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It is argued there is no single definition of crime. Instead, there are perceptions of the meaning of crime. Government, Lawyers, Criminologists, Forensic Psychologists, and sociologists will argue that defining crime appropriately is crucial to the way with which laws are created and how those laws are implemented. Nevertheless, the simplest and most generalised definition of crime in the UK is to behave in a manner that breaks the rule of law. A deliberate (physical or psychological) act that causes harm to another, and an act that causes loss or damage to property.

Different cultures and societies hold different views on what is and is not considered a crime, and what punishment is to be determined to fit said crime (the UK does not support the death penalty, some states in the US still do). Our perception of crime is fluid and influenced by past and present behaviours that have come to be considered in society to be harmful, abhorrent, and morally wrong. Examples of the changing face of law and crime include s76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 – controlling/coercive behaviour within intimate and family relationships. Prior to 2015, psychological abuse, although recognised in society as harmful, did not become unlawful and therefore a punishable offence until 2015.

Individuals during 17th Century England would marry as young as 12 (girls) and 14 (boys). Socio-economic life during the 17th Century meant people lived shorter lives. Women gained social status and avoidance of financial destitution by becoming a wife during a time where women had no employment prospects and were considered second-class citizens. Today, in the UK, the law requires individuals to be 18 years of age to be married (16 and 17 years with parental consent) (Brabcová, 2016).

Crime is a social construct – a measurement of what is and is not acceptable behaviour in society, affected by political, religious, and socio-economic factors. These factors continue to shape and define what is perceived as criminal behaviour. Corruption and/or power within elitism and classism contribute to influencing judicial outcomes and definitions of crime. The Coronavirus Act, 2020 granted government in the UK emergency powers to manage the pandemic. Members of parliament failed to adhere to legislative restrictions – as though they were exempt from the law.

Similarly, a member of the UK royal family allegedly committed sexual assault in connection with human trafficking allegations. There were no criminal proceedings brought against the person. It is argued, if it were not for the social status of the person, they would have been investigated and prosecuted.

Understanding Crime

Criminological theories of crime seek to identify what ‘type’ of person might commit a crime, and why and how they commit crimes. The fundamental attribute missing from many of these theories, is that subjects who have undergone evaluation are almost always individuals who have navigated through the Criminal Justice System (CJS). This means, much of society has not been compared to those people who have committed crimes. Thousands of individuals have experienced traumatic childhoods/events but do not go on to commit crime. Criminological theories include (but not limited to) Rational Choice Theory – (argues normal people with free will make a conscious, self-serving calculated choice to commit crime based on cost/benefit – pain/pleasure) (McCarthy and Chaudhary, 2014). Other theories fall under the umbrella of biological, sociological, and psychological theories of crime.

The General Strain Theory

The General Strain Theory (GST) of crime argues certain stressors increase the likelihood of crime associated by negative interactions with others. These include (but not limited to) negative relationships with parents, schooling/teachers, experiences such as child abuse, bullying and victimisation (Newburn, 2017). Additionally, Agnew (1985) argued that individuals who had been exposed to toxic/negative stimuli by others were also predisposed to suffering strain. Strain refers to stressors that may increase negative emotions such as loss, grief, anger, isolation, rejection, marginalisation, and frustration. These emotions may be driving factors to the way in which individuals perceive they have been treated and can be exacerbated by the lack of opportunities for individuals to progress as well as the inability to use appropriate channels to be heard and voice their discontent. GST has been applied to many crimes including terrorism, drug abuse, delinquency, robbery, theft, and white- collar crime.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby (1951) argued that the lack of positive attachment between an infant and their mother, or other maternal caregivers, may lead to crime and delinquency. Children need a rooted attachment with a caregiver to nurture the child with connectedness, love, and continuous care. Deprivation of this attachment may affect the way in which the child feels which in turn, through their life may affect their interactions and relationships with others. A loving bond with their mother would result in feelings of positivity and security. A child feeling unloved/rejected becomes avoidant and detached. Negative parental interactions such as anger may cause resistance. Maternal deprivation may lead to anger, depression, affectionless and cognitive impairment.

Nature Vs nurture: A combined approach

The nature Vs nurture debate presents with theories about who we become – how we behave, how our interactions with others may manifest and whether we are predisposed to criminality based on either physiological and genomic attributes, or through socio-economic experiences and conditioning. Lambroso (1876) argued criminality could be inherited. Lambroso’s biological theory of crime argued people could be identified as criminals based on their facial features and size, shape, and perceived defects of their skull. Glenn and Raine’s (2014) biological theory of crime included the study of behavioural and molecular genetics which argued specific genes (and hormones, chemicals, and brain structure) were isolated that could confer susceptibility (and could be inherited) to personality traits such as antisocial behaviour and psychopathy. Nevertheless, Glenn and Raine (2014) incorporate the importance that nurture plays with which can make the difference between whether crime is committed or not even with susceptibility based on genomic identifiers.

Social, economic, and environmental factors

Poverty, lack of education and opportunities and environmental stressors can create push/pull factors. These include marginalisation, discrimination, abuse of human rights, unresolved conflicts, lack of community related structures and inclusion, poor parenting, abuse, political unrest, substance abuse and religious repression. Pull factors include security and safety, employment opportunities and financial stability.

Evidence suggests that while there are biological/genomic factors that may predispose an individual to committing crime – environmental, economic, and social factors play a fundamental and predominant role in the measure of vulnerability and susceptibility to an individual who may go on to commit crime. However, it is important to stipulate again that there are thousands of people who have suffered adverse childhood/adulthood trauma who do not go on to commit crimes.

Defining Crime