The majority of the American people will derive their assumptions about crime in the criminal justice system based on what they view on television, in movies, and via social media. In fact, many of these beliefs involve myths that have no basis in fact. Conceptions about crime and criminals are often based on stereotypes and misinformation. This essay will clarify certain concepts about crime using empirical, academic, and other fact-based data.
If one were to ask 100 strangers to describe a criminal, it is likely that these descriptions would be centered around street criminals, such as drug dealers, gang members, and other perpetrators of street crime when in fact, corporate and state crimes actually are much more prevalent and detrimental to society than most people would imagine. The costs of corporate and state crimes generally are much more devastating than street crime, such as the example given of the Iraq war. In the United Kingdom, unlike the United States, a great deal of inquiry and blame followed that conflict, given how much life, money, and international credibility was lost as a result of that unnecessary and long-term damaging war. Corporate crime, such as that involving BP after the Horizon oil spill in Texas, has had long-term and damaging effects on people, wildlife, terrain, and a wide range of other factors. Even though ultimately BP had to pay millions of dollars in damages, there was still no way to adequately and accurately put a price tag on the negative impact and cost of their negligence.

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Society defines crime as engaging in actions that violate acceptable social norms that have been formalized into legislation. Simply put, crimes are the acts of violating laws. At times, something may be considered a crime that either has not been or will not be considered to be criminal in the past or future. Drinking alcohol at the age of 18 has been a crime in the past, but is currently legal so that 18-year-olds are no longer committing crimes if they purchase or consume alcohol. Another example is that smoking marijuana was not illegal in the early 20th century, is currently illegal from a federal standpoint, but in various states is no longer illegal for a range of purposes.

Society tends to define crime as engaging in activities that are harmful to individuals and/or the society in general. How to define crime is generally influenced by whether or not one considers it to be a legal or a social matter; in the past, crime was believed to be simply a legal matter based on a written code of permissible behaviors (Kramer, 2015.) Morality became involved when issues such as adultery, premarital sex, use of drugs and alcohol, etc., were identified as matters of personal choice versus impact on society. When marijuana was not legal anywhere in the country, it was because it was generally believed that marijuana was a harmful drug to individuals and ultimately, would be harmful to society. This was because of the low achievement and professional success of chronic pot smokers. In general it appears that many crimes are defined by society on the basis of morality as well, although maybe that is not as true in recent times. In past centuries, for example, it was considered a crime to commit adultery, but currently it is viewed as more of a moral issue than a legal issue, at least in this country.

An example of a particular crime that is absolutely true is that raping a child is not only illegal but wrong, criminally, socially, morally, physically, and on every level that one can think of. Such an act causes harm on a wide range of levels, from the individual child, to the family, to the family of the perpetrator. In addition, it hurts society in terms of the tremendous emotional and financial burden caused on having to deal with the repercussions of such a crime, the consequences are limitless. We would know that this is an accurate statement because there is a vast amount of research and literature about the connections between childhood abuse and later negative mental and physical health outcomes. Childhood abuse is a risk factor for a wide variety of physical and mental health problems, an issue that has been well documented for decades (Springer, 2003.)

Examples of widely held myths or misconceptions about crime and society involves Americans beliefs about whether or not crime is declining or rising, the belief that crime has become a more serious problem with each passing year, and the widespread belief that homicides are occurring at a rate much more frequent than is actually a fact. The truth is that in the United States, crime has actually been declining rather than increasing, and Americans have always considered crime to be a serious problem, rather than it being just a recent phenomenon (Barkan, 2014.) Regarding homicides, although many Americans feel that murder is probably the most common crime in the country, in fact it is not even among the top 10 causes of death in the country. Murder and other street crimes tend to attract a great deal of attention and concern because they are actions that affect people on a personal and emotional level and threaten one’s sense of personal security.

The widespread coverage of homicides and other violent street crimes are constantly in the forefront of the American psyche because of the bombardment of content depicting these crimes in media, notably movies and television. Although clearly white-collar crime is just as detrimental and costly, if not moreso, than street crime, it is not presented in such a dramatic way via media. People tend to look the other way when things like the Enron scandal occur. Perhaps another reason that it is difficult for people to let go of the myth that violent crimes are the most common problems facing the public and that these crimes are on the rise because it provides a way to distance themselves from actually being victims when what they imagine is what they see on television: dramatic depictions of aggressive and violent acts committed against people who simply do not resemble them. In addition, when people are feeling negative about the way the country is headed, it is easy to simply lump crime in with the many other things that are going wrong, as in the economy is terrible, the state of the world is getting worse, crime is rising, etc. etc.

  • Barkan, S. E. (2014). Myths and Realities of Crime and Justice: What Every American Should Know. Burlington: Jones and Bartlett Learning.
  • Kramer, R. (2015). Defining the concept of crime: the humanistic perspective. The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 469-487.
  • Springer, K., Sheridan, J., Kuo, D., & Carnes, M. (2003). The long-term health outcomes of childhood abuse. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 864-870.