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A crime is an act which violates a law of a government, nation-state, or jurisdiction, for which there is no successful defense. According to Western jurisprudence, there must be a simultaneous concurrence of both actus reus ("bad action") and mens rea ("bad mind") for a crime to have been committed; except in crimes of strict liability. In order for prosecution, some laws require proof of causality; relating the defendant's actions to the criminal event in question. In addition, some laws require that attendant circumstances have occurred, in order for a crime to have occurred. Also, in order for a crime to be prosecuted, corpus delicti (or "proof of a crime") must be established.

A crime can be the action of violating or breaking the law, having the intention of doing so or helping others in the process; in some systems the simple association for organising a crime is punished, even if the fact is not verified and usually for many crimes the attempt too is punished, even if the crime is not completed. Crimes are viewed as offenses against society, and as such are punished by the state. They can be scholastically distinguished, depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest, in crimes against:

  • the personality of the State
  • the rights of the citizen
  • the public administration
  • the administration of justice
  • the religious sentiment and the pity for dead
  • the public order[?]
  • the public faith
  • the public economy, industry and commerce
  • the public morality
  • the person and honour
  • the patrimony
Or they can be distinguished depending on the related punishment (then, on the degree of offense that the forbidden behaviour caused), in delicts and violations.

In general, in most western systems, the definition of a crime requires the existing intention of committing it (voluntas necandi) in the author, therefore it is usually not punished when this intention is missing or when the author has not a complete mental sanity or is under a certain age.

In many systems the penal responsibility is personal, and the retroactivity of the penal law is forbidden so that no one can be punished for a fact that the penal law didn't already describe as a crime at the moment in which the crime was committed.

The definition of a crime generally reflects the current attitudes prevalent in a society. For example, possession of drugs was not always a crime, while the Prohibition Era made alcohol illegal.

The first civilizations had codes of law, though these codes were not always recorded. The first known written codes were written by the ancient Sumerians, and it was probably their king Ur-Nammu[?] (reigning on Ur in the 21st century BC) the first legislator of which we received a formal system in 32 articles; it has to be recalled that this is not among the eldest laws, since not all the ancient laws are penal rules. In the antiquity, in fact, codes mostly contained both civil and penal rules together. Sumerians however later issued other codes as the one known as "code of Lipit-Istar" (last king of the 3rd dynasty of Ur, Isin - 20th century BC). This code contains some 50 articles and has been reconstructed by the comparison among several sources.

In Babylon the code of Esnunna[?] before, and the code of Hammurabi (one of the richest ones of ancient times) after, were used and reflected society's belief that law was derived from the will of the gods.

Similarly, some codes of conduct of religious origins or reference have been included in penal codes, forbidden behaviours resulting in real crimes in the states ruled by theocracy even in more recent times.

Table of contents

Penal law in USA

The current American legal system derives from English common law, usually case law rather than statutory law, in all states except Louisiana, which follows a French system.

Crimes are divided into categories and subcategories of definition, under which fall many specific crimes. For example, homicide is the subcategory, of the violent crimes, which includes murder, manslaughter, and in some states, self-abortion or "abortion without consent of the female". Arson and theft are examples of property crimes. Each state has its own penal law, which is frequently based on the Model Penal Code. There are also federal statutes, though the defining of federal crimes only became popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

Crimes are generally classified into different degrees of severity, including violations, misdemeanors, and felonies. Violations are punishable by a fine, misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in a state penitentiary and/ or a fine, and felonies are punishable by a year or more in a state prison and/ or a fine.

Natural law theory of crime

An alternative view of crime is derived from the theory of natural law. In this view, crime is the violation of individual rights. Since rights are considered as natural, 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 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 thus distinguishes between criminality[?] and illegality[?], the former being derived from human nature, the latter being derived from the interests of those in power. 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.

Persons convicted of serious crimes are often punished by being kept in prison, for a term of years. There are about 2 million people in prison in the United States.

Malum in Se and Malum Prohbita 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.

Types of Crimes

Crimes can be divided into several (overlapping) categories: computer offences, crimes against persons, crimes against property, crimes against state security, drug offences, sexual offences, and weapon offences. Crimes are also be grouped by severity, some common categorical terms being: felonies, indictable offences, infractions, misdemeanors, and summary offences. An inchoate offense is a planned or attempted crime, which the offender was not able to carry out prior to arrest.

See also: criminal law

See also (in alphabetic order): actus reus, case law, civil law, consensual crime, crime index, crime statistics, criminal justice, criminal law, criminology, defense of justification[?], hate crime, inchoate crimes[?], insanity defense, international crime, law, mala in se[?], mala prohibida[?], mens rea, organised crime, piracy, sexual crime[?], social control, social policy[?], statutory law, strict liability crimes[?], Supreme Court, victimology, war crime.

See crime fiction for a survey of the fictional treatment of crimes and their detection and criminals and their motives.

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