AskDefine | Define criminal

Dictionary Definition

criminal adj
1 relating to crime or its punishment; "criminal court"
2 bringing or deserving severe rebuke or censure; "a criminal waste of talent"; "a deplorable act of violence"; "adultery is as reprehensible for a husband as for a wife" [syn: condemnable, deplorable, reprehensible]
3 guilty of crime or serious offense; "criminal in the sight of God and man"
4 involving or being or having the nature of a crime; "a criminal offense"; "criminal abuse"; "felonious intent" [syn: felonious] n : someone who has committed (or been legally convicted of) a crime [syn: felon, crook, outlaw, malefactor]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Being against the law.
  2. Guilty of breaking the law.
  3. Of or relating to crime.
being against the law
  • Finnish: rikollinen, lainvastainen
  • German: kriminell
guilty of breaking the law
  • Finnish: rikollinen
  • German: kriminell
of or relating to crime
  • Finnish: rikollinen, rikosoikeudellinen
  • German: kriminell


  1. A person who is guilty of breaking the law.


person guilty of breaking the law



  1. criminal


  1. criminal

Extensive Definition

Crime is the breach of a rule or law for which a punishment may ultimately be prescribed by some governing authority or force. 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."
Informal relationships and sanctions have been deemed insufficient to create and maintain a desired social order. resulting in formalized systems of social control by the government, or more broadly, the State. With the institutional and legal machinery at their disposal, agents of the State are able to compel individuals to conform to behavioural codes and punish those that do not. Various mechanisms are employed to regulate behaviour, including rules codified into laws, policing people to ensure they comply with those laws, and other policies and practices designed to prevent crime. In addition are remedies and sanctions, and collectively these constitute a criminal justice system. Not all breaches of the law, however, are considered crimes, for example, breaches of contract and other civil law offenses. The label of "crime" and the accompanying social stigma are normally reserved for those activities that are injurious to the general population or the State, including some that cause serious loss or damage to individuals. The label is intended to assert an hegemony of a dominant population, or to reflect a consensus of condemnation for the identified behavior and to justify a punishment imposed by the State, in the event that an accused person is tried and convicted of a crime. . Usually, the perpetrator of the crime is a natural person, but in some jurisdictions and in some moral environments, legal persons are also considered to have the capability of committing crimes.


A normative definition views crime as deviant behavior that violates prevailing norms, specifically, 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 the current definitions of crime and the form of the legal, law enforcement, and penal responses made by the State. These structural realities are fluid and often contentious. For example, as cultures change and the political environment shifts, behavior may be criminalised or decriminalised, which will directly affect the statistical crime rates, determine the allocation of resources for the enforcement of such laws, and influence the general public opinion. Similarly, changes in the way that crime data are collected and/or calculated 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 law should be used to enforce any particular social norm. There are many ways in which behaviour can be controlled without having to resort to the criminal justice system. Indeed, in those cases where there is no clear consensus on the given norm, the use of criminal law by the group in power to prohibit the behaviour of another group may be considered an improper limitation of the second group's freedom, and the ordinary members of society may lose some of their respect for the law in general whether the disputed law is actively enforced or not.
Laws that define crimes which violate social norms are set by legislatures, and are called mala prohibita. These laws vary from time to time and place to place, such as gambling laws. Other crimes, called mala in se, are nearly universally outlawed, such as murder, theft and rape


  • Criminalization might be intended as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to those proposing to engage in the behavior causing harm. The State becomes involved because they usually believe costs of not criminalizing (i.e. allowing the harms to continue unabated) outweigh the costs of criminalizing it (i.e. restricting individual liberty in order to minimize harm to others).
  • Criminalization may provide future harm reduction even after a crime, assuming those incarcerated for committing crimes are more likely to cause harm in the future.
  • Criminalization might be intended as a way to make potential criminals pay for their crimes. In this case, criminalization is a way to set the price that one must pay (to society) for certain actions that are considered detrimental to society as a whole. In this sense criminalization can be viewed as nothing more than State-sanctioned revenge.
The process of criminalization is controlled by the State because:
  • Even if the victims recognize that they are victims, they may not have the resources to investigate and seek legal redress for the injuries suffered: the enforcers formally appointed by the State have the expertise and the resources.
  • The victims may only want compensation for the injuries suffered, while being indifferent to a possible desire for deterrence: see Polinsky & Shavell (1997) on the fundamental divergence between the private and the social motivation for using the legal system.
  • Victims or witnesses of crimes might be deterred from taking any action if they fear retaliation. Even in policed societies, fear may inhibit reporting or co-operation in a trial.
  • Victims do not have economies of scale to administer a penal system, let alone collect any fines levied by a court (see Polinsky (1980) on the enforcement of fines). Garoupa & Klerman (2002) warn that a rent-seeking government's primary motivation is to maximize revenue and so, if offenders have sufficient wealth, a rent-seeking government is more aggressive than a social-welfare-maximizing government in enforcing laws against minor crimes (usually with a fixed penalty such as parking and routine traffic violations), but more lax in enforcing laws against major crimes.
  • The victims may be incapacitated or dead as a result of the crime


The first civilizations had codes of law, containing both civil and penal rules mixed together, though these codes were not always recorded. The first known written codes were produced by the Sumerians, and it is known that Urukagina had an early code that does not survive. A later king, Ur-Nammu left the earliest code that has been discovered, creating a formal system of prescribed penalties for specific cases in 57 articles, the Code of Ur-Nammu. The Sumerians later issued other codes including the "code of Lipit-Ishtar" (last king of Isin - 20th century BCE). This code contains some fifty articles and has been reconstructed by the comparison among 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, reflected Mesopotamian society's belief that law was derived from the will of the gods (see Babylonian law). Many states at this time were theocratic, and their codes of conduct were 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", what was termed the penal law of ancient communities was not the law of "Crimes" (crimina); it was the law of "Wrongs" (delicta). Thus, the Hellenic laws treated all forms of theft, assault, rape, and murder as private wrongs, and action for enforcement was up to the victim or their survivors (which was a challenge in that although there was law, there were no formalized courts in the earliest system). It was the Romans who systemized law and exported it to their Empire. Again, the initial rules of Roman Law were that assaults were a matter of private compensation. The significant Roman Law concept was of dominion. The pater familias was in possession of all the family and its property (including slaves). Hence, interference with any property was enforced by the pater. The Commentaries of Gaius on the Twelve Tables treated furtum (modern theft) as a tort. Similarly, assault and violent robbery were allied with trespass as to the pater's property (so, for example, the rape of a slave would be 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 could only be discharged by the payment of monetary compensation (modern damages). Similarly, in the consolidated Teutonic Laws of the Germanic tribes, there was a complex system of money compensations for what would now be considered the complete range of criminal offences against the person from murder down.
Even though Rome abandoned England sometime around 400 AD, the Germanic mercenaries who had largely been enforcing the Roman occupation, stayed on and continued to use a mixture of Roman and Teutonic Law, with much written down by the early Anglo-Saxon Kings. But, it was not until a more unified Kingdom emerged following the Norman invasion and the King was attempting to assert power over the land and its peoples, that the modern concept emerged, namely that a crime is not only an offence against the "individual", it is also a wrong against the "State". This is a common law idea 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 criminal trials were wholly extraordinary and arbitrary without any settled law to apply, whereas the civil delictual law was highly developed and consistent in its operation (except where the King wanted to raise money by selling a new form of Writ). The development of the idea that it is the "State" dispensing 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 Church. Coupled with the more diffuse political structure based on smaller State units, rather different legal traditions emerged, remaining more strongly rooted in Roman jurisprudence modified to meet the prevailing political climate. In Scandinavia, the effect of Roman law was not felt until the 17th century, and the courts grew out of the things, which were the assemblies of the people. The cases were decided by the people (usually largest freeholders dominating) which later gradually transformed into a system of a royal judge nominating a number of 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 been to avoid feuding between clans and families. If families' feelings could be mollified by compensation, this would help to keep the peace. On the other hand, the threat of feudal warfare was played down also by the institution of oaths. Both in archaic Greece and in medieval Scandinavia, the accused was released if he could get a sufficient number of male relatives to swear him unguilty. This may be compared with the United Nations Security Council where the veto power of the permanent members ensures that the organization is not drawn into crises where it could not enforce its decisions. These means of restraining private feuds did not always work or prevented the fulfillment of justice but, in the earliest times, the "States" were not prepared to provide an independent police force. Thus, criminal law grew out of what is now tort and, in real terms, many acts and omissions that are classified as crimes overlap civil law concepts.

Natural law theory

The consistent theoretical problem has been to justify the State's use of force to coerce compliance with its laws. One of the earliest justifications was the theory of natural law. This posits that the standards of morality are derived from or constructed by the nature of the world or of human beings. Thomas Aquinas said: "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), i.e. since people are by nature rational beings, it is 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. William Blackstone (1979: 41) describes the thesis:
"This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original."
But John Austin, an early positivist, applied utilitarianism in accepting the calculating nature of human beings and the existence of an objective morality, but denied that the legal validity of a norm depends on whether its content conforms to morality, i.e. 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 is 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 were simply that the law was internally logical and consistent, and that State power was being used with responsibility. Dworkin (2005) rejects Hart's theory and argues that fundamental among political rights is the right of each individual to the equal respect and concern of those who govern him. 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 that a primary function of the law is to enforce the prevailing morality. The problem with this view is that it makes any moral criticism of the law impossible in that, if conformity with natural law is a necessary condition for legal validity, all valid law must, by definition, be morally just. Thus, on this line of reasoning, the legal validity of a norm necessarily entails its moral justice. The solution to this problem is to admit some degree of moral relativism and to accept that norms may evolve over time and, therefore, the continued enforcement of old laws may be criticized in the light of the current norms. The law may be acceptable but the use of State power to coerce citizens to comply with that law is not morally justified. In more modern conceptions of the theory, crime is characterized as the violation of individual rights. Since so many rights are considered as natural, hence the term "right", rather than man-made, what constitutes a crime is also natural, in contrast to laws, which are 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 is derived from human nature, and "illegality" which is derived from the interests of those in power. The two concepts are sometimes expressed with the phrases malum in se and malum prohibitum. A crime malum in se is argued to be inherently criminal; whereas a crime malum prohibitum is argued to be criminal only because the law has decreed it so. This view leads to a seeming paradox, that an act can be illegal that is no 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.


Antisocial behaviour is criminalised and treated as offences against society, in order to justify punishment by the government. A series of distinctions are made depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest(s), in crimes against:
Or they can be distinguished depending on the related punishment with sentencing tariffs prescribed in line with the perceived seriousness of the offence with fines and noncustodial sentences for the least serious, and in some States, capital punishment for the most serious.


Crime is generally classified into categories, including violent crime, property crime, and public order crime.

U.S. classification

In the United States since 1930, Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) have been tabulated annually by the FBI from crime data submitted by law enforcement agencies across the United States. This data is compiled at the city, county, and State levels into the Uniform crime reports (UCR). Violations of laws, which are derived from common law, are classified as Part I (index) crimes in UCR data, and further categorised as violent and 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 are classified as Part II crimes.
Crimes are also grouped by severity, some common categorical terms being: felonies (US and previously UK), indictable offences (UK), misdemeanors (US and previously UK), and summary offences (UK). For convenience, infractions are also usually included in such lists although, in the U.S., they may not be the subject of the criminal law, but rather of the civil law.

Crimes against international law

Crime against international law are crimes defined by treaty and include crime against peaces, waging a war of aggression, crimes of apartheid, piracy, genocide, war crimes, and the slave trade. They may be prosecuted by extraordinary procedures, usually international courts such as the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Religion and crime

Secular jurisdictions have been influenced by socially accepted or imposed religious morality on issues that may otherwise be answerable only to an individual's conscience. Examples of activities that have been criminalized on religious grounds are 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 specific devotional, organizational and other rules under specific codes, such as Islamic sharia or Roman Catholic canon law.

Military jurisdictions and states of emergency

In the military sphere, both regular crimes and specific acts such as mutiny or desertion can be prosecuted under martial law codes that either supplant or extend civil codes in times of 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. Such activities include assembly in the streets, violation of curfew, or possession of firearms.


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criminal in Afrikaans: Misdaad
criminal in Arabic: جريمة
criminal in Bulgarian: Престъпление
criminal in Czech: Zločin
criminal in Danish: Kriminalitet
criminal in German: Kriminalität
criminal in Estonian: Kuritegu
criminal in Spanish: Delito
criminal in Esperanto: Krimo
criminal in French: Crime
criminal in Ido: Krimino
criminal in Icelandic: Glæpur
criminal in Hebrew: עבירה
criminal in Luxembourgish: Kriminalitéit
criminal in Lithuanian: Nusikalstamumas
criminal in Dutch: Misdaad
criminal in Japanese: 犯罪
criminal in Norwegian: Kriminalitet
criminal in Polish: Przestępstwo
criminal in Portuguese: Crime
criminal in Quechua: Q'uma
criminal in Russian: Преступление
criminal in Simple English: Crime
criminal in Finnish: Rikos
criminal in Swedish: Brott
criminal in Vietnamese: Tội phạm
criminal in Turkish: Suç
criminal in Ukrainian: Злочин
criminal in Yiddish: פארברעכן
criminal in Chinese: 犯罪

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Judas, Mafioso, aberrant, abnormal, abominable, actionable, against the law, amoral, anarchic, anarchistic, anomic, arraignable, arrant, at fault, atrocious, bad, bad guy, bad person, base, betrayer, black, black-market, blackguard, blamable, blameworthy, bootleg, censurable, chargeable, conscienceless, contraband, contrary to law, convict, corrupt, corrupted, crook, crooked, culpable, culprit, damnable, dark, deceiver, delinquent, depraved, desperado, desperate criminal, deviant, devious, disgraceful, dishonest, dishonorable, double-dealer, doubtful, dubious, evasive, evil, evildoer, evildoing, execrable, faulty, felon, felonious, fishy, flagitious, flagrant, flawed, foul, fraudulent, fugitive, gallows bird, gangster, gaolbird, guilty, hardly the thing, heinous, hood, hoodlum, hooligan, ignominious, ill-got, ill-gotten, illegal, illegitimate, illicit, immoral, impeachable, impermissible, implicated, improper, inappropriate, incorrect, inculpated, indecorous, indictable, indirect, infamous, iniquitous, insidious, involved, irregular, jailbird, justiciable, knave, knavish, lawbreaker, lawless, low, malefactor, malefactory, malevolent, malfeasant, malfeasor, miscreant, misfeasor, mobster, monstrous, naughty, nefarious, nonconstitutional, nonlegal, nonlicit, not done, not kosher, not the thing, off-base, off-color, offender, out-of-line, outlaw, outlawed, peccant, public enemy, punishable, questionable, quisling, racketeer, rank, reprehensible, reproachable, reprobate, reprovable, rotten, roughneck, ruffian, sacrilegious, scandalous, scofflaw, scoundrel, shady, shameful, shameless, shifty, sinful, sinister, sinner, slippery, suspicious, swindler, terrible, terrorist, thief, thug, to blame, tough, traitor, transgressor, trespasser, triable, tricky, two-timer, unallowed, unauthorized, unconscienced, unconscientious, unconscionable, unconstitutional, under-the-counter, under-the-table, underhand, underhanded, undue, unethical, unfit, unfitting, unforgivable, unlawful, unofficial, unpardonable, unprincipled, unrighteous, unsavory, unscrupulous, unseemly, unspeakable, unstatutory, unstraightforward, unsuitable, unwarrantable, unwarranted, unworthy, vicious, vile, villain, villainous, wicked, without remorse, without shame, worker of ill, wrong, wrongdoer, wrongdoing, wrongful
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