Section 1.3: Defining and Measuring Crime
A crime is an act or omission that is prohibited by law. To be a good law, a particular punishment or range of punishments must be specified. In the United States, the most common punishments are fines and imprisonment. As a matter of legal theory, a crime is a failed duty to the community for which the community will exact some punishment. This is the reason that prosecutions are always brought forward by the government, as a representation of the community that government serves. Historically, legal scholars differentiated between things that were “wrongs in themselves,” which were referred to as mala in se offenses. These were distinct from mala prohibita offenses, which represented acts that were criminal merely because the government wished to prohibit them. Many criminal justice scholars use these terms to differentiate between heinous crimes like rape and murder and victimless crimes such as gambling and vagrancy.
Felonies, Misdemeanors, and Violations
Today, the most common and most basic division of crimes is based on the seriousness of the offense, and thus the possible punishment. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes that are punishable by fine and confinement in a local jail for a period not to exceed a year. Felonies are more serious crimes that the government punishes by fines, imprisonment (most commonly under the auspices of the state’s Department of Corrections) for a period exceeding a year, or death. The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies is of ancient origin, coming to us through the Common Law of England. Common law felonies included murder, rape, mayhem, robbery, sodomy, larceny, arson, manslaughter, and burglary.
What is classified as a misdemeanor largely depends on the jurisdiction. Common examples are petty theft, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, and vandalism. Some crimes can be both misdemeanors and felonies, depending on the circumstances. A battery that results in a handprint on the victim’s face may be classified as a misdemeanor, while a kick that breaks the victim’s ribs may be a felony. Similarly, an arson that does relatively little damage (in terms of financial costs) may be a misdemeanor, while arson that destroys a home will be a felony. These distinctions have made it into our popular culture, where criminals who commit felonies are often known as felons. Less commonly used is the term misdemeanant, who is a person convicted of s misdemeanor.
Most jurisdictions recognize a class of offenses that do not result in any period of incarceration and are punished with only a fine. These minor breaches of the law are usually called violations. We will delve much deeper into the particulars of what constitutes various crimes in a later section.
In order to understand crime and the criminal justice system, we need to understand the prevalence of crime. Good crime statistics are critically important to understanding crime trends. The more federal and state agencies know about crime trends, the more intelligently they can allocate precious resources and maximize efforts at crime suppression and prevention. Crime statistics are also frequently used as an evaluation tool for justice programs. If the rate of a particular crime is falling, then what the system is doing will seem to be working. If the rate of a particular crime is rising, then it will seem to indicate that the criminal justice system is failing.
In the United States, the most frequently cited crime statistics come from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). The UCR is composed of crime data collected by over 16,000 local and state law enforcement agencies on crimes that have been brought to the attention of police. These law enforcement agencies voluntarily send information to the FBI, which compiles them into an annually published report along with several special reports on particular issues.
Learn More Online
To learn more about the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), visit the FBI’s UCR page at:
Since its inception in the 1930s, many people have been critical of the UCR system for a variety of reasons. Among these reasons are the facts that the UCR includes only crimes reported to the police, only counts the most serious crime committed in a series of crimes, does not differentiate between completed crimes and attempts, and does not include many types of crimes, such as white-collar crimes and federal crimes. Another critical complaint (especially among scholars) was that the UCR did not obtain potentially important information about the victim, the offender, the location of the crime and so forth. Without this information, social scientists could not use the UCR data in attempts to explain and predict crime. These complaints eventually led to the development of a much more informative system of crime reporting known as the National incident-BasedReporting System (NIBRS).
The NIBRS is an incident-based reporting system in which agencies collect data on each single crime occurrence. NIBRS data come from local, state, and federal automated records’ systems. The NIBRS collects data on every single incident and arrest within 22 offense categories made up of 46 specific crimes called Group A offenses. For each of the offenses coming to the attention of law enforcement, specified types of facts about each crime are reported. In addition to the Group A offenses, there are 11 Group B offense categories for which only arrest data are reported.
According to the FBI, participating in NIBRS can benefit agencies in several ways. The benefits of participating in the NIBRS are:
- The NIBRS can furnish information on nearly every major criminal justice issue facing law enforcement today, including terrorism, white-collar crime, weapons offenses, missing children where criminality is involved, drug/narcotics offenses, drug involvement in all offenses, hate crimes, spousal abuse, abuse of the elderly, child abuse, domestic violence, juvenile crime/gangs, parental abduction, organized crime, pornography/child pornography, driving under the influence, and alcohol-related offenses.
- Using the NIBRS, legislators, municipal planners/administrators, academicians, sociologists, and the public will have access to more comprehensive crime information than the summary reporting can provide.
- The NIBRS produces more detailed, accurate, and meaningful data than traditional summary reporting. Armed with such information, law enforcement can better make a case to acquire the resources needed to fight crime.
- The NIBRS enables agencies to find similarities in crime-fighting problems so that agencies can work together to develop solutions or discover strategies for addressing the issues.
- Full participation in the NIBRS provides statistics to enable a law enforcement agency to provide a full accounting of the status of public safety within the jurisdiction to the police commissioner, police chief, sheriff, or director.
The major problem with NIBRS today is that is has not been universally implemented. Agencies and state Programs are still in the process of developing, testing or implementing the NIBRS. In 2004, 5,271 law enforcement agencies contributed NIBRS data to the UCR Program. The data from those agencies represent 20 percent of the U.S. population and 16 percent of the crime statistics collected by the UCR Program. Implementation of NIBRS is occurring at a pace commensurate with the resources, abilities, and limitations of the contributing law enforcement agencies.
A commonly cited problem with the UCR is that there are many, many crimes that do not come to the attention of police. This is not limited to minor offenses. For example, it is estimated that nearly half of all rapes go unreported. These undocumented offenses are often referred to as the dark figure of crime. This is the reason that the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) developed the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS, which began in 1973, provides a detailed picture of crime incidents, victims, and trends. Today, the survey collects detailed information on the frequency and nature of the crimes of rape, sexual assault, personal robbery, aggravated and simple assault, household burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft. It does not measure homicide or commercial crimes (such as burglaries of stores).
Two times a year, U.S. Census Bureau personnel interview household members in a nationally representative sample of approximately 42,000 households (about 75,000 people). Approximately 150,000 interviews of persons age 12 or older are conducted annually. Households stay in the sample for three years. New households are rotated into the sample on an ongoing basis.
The NCVS collects information on crimes suffered by individuals and households, whether or not those crimes were reported to law enforcement. It estimates the proportion of each crime type reported to law enforcement, and it summarizes the reasons that victims give for reporting or not reporting.
The survey provides information about victims (age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, income, and educational level), offenders (sex, race, approximate age, and victim-offender relationship), and the crimes (time and place of occurrence, use of weapons, nature of injury, and economic consequences). Questions also cover the experiences of victims with the criminal justice system, self-protective measures used by victims, and possible substance abuse by offenders. Supplements are added periodically to the survey to obtain detailed information on topics like school crime. BJS publication of NCVS data includes Criminal Victimization in the United States, an annual report that covers the broad range of detailed information collected by the NCVS.
Learn More Online
To learn more about the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), visit the BJS Criminal Victimization page at:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) designates certain crimes as Part I or index offenses because it considers them both serious and frequently reported to the police. The Part I offenses are defined as follows:
Criminal homicide: Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter: the willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another. Deaths caused by negligence, attempts to kill, assaults to kill, suicides, and accidental deaths are excluded.
Forcible rape: The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Rapes by force and attempts or assaults to rape, regardless of the age of the victim, are included. Statutory offenses (no force used-victim under age of consent) are excluded.
Robbery: The taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear.
Aggravated assault: An unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault usually is accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm. Simple assaults are excluded.
Burglary (breaking or entering): The unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or a theft. Attempted forcible entry is included.
Larceny-theft (except motor vehicle theft): The unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another. Examples are thefts of bicycles, motor vehicle parts, and accessories, shoplifting, pocket-picking, or the stealing of any property or article that is not taken by force and violence or by fraud. Attempted larcenies are included. Embezzlement, confidence games, forgery, check fraud, etc., are excluded.
Motor vehicle theft: The theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle. A motor vehicle is self-propelled and runs on land surface and not on rails. Motorboats, construction equipment, airplanes, and farming equipment are specifically excluded from this category.
Arson: Any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc.
Aggravated Assault, Arson, Burglary, Common Law Felonies, Criminal Homicide, Dark Figure of Crime, Felon, Forcible Rape, Index Offenses, Larceny-theft, Mala In Se, Mala Prohibita, Misdemeanant, Motor Vehicle Theft, National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), Omission, Rate, Robbery, U.S. Census Bureau, Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), Victimless Crime, Violation
Last Modified: 06/29/2021
APA Citation McKee, A. J. (2015). Criminal Justice: An Overview of the System. Booklocker. https://www.docmckee.com/WP/cj/criminal-justice-an-overview-of-the-system/
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.