminal homicide (voluntary manslaughter), forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery; while Part I property crimes include burglary, arson, larceny/theft, and motor-vehicle theft. All other crimes count come under Part II.
Booking-arrests require detention for a time-frame ranging 1 to 24 hours.
From the point of view of State-centric law, extraordinary procedures (usually international courts) may prosecute such crimes. Note the role of the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands.
Popular opinion often associates international law with the concept of opposing terrorism — seen as a crime as distinct from warfare.
Different religious traditions may promote distinct norms of behaviour, and these in turn may clash or harmonise with the perceived interests of a state. Socially accepted or imposed religious morality has influenced secular jurisdictions on issues that may otherwise concern only an individual's conscience. Activities sometimes criminalized on religious grounds include (for example) alcohol-consumption (prohibition), abortion and stem-cell research. In various historical and present-day societies institutionalized religions have established systems of earthly justice which punish crimes against the divine will and against specific devotional, organizational and other rules under specific codes, such as Islamic sharia or Roman Catholic canon law.
In the military sphere, authorities can prosecute both regular crimes and specific acts (such as mutiny or desertion) under martial-law codes that either supplant or extend civil codes in times of (for example) war.
Many constitutions contain provisions to curtail freedoms and criminalize otherwise tolerated behaviors under a state of emergency in the event of war, natural disaster or civil unrest. Undesired activities at such times may include assembly in the streets, violation of curfew, or possession of firearms.
The complexity and anonymity of computer systems may help criminal employees camouflage their operations. The victims of the most costly scams include banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and other large financial institutions.
Most people guilty of embezzlement do not have criminal histories. Embezzlers tend to have a gripe against their employer, have financial problems, or simply an inability to resist the temptation of a loophole they have found. Screening and background checks on perspective employees can help in prevention; however, many laws make some types of screening difficult or even illegal. Fired or disgruntled employees sometimes sabotage their company's computer system as a form of "pay back". This sabotage may take the form of a logic bomb, a computer virus, or creating general havoc.
Some places of employment have developed measures in an attempt to combat and prevent employee crime. Places of employment sometimes implement security measures such as cameras, fingerprint records of employees, and background checks. Although privacy-advocates have questioned such methods, they appear to serve the interests of the organisations using them. Not only do these methods help prevent employee crime, but they protect the company from punishment and/or lawsuits for negligent hiring.
Crime in the field of sociology is the breach of a rule or law for which some governing authority or force may ultimately prescribe a punishment. The word crime originates from the Latin crimen (genitive criminis), from the Latin root cernō and Greek κρινω = "I judge". Originally it meant "charge (in law), guilt, accusation".
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An act forbidden by human law and punished by human authority, in contrast to sinful acts which are thought to be evil in the eyes of God.
In the Mosaic legislation the principal crimes against person and property—murder, mutilation, and theft—are punished at the instance of the party injured, or of his kinsmen. The murderer is pursued and brought to justice, or is killed outright (Num 35:21) by the Avenger of Blood; mutilation and other injuries to the person are paid for in money (see Assault and Battery); the thief is condemned to make double restitution, and is enslaved if unable to pay.
But there were many offenses not so much directed against any one person as against the whole nation of Israel. They included all those grosser violations of God's declared will which were thought to bring down His wrath and vengeance upon the nation: such acts as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, blasphemy of the sacred name, incest, adultery (for which the husband had no such civil redress as is afforded by common law). The witnesses to the evil deed were called upon by the Lawgiver, not only to prosecute the offender, but to help in the execution of the sentence (Deut 13:7-11, xvii. 2-7). The duty of witnesses to prosecute is still the law of England, and those who happen to witness a criminal act are often put thereby to great expense. Besides death and banishment to the cities of refuge, the Biblical law has also the punishment of stripes, which are never to exceed forty in number (Deut 25:3). The infliction of stripes is awarded by a judge, not by the congregation.
The crimes which were expiated by a fine, or compensation in money, embraced not only, as said above, larceny, robbery, and mayhem, but also even the ravishing of a maiden "which is not betrothed" (Deut 22:28, 29). The sum which is awarded against the owner of an ox which kills a free man or woman, or a bondman or bondwoman, provided the owner had been properly forewarned of its vicious disposition (Ex 21:29-32), is expiation for this kind of manslaughter. For the commission of a forbidden act through ignorance, a sin-offering is prescribed (Lev 4:1-3); for certain dishonest actions a sin-offering, together with restoration of the thing wrongfully withheld, plus one-fifth its value, is imposed. But these penalties are self-inflicted. The repentant sinner brings them upon himself by confession, and with a view to divine forgiveness (Lev. v.); while punishment in the ordinary sense is only adjudged upon the testimony of witnesses.
In the Mosaic legislation there are two practical motives assigned for the infliction of death for offenses against God or against the state: one, to deter others from offending in like manner; the other, to root out the evil elements in the nation and to keep the poison from spreading. Sometimes both motives are named together. Thus the man who rebels against the judgment of the high priest or supreme judge must die: "and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously" (Deut 17:12, 13); while in the case of the idolater condemned to death, we read: "So thou shalt put away the evil from the midst of thee" (ib. 7). This latter motive is brought out strongly in dealing with idolaters, who are regarded as "a root that beareth gall and wormwood" (ib. xxix. 17). The punishment by stripes, if not meant to correct and reform the offender, was at least so regulated and limited as not to degrade him.
But there was a view of crime older than the Pentateuch, and firmly embedded in the hearts of people and rulers. Vengeance should not fall on the evil-doer only, but on all his children also—on his father, if alive, and on all his father's issue: only thus can God's wrath be appeased. The Pentateuch protests against this savage conception: "Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, and sons shall not be put to death for fathers; every one shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut 24:16, Hebr.). As an illustration of actual practise based upon this conception, there is the act of Joshua, who—when Achan had put away gold and silver and fine raiment out of the spoils of Jericho, which had been doomed to destruction—not only has Achan put to death, but also his sons and his daughters. In like manner David, on the complaint of the Gibeonites against the dead king Saul, avenges them by hanging five of Saul's grandsons (2 Sam 21:1-9). But when, seven generations after David, Joash, King of Judah, was murdered, Amaziah, his son and successor, caused only the murderers to be put to death, and did not punish their sons, "according to that which is written in the book of the law of Moses" (2Kg 14:6). The declaiming of the prophets Jeremiah (xxxi. 29) and Ezekiel (xviii. 2) against the proverbial saying, "the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the children are set on edge," shows that a desire to punish the children for the sins of the fathers was still alive among the people.
While English law has never inflicted death by the hands of the hangman on the traitor's or felon's children, yet as late as in the reign of James II. the forfeiture of the convict's property was enforced with such rigor that his helpless children often faced a slower death by starvation. Like cruelty prevailed in France and Spain. And it was equally severe in the old seats of Israel, except where and when the Torah prevailed (compare Confiscation and Forfeiture).
The Bible places the view that certain wrongful acts, such as murder, shall be punished by society, at least as far back as the days immediately following the Flood, when the sons of Noah were told: "Whoever sheddeth the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed" (Gen 9:16); and Cain expresses the fear that, for the murder which he has committed, "every one that findeth me shall slayme" (Gen 4:14); in other words, it was the duty of society, and even of the beasts of the field, to avenge the blood of Abel.
In the Mishnah we find that some "institutions" of the sages are enforced by penalties; but, generally, only those acts that are sinful, because forbidden in the Pentateuch, meet severe punishment. Some acts, plainly forbidden by the Law, are left to "death by the hand of Heaven," such as the intrusion of non-Levites in the place assigned to the Levites in the service of the Temple (compare Sanh. ix. 6 with Num 1:51, xviii. 7, as reconciled in Sanh. 84a). Even civil redress for wrongful acts is sometimes withheld, where the application of the law is not clear, and vengeance is left to the powers above (B. M. iv. 2).
The criminal jurisprudence of the Mishnah may be regarded as almost modern in its bearings. The avenger of blood has dropped out; the idea of making fathers and sons suffer for each others' guilt lies now so far in the dim past, that the sages give to the text in Deuteronomy (xxiv. 16)—which forbids such savagery, the law of individual responsibility being sufficiently covered by the concluding words, "every man shall be put to death for his own sin"—this entirely new meaning: "fathers shall not be condemned on the testimony of their sons" (Sanh. 28a). The "congregation" which is to judge of matters of life and death becomes a court of twenty-three learned judges. An execution by stoning or burning is regulated so as to inflict the least possible pain (see Capital Punishment). All possible advantages are given to the accused in order to temper the severity of the Pentateuchal law (see Accusatory and Inquisitorial Procedure; Acquittal in Talmudic Law).
Offenses are classified according to the gravity of the punishment: those punished by stoning, by burning, by beheading, and by strangling coming first; next in gravity are those punishable by stripes, the most serious being those for which the Mosaic law prescribes excision("he shall be cut off from his people"; see Karet); then come those wrongful acts which the written law redresses by fine, forfeiture, or sacrifice, it being understood that whenever the Scripture imposes a duty or a penalty, stripes are excluded. There can be no stripes for theft, for double, fourfold, or fivefold compensation is expressly named as the penalty for the act. Nor can a battery be avenged by stripes, for the Law says "eye for eye," that is, compensation for the loss of the limb or organ; "bruise for bruise" that is, compensation for the pain; and so for other violence done (Ket. 32b), though the offense entailed both pain and loss of money. It is not easy to determine the proper classification of an involuntary killing, with its penalty of banishment; but it comes, like murder, before a court of twenty-three judges.
The sages believed that death under the sentence of the law, provided the condemned man confessed his guilt, was full atonement, and that he would have his share in the world to come (Sanh. vi. 2); that the infliction of stripes was equivalent to the excision with which the law threatens the offender (Mak. iii. 15), though the latter view is disputed on technical grounds (ib. 23b; Meg. 7b). But where the only redress is a money compensation to the injured party, the sages taught that payment alone was not sufficient to secure the forgiveness of God, unless the guilty party had first sought to appease his injured neighbor (see Assault and Battery).
A suggestion occurs more than once in the Talmud (Sanh. 37b; Ket. 30a et seq.) that, though Israel has lost its freedom, and its judges can no longer wield the sword of justice, "the four capital punishments have not ceased. He who deserves stoning will fall from the roof, or a wild beast will trample him down; he who deserves burning will fall into a burning house, or be bitten by a poisonous serpent . . . He who deserves the headsman's sword will be delivered to the [heathen] government, or will fall among robbers." Death by the sword was the punishment for murder, and it thus appears that the Rabbis were not unwilling to see Jewish murderers put to death under the laws of Rome or of Persia. The list of offenses punished by death is given in the Mishnah (Sanh. vii., viii., ix., xi.) under the headings of "the stoned," "the burnt," "the beheaded," "the strangled." There are 18 offenses involving the punishment of stoning; 5, of burning; 2, of beheading; 6, of strangulation (compare Capital Punishment).
Besides the regular forms of punishment for crime, Jewish law recognizes certain irregular methods. "If the thief be found breaking in and be smitten that he die, there shall be no bloodguiltiness for him" (Ex 22:2, R. V.)
On the analogy of this Biblical case the Rabbis decide several others (see Burglary). In three cases the person on the point of committing a crime may be killed: where he pursues a neighbor in order to kill him; where he pursues a male to commit sodomy; and where he seeks to ravish a betrothed damsel; for Deut 22:27 indicates the duty of all that hear her cry to help her. But it is not lawful to "save by death from sinning" in the case of the Sabbath-breaker, or of the idol-worshiper, etc. (Mish. Sanh. viii. 7). Where one is suspected of murder, and, though the testimony of the witnesses is not sufficient, the judges are convinced of his guilt, they should cause him to be locked up in a cell, on a scanty diet of bread and water (ib. ix. 5). The disputants in the Gemara on this passage are not agreed on the question how great the deficiency in such testimony might be and the judges still be justified in inflicting death by ill treatment and starvation. There had been no trials for murder during hundreds of years in the countries where these disputes took place.
He who steals one of the holy vessels, he who curses God, naming Him with an idol [the wording of the original is rather obscure], and he who co-habits with an idolatress—these are permitted to be killed by zealots. The right of zealots in the last of the three cases is evidently drawn from the example of Phinehas (Num 25:6-8). Lastly, it issaid: "When a priest dared to serve in the Temple while unclean, his brethren the kohanim did not bring him before a court of justice, but the young men among them dragged him outside of the place of assembly and brained him with axes" (Mish. Sanh. ix. 6). See also Burglary; Capital Punishment; Corporal punishment; Karet; Criminal Procedure; Robbery.
Bibliography: P. B. Benny, Criminal Code of the Jews. London, 1880; Duschak, Das Mosaisch-Talmudische Strafrecht, Vienna, 1869; Fassel, Das Mosaisch-Rabbinische Strafgesetz, Gross-Kanizsa, 1870; Forster, Das Mosaische Strafrecht, Leipsic, 1900; Mendelsohn, Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews, Baltimore, 1891; Rabbinowicz, Legislation Criminelle du Talmud, Paris, 1867.
The basic idea of what things are called "crimes" is that they are thought to be things that might cause a problem for another person. Things like killing another person, injuring another person, or stealing from another person are crimes in most countries. Also, it can be a crime to eat some types of food, such as meat of rare exotic animals, marijuana leaves, or mushrooms that contain psychedelic drugs.
There are various levels of crimes:
Different countries have many different ideas of what things are crimes, and which are severe enough to be treated as felonies. Some things that are crimes in one country are not crimes in other countries. Many countries get their ideas of what things are crimes from religions or controversial events which cause a law to be quickly created. For example, a religion might consider eating a particular food to be a crime. Another example, is the ban, in some regions, on texting-while-driving an automobile (or train), as new laws created after people died from wrecks when they were distracted by mobile phone messages.
In many countries, if people say they made or wrote a book, movie, song, or Web page that they did not really write or make, it is a crime against the laws of copyright. In many countries, helping to grow, make, move, or sell illegal drugs is a crime.
In most countries, police try to stop crimes and to find criminals. When the police find someone who they think might be a criminal, they usually hold the person in a jail. Then, usually, a court or a judge decides if the person really did a crime. If the court or judge decides that the person really did it, then he or she might have to pay a fine or go to prison. Sometimes the judge might decide that the criminal should be executed (killed). This is called Capital punishment (or the Death Penalty). There are countries in the world who execute criminals, and others who do not.