Civic Definitions- What is Crime - History

Civic Definitions- What is Crime - History

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Crime - a public wrong. There are two kinds of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. A felony is the most serious type of crime (e.g., murder), which is punishable by a large fine, imprisonment, or death. A misdemeanor is a relatively less serious crime (e.g., speeding), which is punishable by a small fine or a short jail term.

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What Is the Difference Between Criminal Law and Civil Law?

In the United States, there are two bodies of law whose purpose is to deter or punish serious wrongdoing or to compensate the victims of such wrongdoing. Criminal law deals with behavior that is or can be construed as an offense against the public, society, or the state—even if the immediate victim is an individual. Examples are murder, assault, theft,and drunken driving. Civil law deals with behavior that constitutes an injury to an individual or other private party, such as a corporation. Examples are defamation (including libel and slander), breach of contract, negligence resulting in injury or death, and property damage.

Criminal law and civil law differ with respect to how cases are initiated (who may bring charges or file suit), how cases are decided (by a judge or a jury), what kinds of punishment or penalty may be imposed, what standards of proof must be met, and what legal protections may be available to the defendant.

In criminal cases, for example, only the federal or a state government (the prosecution) may initiate a case cases are almost always decided by a jury punishment for serious (felony) charges often consists of imprisonment but may also include a fine paid to the government to secure conviction, the prosecution must establish the guilt of the defendant "beyond a reasonable doubt" and defendants are protected against conduct by police or prosecutors that violates their constitutional rights, including the right against unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment) and the right against compelled self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment).

In civil cases, by contrast, cases are initiated (suits are filed) by a private party (the plaintiff) cases are usually decided by a judge (though significant cases may involve juries) punishment almost always consists of a monetary award and never consists of imprisonment to prevail, the plaintiff must establish the defendant's liability only according to the "preponderance of evidence" and defendants are not entitled to the same legal protections as are the criminally accused.

Definition of Terrorism

Agencies such as the FBI, the US DOD and the US DOS realize the need to define terrorism. While each definition is a bit different, they do have constant themes. These themes include involving premeditation terrorist acts which are motivated by some political or social agenda, terrorists generally target non-combatants or civilians and are generally sub-national or clandestine groups. The configuration of terrorist groups is generally dependent on one's environment, relationship with the state, motivation and/or goals.

Restitution and Economic Retribution

Restitution and economic retribution are two different things. Restitution is the act of compensating someone for an injury or a loss as the result of another person’s actions. For instance, if someone steals $7,000 from his employer, the court may order a payment of $7,000 in restitution as a sort of apology and a way to make things right. This is why restitution is also referred to as “restorative justice,” because it “restores” a person back to his position before the incident occurred, or at least as close as possible.

Economic retribution, on the other hand, is different. Retribution for this same crime would, more than likely, result in a jail sentence for the perpetrator. However, without a restitution award, a jail sentence does not fully the crime, because the employer is still out that $7,000. Further, if the defendant is in jail, then he has no way to earn that money to pay his employer back.

Therefore, a court order of $7,000 in restitution coupled with economic retribution is a punishment that more closely fits the crime that was committed. In this case, the defendant’s punishment, both with a jail sentence and being forced to pay back every dollar of the money he stole. His employer is made whole again with a $7,000 restitution to replace the money he had lost as a result of the defendant’s actions.

Crime (n.)

mid-13c., "sinfulness, infraction of the laws of God," from Old French crimne "crime, mortal sin" (12c., Modern French crime ), from Latin crimen (genitive criminis "charge, indictment, accusation crime, fault, offense," which probably is from cernere "to decide, to sift" (from PIE root *krei- "to sieve," thus "discriminate, distinguish").

Klein (citing Brugmann) rejects this and suggests *cri-men , which originally would have been "cry of distress" (Tucker also suggests a root in "cry" words and refers to English plaint , plaintiff , etc.). But de Vaan accepts that it is from cernere (compare discriminate).

The meaning "offense punishable by law, act or omission which the law punishes in the name of the state" is from late 14c. The sense of "any great wickedness or wrongdoing" is from 1510s. The Latin word is glossed in Old English by facen , which also meant "deceit, fraud, treachery." Crime wave is attested by 1893, American English.

Glossary of terms about the U.S. government

Get definitions of unfamiliar words about the presidency and branches of government.

Annexation: To formally declare a piece of land for a different country, without a treaty or money from a sale

Acquit: To set free from a criminal charge

Bill: A proposed law given to Congress for debate

Checks and balances: A system to ensure that no one branch of government becomes too powerful

Constitution: A document that defines the beliefs and laws of a country

Continental Congress: The assembly of delegates from the 13 colonies who met before, during, and in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War for independence from Britain

Draft: A requirement of military service for young men

Electoral College: The process by which the country elects its president

Executive order: The implied power of the president (not in the Constitution) to give an order with the legal status of a law

Impeach: To charge the president with a crime

Inauguration: The swearing in of a new president who promises to do his or her best for the country, based on the U.S. Constitution

Income tax: A yearly charge based on a person’s salary

Pardon: To officially forgive someone for a crime

Treaty: A formal agreement between nations

Veto: A presidential power used to stop a bill from becoming a law


There is a lot of good information within this post. I completely agree with you in that there is a lot of issues with biases within the legal sentencing system. A significant problem with this is that biases are made about a person’s situation, for example, if a police officer walks into a neighborhood known for having a high crime rate, then that police officer will expect more crime from that neighborhood and can project that belief onto others. This can make it so an officer might project a crime onto an individual despite that individual not committing one, all because of circumstance and environment. This cause to behaviour circumstance can be known as attributes. Attributions are the way that we assign cause to behaviour. However, attributions has many errors as people often lack the information, time, motivation, or all of the above along with further factors to make logical accurate attributions, which may lead them to take shortcuts in their reasoning, which can result in bias, whether intentional or not. One such attribute is known as the person bias. In 1958, Heider ( noted that people tended to give too much weight to personality and not enough to the environmental situation when they make attributions about others’ actions of which is known by several names, such as the Fundamental Attribution Error, person bias, correspondence error. The person bias is much more likely to occur if a person’s mind is occupied by other tasks or if they are tired than if they devote their full attention to a task was a theory pronounced by Gilbert. In 1985, Ronald Humphrey set up a simulated corporate office and randomly assigned some volunteer subjects to the role of manager and others to that of clerk. The managers were given interesting tasks and responsibilities whereas the clerks were given routine, boring tasks. At the end of the study, the participants rated the various aspects of the personalities of all participants. The manager role was judged by others more positively and higher in leadership, intelligence, assertiveness, supportiveness, and likelihood of future success in comparison to the clerk roles. This is an example of fundamental attribution error, where the participants attributed the manager in accordance to the situation that the manager was in and doesn’t really take in the surroundings. The manager participant was just an ordinary man, yet he was seen as extroadinary because of his role. This can also be shown with racial bias, where police officers might attribute citizens of darker skin colour to crime more because of where they live, which generally has larger crimes in the past.

You touched on some really great points. The racial disparity of prisons is impossible to turn a blind eye to. Building off of the statistics you presented, I have found articles that talk about how ‘ghetto’ culture and the stereotypes often presented in hip-hop and some ‘black’ media allows for a very singular perception of African-Americans in the eyes of the white majority in America. This article from the City Journal,, by John McWhorter, goes into how the African-American community learned to distrust authority as authority oppressed and mistreated them, and this deep dislike of authority manifests in rap music so common amidst youth. The rap further propagates black youth’s distrust in the American government and authorities because of the violent and oppressive nature of events told in rap music. While this perspective is completely understandable, it also disadvantages black youth and helps to maintain the cycle of poverty so many black communities are trapped in. McWhorter says that while many blacks may see the themes in hip-hop as revolutionary and full of strength and rebellion, he argues that this “thuggish adversarial stance… retards black success” especially when taught to children. McWhorter references how Martin Luther King Jr. fought segregation: not with an adversary stance but by bringing people together and preaching character and respect, even when he was constantly disrespected and oppressed. McWhorter also mentions themes other than respecting authority, like the praising of drugs and drug users, the common and often vulgar demeaning and objectification of women, both black and of other races, and the image created of the ‘party-life’. Listening to rap sometimes myself, I have often been most bothered by the depiction of women, seeing that the rap industry has maybe 1 or 2 serious female artists out of thousands of men. While McWhorter’s opinion as a black man in America is very insightful, I also feel like the perspective of the white majority in seeing black culture and characteristics as ‘ghetto’, ‘thug’, or inherently violent and inferior, such as common vernacular, fashion styles, foods, etc. is not simply the duty of blacks to fix or the fault of black communities. While hip-hop does contribute to the image of blacks in America, no logical person would conclude it is a representation of blacks as a whole or use it as a foundation for prejudice against individuals. I believe that the connotations of ‘black’ and ‘common black characteristics’ as well as the stereotypes rooted in them need to be dispelled in the eyes of the police, the judges and juries, the government, and the people. While I believe McWhorter is correct in saying that rich black men rapping about drugs, demeaning terms for women, partying, and violence within the black community is not the way to express the African-American experience with the respectful setting it deserves and properly reflecting the black community, I do feel that the responsibility of recreating the black image in America does not just fall onto African-Americans. Internalized prejudices are not the fault of all black people. As this document details,, the black community is extremely diverse, and so is their cultures, history, traditions, and trends. McWhorter may be very correct in saying that rap music has created a singular picture of black people. These prejudices won’t go away as long as there are ignorant, racists around to spread their misguided ideas. So while perhaps it is not the responsibility of blacks to recreate their image, it may be the best way to dispel prejudice.
Another positive of hip-hop and other industries like Hollywood, sports, music, and fashion now largely made up of African-Americans, is the ‘going mainstream’ of black professionals and their work and the ‘black hero’ or ‘role model’, as described in the article While young black children used to see superheroes, musicians, and even athletes as white men, the last few decades have allowed some of the most famous people in the country and in the world to be blacks and minorities. So while McWhorter is correct in his assessment of rap music and the image it creates, the existence of blacks rappers and how they behave may be counteracting some of the music.
While this may not seem to connect to your article, I believe that systematic racism is interconnected with inherent prejudice in people, and by creating a society where police officers, judges, juries, and the public see black people as violent thugs, it will be hard to correct the incarceration disparity and oppression in the judicial system without first addressing how the white majority perceives the black individual and community.
I loved your article and would like to see more on how systematic racism plays a role in America – it is such a complicated issue and I feel ignorant on much that it entails.

I totally agree! I mean it is honestly astounding how much ‘ghetto’ and ‘thuggish’ get thrown around on a day to day basis. I am often questioning myself in using these terms and those similar in fear that I am coercing the ignorance that can come along with these phrases. I like how you touched on rap music and its’ unintentional promotion of the stereotypes. It may not directly relate, but I think it all fits in very well and goes hand in hand when discussing systematic racism.

I totally agree with you here. Racial issues such as this are definitely impossible to shy away from- especially for me as a black man in America. I also like how you gave further insight on the matter providing us with an even more in-depth look on the topic. Great comment!

Janae, these statistics are staggering! I completely agree with you that our justice system is in need of reform–especially in consideration to the disproportionate amount of African Americans convicted for lesser crimes. I also agree with you that biases of police officers and judges are significant factors in the current circumstances of our justice system. Following a hunch, I did a little research to determine how our justice system determines the sentencing for people convicted of a crime. It turns out that judges alone have the sole authority to make sentencing decisions (except for the death penalty). While there are laws in place regarding the extent of punishment/minimum punishments for particular crimes in some states, “judges are allowed to take in a number of considerations when determining a sentence for a convicted criminal defendant” (FindLaw’s Team of Legal Writers and Editors). Therefore, judges have the power in some situations to lessen or intensify the sentencing—a decision that can be impacted by personal heuristics and biases. Last semester I took an Honors management class, during which we talked about the basis for “good decision making.” While reforming the United States Justice System isn’t a “business” problem, we learned in my class how personal AND organizational heuristics and biases can cause people and the organizations they represent to make uniformed and poor decisions. Furthermore, we discussed that heuristics and biases are amplified when there are not diverse perspectives available, AKA there’s only one person relying on their past experiences making the decision. This may be one reason/underlying factor for the disproportionate amount of African Americans being arrested and charged more often than whites—seeing as one police officer can make an arrest and one judge can issue a sentence. In my class, we also discussed how to best avoid bad decision making, and the most important thing decision makers can do is incorporate as many diverse perspectives as possible. So, perhaps one approach to reforming our inherently biased justice system is to implement a team-based decision making model. I am proposing that there must be more than one police officer present to warrant a valid arrest and more than one judge present at a sentencing to determine a convicted person’s punishments. This way vital decisions—such as those made for the justice system—are structured to avoid personal bias.

It’s intriguing to see how your management class can relate to race issues. This is so true, typically we only see one person making decisions and because of the systemic racism Janae spoke about they are usually white. In my comparative politics class we learned about a survey that tests your personal biases, so maybe that is something we can administer to find the root of the problem.

This post was interesting and extremely relevant especially since the Black Lives Matter movement began. Looking at the Black Lives Matter site, I can see all of the topics you discussed in your blog. A lot of these topics that they are focusing on this year are so interconnected like criminal justice reform, economic injustice, government corruption, and healthcare.
You talked about systemic racism and one thing I want to mention is the health of African Americans in contact with the criminal justice system, specifically the women. The Center for American Progress reports that, “infants born to black mothers die at twice the rate as those born to white mothers.” These statistics suggest that stress in female African Americans has been building over generations and that this increased stress leads to increased rates of infant mortality. Infant mortality isn’t the only health issue effected by mass incarceration. Mental health disorders – such as PTSD, anxiety and depression – diabetes, asthma, hypertension, HIV, and Hepatitis C are all impacted by the mass incarceration of African Americans. Family members and children alike can experience these various health issues.
This also impacts the children of African American families that have experience with mass incarceration. Since the 1930s, the number of children who have had indirect contact with the criminal justice system has increased for both African American and white households. However, there is a disproportionate number of African American children compared to white children.
Mass incarceration and system racism keep African Americans at a lower socioeconomic level because, “the financial burden of having an incarcerated loved one means that many families struggle to meet basic food, housing, transportation, and clothing needs.” This goes back to the systemic racism point you made, and it creates a cycle of African Americans that are exposed to mass incarceration, health issues, and poverty.

Very interesting point about how the health care system impacts specifically African American women. I was not aware that there was such a disparity in infant mortality rates between races. I learned about infant mortality rates in a geography class and learned that they were a measure of well-being for a particular country, but never did we discuss the disparities seen on a local level. This is an important issue that needs to be heard more often. How can we give all people better access to the health care we need?

Real World Example

In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ordered software company PTC Inc. to pay a combined $28 million in fines for attempting to bribe Chinese officials by providing approximately $1.5 million in recreational travel through two PTC China-based subsidiaries.   As the case became increasingly public, PTC Inc. has needed to strike a delicate public relations effort to restore its reputation. Organizations that have been known to engage in corruption find business development difficult. Investors and shareholders are reluctant to commit if an organization has a history of corruption, or bribes and favors are part of normal business conduct.

We the People in the United States

This resource was part of our Election 2020 collection, designed to help you teach about voting rights, media literacy, and civic participation, in remote and in-person settings.

In 1787, 11 years after the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” the US Constitution was adopted. It begins with this preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 1

Women's suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony on her 50th birthday.

Who is included in “We the People”? This is a question that has been debated throughout American history. William H. Hastie, the first black federal judge in the United States (appointed in 1937), wrote: “Democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is becoming, rather than being. It can be easily lost, but is never finally won.” Much of the history of the United States reflects this ongoing process, as individuals and groups have attempted to make the country better reflect the democratic ideals expressed in its founding documents.

Women’s suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony was one individual who challenged the country to expand its definition of who belongs. In November 1872, she was arrested for voting in a federal election before women had gained the right to do so. Before her trial, she gave a speech titled “Is It a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?” In that speech, she quoted the preamble to the Constitution and then stated:

It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens, nor yet, we, the male citizens but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government—the ballot. 2

To support her argument, Anthony pointed out that “the words persons, people, inhabitants, electors, citizens are all used indiscriminately in the national and state constitutions.” In some states, only white men could vote in others the language was vague enough that all property owners, including white women and African Americans, could vote. Yet, by the early 1800s, white men no longer needed to own property or pay taxes in order to vote anywhere in the United States. At the same time, states that had previously allowed free African Americans and women to vote now took away those rights.

In 1776, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia were the only states to limit the right to vote to white men, and no northern state limited suffrage on the basis of skin color or race. After 1800, every state that entered the Union, except Maine, denied free African American men the right to vote.

In a nation that declared its belief in freedom and equality, those decisions had to be justified. And for many, there was only one justification: Native Americans and blacks belonged to distinct and inferior “races” and therefore should be denied full citizenship. In 1857, the US Supreme Court confirmed that view. The justices heard a lawsuit brought by Dred Scott, an African American who demanded his freedom because his “owners” had taken him to several states and territories that did not permit slavery. In a decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court ruled that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The American people, Taney argued, constituted a “political family” restricted to whites.

By 1865, a brutal civil war had finally brought an end to slavery in the United States but not to the prejudice and the discrimination experienced by African Americans. Immediately after the war, three amendments were added to the US Constitution to protect African Americans’ rights—the thirteenth amendment ended slavery and the fifteenth granted former slaves the right to vote, but it was the fourteenth that Susan B. Anthony focused on in her 1872 speech. That amendment states, in part:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 3

Susan B. Anthony saw those two sentences as proof that women had all of the rights of citizenship. In her view, the first sentence established that women are citizens, and the second settled whether or not they hold a place in society equal to that of all other “persons.” She concluded her speech by firmly stating:

The only question to be settled, now, is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens, and no state has a right to make any new law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states, is today null and void, precisely as is every one against Negroes. 4

Despite her argument, Anthony was tried and convicted for “the crime of having voted” in the 1872 election and fined $100. Women did not obtain the right to vote in the United States until 1920. In fact, until 1922, a woman born and reared in the United States would lose her citizenship if she married a foreigner. She had to assume the citizenship of her husband. However, an American man could marry a foreign woman without losing his citizenship.

Even though the fourteenth amendment introduced birthright citizenship—meaning that anyone born within a country’s borders is automatically a citizen regardless of the parents’ nationality—this remains a controversial idea, both in the United States and in other countries. The extent to which the amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the law” is a reality continues to be debated today. In 2010, about 15% of the countries in the world, nearly all of them in North or South America, recognized birthright citizenship (see map below). 5

Are you a natural investigator?

Putting a stop to white-collar crime requires as many layers and moving parts as the crime itself. Whether it's the FBI, SEC, IRS or another agency, there are several potential career paths in this field. Now that we&rsquove answered, &ldquoWhat is white-collar crime?&rdquo and have provided you with some real-world white-collar crime examples, are you interested in learning more about the world of criminal investigations? Our article, &ldquo7 Types of Criminal Investigations You Could Encounter as a Police Detective,&rdquo will highlight some of the intriguing work investigators tackle on a regular basis.