1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Crime

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CRIME (Lat. crimen, accusation), the general term for offences against the Criminal Law (q.v.). Crime has been defined as “a failure or refusal to live up to the standard of conduct deemed binding by the rest of the community.” Sir James Stephen describes it as “some act or omission in respect of which legal punishment may be inflicted on the person who is in default whether by acting or omitting to act.” Such action or neglect of action may be injurious or hurtful to society. It is a wrong or tort, to be prevented and corrected by the strong arm of the law.

Crimes vary in character with times and countries. Under different circumstances of place and custom, that which at one time is denounced as a crime, at another passes as a meritorious act. It was once an imperative duty for the family to avenge the death of a kinsman, and the blood feud had a sanction that made killing no murder. Again, among primitive tribes to make away with parents at an advanced age or suffering from an incurable disease was a filial duty. Polyandry was sometimes encouraged, and cannibalism practised with general approval; religious sentiment elevated into heinous crimes, blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, sorcery and even science when it ran counter to accepted dogmas of the church. Offences multiplied when people gathered into communities and the rights of property and of personal security were understood and established. The law of the strongest might still interfere with individual ownership; the weakest went to the wall; authority, whether exercised by one master or by the combined government of the many, was resisted, and this resistance constituted crime. As civilization spread and the bulk of the population settled into orderliness, society, for its own comfort, convenience and protection, would not tolerate the infraction of its rules, and rising against all law-breakers decreed reprisals against them as the common enemy. Then began that constant warfare between criminals and the forces of law and order which has been continuously waged through the centuries with varying degrees of bitterness.

The combat with crime was long waged with great cruelty. Extreme penalties were thought to constitute the best deterrent, and the principle of vengeance chiefly inspired the penal law. The harshness of ancient codes makes a more humane age shudder. It was the custom to hang or decapitate, or otherwise take life in some more or less barbarous fashion, on the smallest excuse. The final act was preceded by hideous torture. It was performed with the utmost barbarity. Victims were put to death by breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, by dismemberment and flaying or boiling alive. These were the aggravations of the original idea of riddance, of checking crime by the absolute removal of the offender. Only slowly and gradually milder methods came into force. Revenge and retaliation were no longer the chief aims, the law had a larger mission than to coerce the criminal and force him by severity to mend his ways. To withdraw him for a lengthened period from the sphere of his baneful activity was something; to subject him to more or less irksome processes, to solitary confinement upon short diet, deprived of all the solaces of life, with severe labour, were sharp lessons limited in effect to those actually subjected to them, but too remote to deter the outside crowd of potential wrongdoers. The higher duty of the administrator is to utilize the period of detention by labouring to reform the criminal subjects and send them out from gaol reformed characters. If no very remarkable success has been achieved in this direction, it is obviously the right aim, and it is being more and more steadfastly pursued. But it is generally accepted in principle that to eradicate criminal proclivities and cut off recruits from the permanent army of crime the work must be undertaken when the subject is of an age susceptible of reform; hence the extreme value attaching to the more enlightened treatment of crime in embryo, a principle becoming more and more largely accepted in practice among civilized nations.

It may safely be asserted that the germ of crime is universally present in mankind, ever ready to show under conditions favourable to its growth. Children show criminal tendencies in their earliest years. They exhibit evil traits, anger, resentment, mendacity; they are often intensely selfish, are strongly acquisitive, greedy of gain, ready to steal and secrete things at the first opportunity. Happily the fatal consequences that would otherwise be inevitable are checked by the gradual growth of inhibitory processes, such as prudence, reflection, a sense of moral duty, and in many cases the absence of temptation. From this Dr Nicholson deduces that “in proportion as this development is prevented or stifled, either owing to an original brain defect or by lack of proper education or training, so there is the risk of the individual lapsing into criminal-mindedness or into actual crime.” In the lowest strata of society this risk is largely increased from the conditions of life. The growth of criminals is greatly stimulated where people are badly fed, morally and physically unhealthy, infected with any forms of disease and vice. In such circumstances, moreover, there is too often the evil influence of heredity and example. The offspring of criminals are constantly impelled to follow in their parents’ footsteps by the secret springs of nature and pressure of childish imitativeness. The seed is thrown, so to speak, into a hot-bed where it finds congenial soil in which to take root and flourish.

Wherever crime shows itself it follows certain well-defined lines and has its genesis in three dominant mental processes, the result of marked propensities. These are malice, acquisitiveness and lust. Malicious crimes may be amplified into offences against the person originating in hatred, resentment, violent temper, and rising from mere assaults into manslaughter and murder. Crimes of greed and acquisitiveness cover the whole range of thefts, frauds and misappropriation; of larcenies of all sorts; obtaining by false pretences; receiving stolen goods; robberies; house-breaking, burglary, forgery and coining. Crimes of lust embrace the whole range of illicit sexual relations, the result of ungovernable passion and criminal depravity. The proportions in which these three categories are manifested have been worked out in England and Wales to give the following figures. The percentage in any 100,000 of the population is:—

Crimes of malice 15%
Crimes of greed 75%
Crimes of lust 10%

The members of these categories do not form distinct classes; their crimes are interdependent and constantly overlap. Crime in many is progressive and passes through all the stages from minor offences to the worst crimes. Murder—the culminating point of malice—is constantly preceded by petty larceny; theft by forcible entry; and robbery is associated with violence and armed resistance to capture. Criminality rising into its highest development shows itself under many forms. It is instinctive, passionate, accidental, deliberate and habitual, the outcome of abnormal appetite, of weak and disordered moral sense. The causation of crime varies, but a predominating motive is idleness, leading to the predatory instincts of gain easily acquired without the labour of continuous effort. To deprive the more industrious or more happily placed of their hard-won earnings or possessions, inspires the bulk of modern serious crime. It no doubt has produced one peculiar feature in modern crime: the extensive scale on which it is carried out. The greatest frauds are now commonly perpetrated; great robberies are planned in one capital and executed in another. The whole is worked by wide associations of cosmopolitan criminals.

Other features of modern crime are especially interesting. It is extraordinarily precocious. Children of quite tender years commit murders, and boys and girls are frequently to be met with as professional thieves. Again, the comparative proportions of crime in the two sexes may be considered. Everywhere women are less criminal than men. Naturally they have fewer facilities for committing crimes of violence, although they have offences peculiar to their sex, such as infanticide, and are more frequently guilty of poisoning than men by 70% against 30%. Statistics presented to the Prison Congress at Stockholm fix the percentage of female criminals at 3% in Japan, the East generally, South America and some parts of North America. In some states of the American Union it is 10%; in China, 20%; in Europe generally it varies between 10% and 21%. In France the proportion of accused women is fifteen to eighty-five men. In Great Britain it is now one in four, but has been less. The total sentenced in 1905–1906 to penal servitude and imprisonment was 139,389 men and 44,294 women, the balance being made up by summary convictions. The curious fact in female crime is that one-seventh of the women committed to prison had already been convicted from eleven to twenty times. It has been well said from the above proportions that women are less criminal according to the figures, because when a woman wants a crime committed she can generally find a man to do it for her.

It has often been debated whether or not prison methods react upon the criminality of the country; whether, in other words, severity of treatment deters, while milder methods encourage the wrongdoers to despise the penalties imposed by the law. Evidence for and against the verdict may be drawn from the whole civilized world. In England, as judged by the increase or decrease of the prison population, it might be supposed that the prison system was at one time effective in diminishing crime. Between 1878 and 1891 there was a steady decrease in numbers because of it. More recently there has been an appreciable increase in the number of crimes and proportionately of those imprisoned. The figures for 1906 showed a distinct increase in criminality for that year as compared with the years immediately preceding. The proportion of indictable offences had increased in 1906 from 59,079 as against 50,494 in 1899, or in the proportion of 171.01 per 100,000 of the population as against 158.97, a very marked increase over earlier years. Nevertheless the figures for 1906, although high, are by no means the highest, as on eight occasions during the fifty odd years for which statistics were available in 1909 the total crimes exceeded 60,000, and in the quinquennial period 1860–1864 the annual average was 280 per 100,000 as compared with 171.01 for 1906 and 175 for the quinquennial period 1902–1906. The quality of the crime varied, and while offences against property have increased, those against the person have constantly fallen. Quite half the whole number of crimes were committed by old offenders (see Recidivism).

Statistics have not been kept with the same care in all other countries, but some authentic figures may be quoted for France, where the number of thefts increased while offences against the person diminished. In Belgium there has been a satisfactory decrease in recent years. In Prussia the prison population has on the whole increased, but there has been a slight diminution in more serious crime. Some very noticeable figures are forthcoming from the United States, and comparison is possible of the relative amount of crime in the two countries, America and England. Here the want of statistics covering a large period is much to be regretted. On the general question serious crime in the ten years between 1880 and 1890 slightly increased, while petty crime was very considerably less during the period. Charges for homicide have been much more numerous. There were in 1880, 4608, or a ratio of 9.1 to 100,000 of the population; but in 1890 these offences rose to 7351, or a ratio of 11.7. Comparing America with England, it has been calculated in round numbers that the proportion of prisoners to the general population was in the United States as 1 to every 759, and in England 1 to every 1764 persons. As regards the more serious crimes the number in English convict prisons was as 1 to 10,000, and in the American state prisons (the corresponding institutions) the ratio was 1 to every 1358. In the lesser prisons, i.e. the English local prisons and the American city or county gaols, the numbers more nearly approximate, being in England 1 to 2143 and in America 1 to 1721. It has been argued that much of the crime in America is attributable to the preponderance of foreign immigrants, but the ratio of native born prisoners is that of 1237 to the million, of foreign born prisoners 1777 to the million.

Authorities.—A. MacDonald, Criminology (New York, 1893); A. Drähms, The Criminal (New York, 1900); E. Ferri, La Sociologie criminelle, trans. Ferrier (Paris, 1905); all these contain extensive bibliographies. See also under Criminology. (A. G.)