views updated May 17 2018


I. Causes of CrimeDonald R. Cressey


II. Offense PatternsLeslie T. Wilkins


III. White-collar CrimeMarshall B. Clinard


IV. HomicideMarvin E. Wolfgang



The contemporary literature on crime causation theory is closely linked with the more general literature in anthropology, psychiatry, social psychology, and sociology. Since criminal acts and crime rates are similar to other acts and rates studied by social scientists, the alliance of criminology with more general scientific disciplines is not surprising. Although some of the scholars specializing in the study of crime and criminals (criminologists) are concerned with penal legislation, with the sociology of the criminal law, or with simple fact finding, the majority of them are directly or indirectly concerned with crime causation.

This concern has been expressed in two principal forms. First, criminologists have studied the processes by which persons become criminals and have developed theories of criminality. Second, criminologists have studied the relation of crime rates to variations in culture and social organization and have developed theories of crime. The theories of criminality are theories about social learning and personality development and thus are necessarily related to more general theories about these phenomena. Theories about the distribution of crime rates are theories about social systems and, consequently, are closely related to more general theories of social structure.

Although theories of criminality are sometimes considered psychological theories, whereas theories about crime rates are viewed as sociological, it is clear that sociologists have contributed significant theories of criminality as well as significant theories regarding the distribution of crime rates. Accordingly, there is no distinct division of labor between the sociologist-criminologist and others. The theoretical work of criminologists has developed most significantly in the last half century. Although there were some happy exceptions, little systematic theoretical research on criminality or crime was conducted until the twentieth century, and most of the books written on these subjects prior to that century were written by persons outside academic circles, such as theologians, physicians, and reformers. Most of these writers were attempting to find a panacea for criminal behavior, and they often merely selected a general “cause” of all criminality and then sought to convince their readers that elimination of that cause would eradicate crime both by reforming criminals and by preventing future criminality. There was little attempt to “make sense,” by means of a theory, of the known facts about criminals or about variations in crime rates, in part because few facts were known.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, sociology was making its way into the curricula of American universities and colleges, and a survey conducted in 1901 indicated that criminology and penology were among the first courses offered under the general title “sociology” (Tolman 1902–1903). From that time to the present, the main American contributions to crime causation theory have been made by sociologists, among whom the tendency has been to develop and state theories of crime causation that are consistent with, but nevertheless separate from, more general sociological and social psychological theory. On the other hand, the tendency among psychologically trained and psychiatrically trained persons is to assume that general knowledge of clinical psychology and psychiatry is a sufficient basis for understanding criminality, with the result that few psychological theories specifically directed toward explanation of criminality have been stated.

Theoretical requirements. Ideally, a theory that explains social behavior in general, or a specific kind of social behavior like crime, should deal with both the individual conduct and the epidemiology involved (Cressey 1960). Thus, in a theory of crime causation, there should be a statement that explains the statistical distribution of criminal behavior in time and space (its epidemiology) and that can be used to derive predictive statements about unknown statistical distributions. But the same theory also should be concerned with criminality and should identify, at least by implication, the processes by which individuals come to exhibit criminality and from which can be derived predictive statements about the behavior of individuals. We shall review the principal theories that attempt, in varying degrees, to integrate explanation of the epidemiology of crime with explanation of individual criminality. This arbitrary limitation eliminates from our immediate concern the older biological theories, which held that individual criminality is inherited or caused by nonhereditary biological conditions. It also eliminates from consideration those theories of crime that are based on economic or cultural determinism and that, therefore, have only slight implications for explanation of the behavior of individual criminals.

The multiple-factor approach. Perhaps the most popular approach to integrating explanation of crime rates and explanation of individual criminality is not, in the strict sense of the term, a theory at all. William Healy’s early emphasis upon multiple causation in the cases of individual delinquents (1915, pp. 33–125, 130–138), combined with the then prevalent attempts to discount biological explanations of criminality, played an important part in the development of the multiple-factor approach in criminology. A revolt against stressing one cause for all criminality led to production of extensive lists of causes of criminality, each one of which was at first said to produce a portion of all criminals (Burt [1925] 1944, p. 600). The idea that criminality is the result of multifarious influences has persisted to the present, but the specific “factors” said to be important have shifted from time to time, becoming progressively more social in nature (Jones [1956] 1962, pp. 57–74).

Since a theory of crime causation consists of a logical generalization about facts pertaining to crime and criminality, the multiple-factor approach actually is not a theory. In recent years the approach has taken on two separate aspects. Some workers who use the approach in the study of individual criminality maintain that one case of criminality results from one configuration of factors, while another case of criminality results from a different configuration of factors. This is not the same as the earlier multiple-factor notion that one kind of criminality is caused by one kind of factor and another type of criminality is caused by a different kind of factor. For example, this early approach solved the heredity versus environment controversy by maintaining that some crimes are caused by hereditary factors, some by environmental factors. The current idea is that each case of criminality results from a peculiar, if not unique, combination of factors, each with its own degree of weight. The factors may be assigned equal weight, or one factor may be classified as major while another is classified as minor. For example, one author observed that delinquency is caused by a combination of hereditary factors and environmental factors and then was able to conclude that heredity accounts for about 60 per cent of the influence and environment about 40 per cent (Hirsch 1937, pp. 55–56). Another author has commented that the logic behind this kind of conclusion “is about on a par with that which would be involved if the assumption were made that the element hydrogen is twice as important as the element oxygen in the compound water …” (Void 1958, pp. 101–102). Broken home, alcoholic parents, poverty, defective intelligence, poor education, and emotional immaturity are examples of the factors contemporarily used in this kind of approach.

When the multiple-factor approach is used in the study of crime rates, the investigator merely lists conditions (factors) that are statistically associated, to a high or low degree, with crime. Generally speaking, the higher the degree of association, the more importance is ascribed to the particular condition. In this kind of study, there is little attempt to make sense of the statistical findings by showing that they are consistent or inconsistent with a theoretical scheme. Reckless has advocated the use of this method under the name “actuarial approach” (1943, p. 74).

Critique of the multiple-factor approach. In one of the best critiques of the multiple-factor approach, Albert K. Cohen (1951, pp. 5–13) identified three principal errors. First, there is confusion between explanation by means of a single theory and explanation by means of a single factor. A single theory is a logical statement showing how variations in one phenomenon (variables) are linked with variations in other phenomena. Statements of fact are made in terms of the values of variables, but such statements of fact are not theories of crime causation, whether they are concerned with the relationships between criminality or crime and the values of one variable (say, income) or with the relationship between criminality or crime and the values of a number of variables (income, age, sex, education, parental discipline). Further, the fallacy that “evil causes evil” usually characterizes the multiple-factor approach, although it is not peculiar to it. The fallacy consists in thinking that effects that are viewed as undesirable (criminality and high crime rates) must have antecedents that are undesirable (alcoholism, psychopathic personality, poverty, class discrimination). When this fallacy is present, “explanations” of criminality and crime are likely to be statements that merely attribute causal power to a list of ugly and sordid conditions that any “decent citizen” must deplore. Finally, factors are confused with causes, and each factor is assumed to contain within itself a fixed amount of crime-producing power. For example, the fact that a person has a low income is said to have some criminality-producing power; the fact that he is a young adult pushes him further in the direction of criminality; and the fact that he is a male is the last straw. Sometimes the basis for imputing causal power to a factor in an individual case is high statistical association between the factor and crime rates—if in a city the areas of poor housing are also the areas of high crime rates, a person who lives in a substandard house is considered on the road to crime. Statisticians have regularly pointed out the fallacy of such reasoning, and it is not part of the “actuarial” approach. But, equally important, sometimes the basis for imputing causal power to a factor is based only on the subjective judgment of the person doing the imputing and cannot be determined at all by others.

Psychological theories. Among psychologists such attention as has been given to the problem of epidemiology has been directed toward locating social conditions that affect the personal traits said to produce criminality. Thus, psychological interest in criminality has been logically akin to psychiatric interest in finding unusual conditions producing abnormal traits in the make-up of criminals. However, in psychology this interest has been expressed principally in attempts to measure objectively the degree to which criminals are psychologically different from noncriminals.

Intelligence testing came into vogue in the years just after World War I, and the newly devised intelligence tests were rather indiscriminately given to delinquents and criminals. One result was a widespread belief that low intelligence is an important cause of criminality. However, more recent studies indicate that criminals are not intellectually inferior to noncriminals. Nevertheless, the assumptions that led to the attempts to differentiate criminals from noncriminals on the basis of intelligence test scores are still maintained. They now are most evident in attempts to differentiate criminals from noncriminals on the basis of scores on tests of personality. Generally speaking, the work in this area has been fragmentary in character, in the sense that studies of criminals’ scores on personality tests have been made without reference to a systematically developed theory of criminality (Schuessler & Cressey 1950).

Psychiatric theories. With the development of psychiatry in the last half century, there has been an increasing tendency to apply psychiatric and psychoanalytic techniques and theories to the problem of criminality, especially by such practitioners as prison, probation, and parole workers. William Healy’s The Individual Delinquent (1915) stressed multifarious influences on the criminal, but it also freed psychiatric criminology from Lombrosian preconceptions and thus opened the door to theorizing about the nature of individual criminal conduct. Bernard Glueck (1918) provided another impetus to the psychiatric study of individual offenders when he published the results of a study of 608 inmates of Sing Sing Prison.

The early preoccupation of psychiatrists concerned with criminality was the assumption that criminals constitute an inferior type, characterized by mental disorders, alcoholism, neuroticism, and the like (Hakeem 1958). In more recent years, this concern with serious mental defects and disorders among criminals has continued, but there also has been a trend toward inclusion of numerous minor emotional traits within the scope of the conditions held to be significant in producing criminality. Psychiatrists are also moving away from the notion that there is an undue amount of deviation from the normal among criminals and are moving toward descriptions of processes involved in the development of criminal mentalities. Thus, criminality is viewed as an adjustment to an emotional problem, and the criminal act is therefore considered as a symbol or a symptom. Consistently, there is an increasing concern with explanation of crime rates, although attention continues to be focused on individual criminality. For example, psychiatrists are beginning to study the epidemiology of mental disorders and, as a by-product, to develop explanations for the high incidence of crime among men as compared to women, among city dwellers as compared to rural dwellers, among lower-class persons as compared to upper-class persons, and the like. One popular theory is that such variations are due to differences in child-rearing processes, but other theories are closely allied with the sociological “cultural” and “social structure” theories, which account for the distribution of various forms of deviancy.

Sociological theories. The central theme running through criminological studies conducted by sociologists and social psychologists is that crime and criminality are products of the same kinds of social conditions and processes that produce non-criminal social behavior. The sociological attempts to define and identify the processes by which persons become criminals have involved the use of such social psychological concepts as imitation, role playing, differential association, differential identification, compensation, self-conception, and frustration-aggression. The sociological attempts to link variations in the crime rates of societies, subsocieties, and groups with variations in social organization and culture have led to theoretical concern for such processes as mobility, competition, and culture conflict; political, religious, and economic ideologies; population density and composition; and the distribution of wealth, income, and employment. This kind of structural analysis and the theoretical propositions based upon the analysis declined in popularity after about 1940, principally because investigators became aware of the great hazards in making generalizations about crime rates as measured by conventional crime statistics. At present, however, sociologists are again studying the relationships between crime rates and social organization and developing theories to account for the variations observed.

Differential association. Edwin H. Sutherland hypothesized that persons acquire patterns of criminal behavior in the same way they acquire patterns of lawful behavior. It is his idea that “criminal behavior is learned in interaction with persons in a pattern of communication,” and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes—whether in the direction of anticriminality or criminality—is learned from persons who define the legal codes as rules to be observed and from persons whose attitudes are favorable to the violation of legal codes. “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violations of law over definitions unfavorable to violations of law” (Sutherland & Cressey 1960, p. 78). Sutherland named the process of giving and receiving these definitions “differential association” because the content of what is learned in the process of association with criminal behavior patterns differs from the content of what is learned in the process of association with anticriminal behavior patterns. Differential association refers to a ratio of associations with both criminal behavior patterns and anticriminal behavior patterns. Daniel Glaser (1956) has modified this theory of criminality by placing stress on the process of receiving criminal and anticriminal behavior patterns rather than on the process of donating them, thus changing the basic concept from differential association to “differential identification.”

Differential social organization. When it is applied to the variations in the crime rates of nations, cities, or groups, the theory of differential association and differential identification becomes a theory of differential social organization. A high crime rate in a city, for example, is the end product of a situation in which a relatively large number of persons have received an excess of criminal behavior patterns as compared with anticriminal behavior patterns. From this it can be reasoned, as Sutherland did, that a group with a high crime rate is organized for crime at the same time that it is organized against crime. Whether the crime rate is high or low depends upon the degree to which the organized system for presenting anticriminal behavior patterns is counteracted by the organized system for presenting criminal behavior patterns. In contemporary societies the social conditions in which the influences on a person are relatively inharmonious and inconsistent are themselves a form of social organization, and there are wide variations in the degree of conflict between criminal and anticriminal norms. Since the rates of criminality vary with the degree of normative conflict, they can be attributed to differential social organization.

Culture conflict. Like the theory of differential association and differential social organization, the culture conflict theory developed by Thorsten Sellin (1938, pp. 21–32) stresses the importance of conflicts between conduct norms. According to this theory, both criminality and noncriminality of individual persons are attributable to the kinds of conduct norms that have been experienced. But learning of divergent conduct norms presupposes the existence of a society in which the conduct norms of one group are in conflict with the conduct norms of another. Thus, a condition of culture conflict underlies a condition of high crime rates, for it is only when there is culture conflict that persons can learn conduct norms that permit the reaction to some situations to be one of criminality.

Sellin proposes that criminologists should not restrict their attention to criminality and crime but instead should study the conflicts of conduct norms that exist when divergent rules of conduct govern the specific life situations in which a person may find himself. These rules “prohibit and conversely enjoin specific types of persons, as defined by their status in (or with reference to) the normative group, from acting in a certain specified way in certain circumstances” (Sellin 1938, pp. 32–33). Conduct norms arise as a group reaction to behavior that is not in the interests of the social group and acquire validity when they are incorporated into the personalities of the group members. Hence, the differentiation of the personality structure or growth process of the violator over and against that of the conformist is closely allied with variations in the degree of culture conflict and, therefore, with variations in crime rates.

Criminogenic cultures and social structure. Where the theories of differential association and culture conflict stress the importance of transmission of criminal and delinquent behavior patterns from one person to another, a different type of sociological theory extends beyond the individual and his personal groups to the broader culture of a people. This kind of theory is directed more to the problem of explaining why one nation, group, or class has a high crime rate as compared with another nation, group, or class than to the problem of identifying the processes by which individuals become criminals.

One cultural theory, for example, links the relatively high American crime rates with conditions and processes in the American culture that are criminogenic in their influence (Taft [1942] 1956, pp. 336–349, 754–755). Among these are the culture’s dynamic, complex, and materialistic qualities, the tradition of the frontier, the breakdown of primary-group relationships, and political corruption and inefficiency. Variations in crime rates among different groups, classes, and categories within nations are attributable to the differential impact of the criminogenic culture on those groups, and individual criminality and noncriminality are attributable to differential impact of these conditions on individuals (Reckless [1950] 1961, pp. 335–359). For example, the theory explains that the excess of crimes by men is due to the relative protection of women from the stresses of competitive economic life and to their different moral codes and social roles. More generally, such factors as relative economic welfare, relative isolation from competition, and families that give security and affection will isolate individuals from the criminogenic culture and will, thus, keep crime rates low in some groups.

A “social structure” theory of crime causation has been developed by Robert K. Merton (1938) as part of a more general theory of deviancy. Although the theory has been modified in some respects by Merton himself ([1949] 1957, pp. 161–194), by Albert K. Cohen (1955), and by Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin (1960), the basic notion is that high crime rates are a reflection of a situation in which a society places great emphasis upon the goal of individual “success” while effectively blocking, for some part of the population, the paths to achievement of that goal. In this kind of social system, the generally approved rules of the game may be known to those individuals who evade them, but the emotional supports that accompany conformity to the law are offset by the emphasis placed upon achieving success. Consequently, it may be said that the social structure frustrates some individuals but does not provide mechanisms of social and personal control (Reiss 1951) that enable them to release their frustration legitimately.

Limited theories. The theories outlined above are directed at explanation of criminality and crime in general. Such general theories are desirable because they organize, integrate, and make sense of the factual data on crime and criminals. However, it also is desirable to break crime down into homogeneous units, and develop theories to explain each unit. Crime in general consists of a great variety of criminal acts; and except for the fact that such acts are all violations of law, they may have very little in common. Consequently, a theory that attempts to explain all of them must necessarily be quite general in nature. Such general theories can be, and have been, supplemented with theories about specific units within the broad area of crime and about specific units within the legal definitions of types of crime, such as embezzlement, robbery, and murder.

General theories about criminal behavior as a whole can guide the research and theory directed at explaining particular kinds of crime and criminal behavior, and studies of particular kinds of crime and criminal behavior can lead either to strengthening or to modifying the general theories. In this sense, explanation of crime is like explanation of disease. A theory purporting to explain all disease must be quite general, but such theory is quite useful in understanding the origin and transmission of illness. Nevertheless, even general theories of disease, like the germ theory, do not apply to all diseases, and theories about specific diseases have been developed to supplement them. In criminology, important specific theories of this kind have been developed to explain embezzlement (Cressey 1953), forgery (Lemert 1953; 1958), gang delinquency (Cohen 1955), homicide (Henry & Short 1954; Wolfgang 1958), professional theft (Conwell 1937), vandalism (Clinard & Wade 1958), and white-collar crime (Sutherland 1949).

Donald R. Cressey

[See alsoCriminology; Penology; and the biography ofSutherland.]


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Clinard, Marshall B.; and Wade, Andrew L. 1958 Toward the Delineation of Vandalism as a Sub-type in Juvenile Delinquency. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 48:493–499.

Cloward, Richard A.; and Ohlin, Lloyd E. 1960 Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Cohen, Albert K. 1951 Juvenile Delinquency and the Social Structure. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University.

Cohen, Albert K. (1955) 1963 Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press.

Conwell, Chic 1937 The Professional Thief: By a Professional Thief. Annotated and interpreted by Edwin H. Sutherland. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1960.

Cressey, Donald R. 1953 Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Cressey, Donald R. 1960 Epidemiology and Individual Conduct: A Case From Criminology. Pacific Sociological Review 3:47–58.

Glaser, Daniel 1956 Criminality Theories and Behavioral Images. American Journal of Sociology 61: 433–444.

Glueck, Bernard 1918 Concerning Prisoners. Mental Hygiene 2:85–151.

Hakeem, Michael 1958 A Critique of the Psychiatric Approach to Crime and Correction. Law and Contemporary Problems 23:650–682.

Healy, William 1915 The Individual Delinquent: A Text-book of Diagnosis and Prognosis for All Concerned in Understanding Offenders. Boston: Little.

Henry, Andrew F.; and Short, James F. Jr. 1954 Suicide and Homicide: Some Economic, Sociological, and Psychological Aspects of Aggression. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Hirsch, Nathaniel D. M. 1937 Dynamic Causes of Juvenile Delinquency. Cambridge, Mass.: Sci-Art Publishers.

Jones, Howard (1956) 1962 Crime and the Penal System: A Textbook of Criminology. 2d ed. London: University Tutorial Press.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1953 An Isolation and Closure Theory of Naive Check Forgery. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 44:296–307.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1958 The Behavior of the Systematic Check Forger. Social Problems 6:141–149.

Merton, Robert K. (1938) 1957 Social Structure and Anomie. Pages 131–160 in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in the American Sociological Review.

Merton, Robert K. (1949) 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Reckless, Walter C. 1943 The Etiology of Delinquent and Criminal Behavior. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Reckless, Walter C. (1950) 1961 The Crime Problem. 3d ed. New York: Appleton.

Reiss, Albert J. Jr. 1951 Delinquency as the Failure of Personal and Social Controls. American Sociological Review 16:196–207.

Schuessler, Karl F.; and Cressey, Donald R. 1950 Personality Characteristics of Criminals. American Journal of Sociology 55:476–484.

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Sutherland, Edwin H. (1949) 1961 White Collar Crime. New York: Holt.

Sutherland, Edwin H.; and Cressey, Donald R. 1960 Principles of Criminology. 6th ed. New York: Lippincott. → E. H. Sutherland was the sole author of the first edition, published in 1924 as a textbook under the title Criminology.

Taft, Donald R. (1942) 1956 Criminology. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan. → A 4th edition was published in 1964 by Macmillan.

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Vold, George B. 1958 Theoretical Criminology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Wolfgang, Marvin E. 1958 Patterns in Criminal Homicide. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.


The concept of crime is an unusually difficult one, since it is difficult to find any definition of crime that does not have a large element of circularity. In general, crimes are defined as events and actions that are proscribed by the criminal law of a particular country. This reduces to the definition of crime as being “what the criminal law says it is.” The boundaries of a legal system are usually those of the nation-state, but the national boundaries are not exactly similar to cultural boundaries. England and Wales, for example, have a different legal system from that of Scotland. Yet it would be difficult to define the difference in culture between border towns.

Legal fictions are useful within any legal system; but since they vary across nations and cultures, they are not very satisfactory concepts in behavioral science when comparison is made across cultures or nation-states. Almost all actions of which mankind is capable have, at some time, at some place, been defined as “criminal”; and almost all acts now defined as criminal have, at some time, at some place, been socially approved by the culture of the time and hence not proscribed by the law.

Crime involves at least two essential actors, the victim and the offender. Crime may .be perceived and defined differently according to the role of either of them. In the Soviet Union crime is made to mean something different from what is understood as crime in Western cultures. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that the “victim,” by reason of the social and economic system, must frequently be the state.

Most crime in most countries consists of offenses against property. It is difficult, in modern society, to imagine it otherwise, even in very different cultures. But when property is owned by the state, crime involving property involves the state as the victim, and, if the state has a philosophy regarding property, crime against property will be seen as crime against the state. If, on the other hand, wealth is privately owned, crime against such ownership is seen as an attempt to obtain the wealth of another by illegal means.

But the mere transfer of wealth does not constitute a crime. Fair exchange is not crime. But what is fair exchange is not determined by the same considerations as those used to determine what is crime in terms of other forms of behavior, as, for example, an assault on a person. Moreover, the type of exchange that is defined as legitimate may be determined more by the nature of a country’s economy than by its moral values.

Crime is always defined in terms of the social institutions and their organization in a society. The crimes will be denned through some organized process as behavioral deviations from the values as institutionalized in the norms and rules. There could be no crime in any society where all persons behaved in the same way, no matter how they behaved.

In the Western world we are concerned in our definitions of crime mainly with what is sometimes a very fine distinction between legitimate and illegitimate means of acquisition of wealth. Thus, the ownership of private wealth is valued—the “wrong” in stealing consists only in the means of acquisition of wealth. When the line between legitimate and illegitimate becomes very thin, different subcultures within the same legal system may perceive the distinction differently.

To draw a sharp distinction between what is criminal and what is noncriminal does not make sense. Crime is human behavior. But not all human behavior is the same. Presumably all human actions form a frequency distribution of actions and can be placed on an imaginary continuum from the most saintly to the most sinful, or from acts incurring the greatest degree of public acclaim to those acts which attract the greatest amount of public disapprobation. There are very few extremely sinful acts committed in this world, and there are very few extremely saintly acts; most of the actions taking place throughout any culture are just “normal.” The continuum of ethical content of our actions may be cut for purposes of definition at any point, thereby including or excluding a proportion of marginal acts. The cutting points, as defined, may change from time to time, depending upon changes in statutes, cultural meanings attached to their language, or customs’ allowing statutes to lapse. This process of change may go unnoticed by most observers in the culture, since it is often gradual.

Crimes and criminals

It will be obvious that “crime” and “criminals” are two different concepts. Often these two are confused, particularly when reference is made to criminal statistics. It is necessary always to inquire closely into exactly what figures relating to “crime” refer to. A “crime” (illegal action) can occur without there being an identifiable criminal, and a criminal can commit a number of crimes even in the course of one actual action or event. A person removing a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent may break a large number of laws in this one act, or, less frequently, there are multiple acts which are subsumed under the definition of one crime. To some extent crimes committed by persons under the legally defined age of “criminal responsibility” are crimes without defined criminals. If a crime is not detected or otherwise “cleared up,” there is always a chance that it may be an outcome without a criminal.

The problem of definition of crime is closely related to the problem of measurement of crime. Can we measure crime and express it in numbers? Certainly there are plenty of numbers in the U.S. Uniform Crime Reports, in Criminal Statistics, published in England and Wales, and in similar reports published in all Western countries. But do these numbers measure what we are speaking about when we speak about “crime”?

Sutherland and Cressey ([1924] 1960) have criticized criminal statistics on the grounds that it is impossible to determine with accuracy the amount of crime in any jurisdiction at any time. But the difficulty is not a statistical difficulty; it is a difficulty relating to problems of definitions.

Figures are available for “indictable offenses known to the police” in England and Wales, and there are similar figures for other countries; figures are available for the numbers of persons proceeded against in courts; there are figures for persons found guilty, figures for persons arrested (in the United States), and many other sets of figures. Are any of these figures measurements of “crime”? Undoubtedly not. But as numbers representing what they claim to represent, they are not necessarily to be impugned as the most unreliable of statistics. It is not the statistical data that claim to be what they are not; rather, it is the people who make use of these data who may be regarded as “unreliable.”

There are a large number of points at which it is possible to intercept events or persons and to make counts of them. Whether these counts are correctly and efficiently made is one problem, but whether the figures represent what we are speaking about is another problem. It is necessary to keep these two problems separate.

Any one event in the continuum ranging from sinful to saintly may trigger off a series of events. Processes involving human behavior, whether defined in law as “criminal” or not, are dynamic processes. If the event is definable in law as criminal, the processes from the commission of the act, so defined, to the reception of the convicted offender in a penal institution are many and varied. Different decisions are made at different points in this process, and each decision may be considered as a “gate” which opens or closes and diverts the “offender” from one channel to another—into or out of the system. Each of these decision “gates” can provide an efficient count of the “gate passages” (Wilkins 1964). Whether a record of any or all of these decisions at any or all of these points would be a measure of what we are speaking about when we speak about “crime” is debatable.

It is obvious that counts and measurements at different points along the process continuum will give different numbers, and these different numbers will measure different things. It may be desirable to examine some of these distinctions.

Crimes known to the police

It will be clear that figures collected at some points along the continuum from the commission of the offense to the disposal of the offender by a court or by other means are likely to be more reliable than others. But perhaps the more reliable the figures can be, the less informative they may be regarded as being on other matters, such as the volume of crime. For example, it is often considered important to know about the amount of “juvenile delinquency,” but it is difficult, in practice, to measure the amount of juvenile delinquency in any area or country. Clearly, the age of the offender cannot be known until a crime has been detected and an offender identified who is presumed to have committed it. Thus, to measure juvenile delinquency, some action must already have been taken by society regarding a reported crime or behavior. Some writers have proposed methods for questioning children themselves about their acts, and such methods overcome this difficulty but raise many others of a different kind (see Sutherland & Cressey [1924] I960; Reiss & Rhodes 1960).

In the general criminal statistics, it would appear that data relating to persons are more reliable than data relating to events. For example, the number of persons received into prison under sentence in any one year is a figure which it is possible to know exactly, as also is the population of any country’s prisons on any day or an average of days. There will be problems of what is meant by “prison,” and perhaps what is meant by “person” and by “under sentence,” but these terms may be dealt with by means of operational definitions. Nonetheless, such numbers, even though absolutely accurate, do not necessarily relate to a question about crime, unless we are careful to speak in exactly the same terms as those used to determine the counting procedures.

It has been suggested by some authorities that the value of a crime index decreases as the distance from the crime itself in terms of procedure increases (Short & Nye 1957–1958). This means that figures which relate to “crimes known to the police” provide a better index of crime than figures relating to arrests, persons proceeded against or found guilty, or various other figures relating to the later processing of persons defined as offenders. In other words, and reminding ourselves of the distinction between crimes and criminals, it is often claimed that the most meaningful figures, from a criminological point of view, are figures relating to events (crimes) and not those relating to persons (criminals). If one is speaking about events, one should not use data relating to persons, but it is doubtful whether data relating to events can be obtained in any satisfactory way. A person is simply defined by his own physical identity. If persons pass through any decision point and that point has a counting mechanism, there can be little doubt about the number of such persons. But whenever an event is imagined independently of a specific person and a specific decision point, or a concept is discussed which has no relation to a specific activity or decision which can be observed, there is far more chance of uncertainty.

In the definition of crime we are concerned with the cutting points in a continuum, not a gate decision system. If we wish to discuss crime, it is necessary to consider the working of the system of definitions that may vary the cutting points in the continuous distribution of actions from evil to good. It is, of course, obvious that the police do not get to know of crimes by some direct process of “knowing” or observation. Criminals usually go to great pains to make this difficult for the police. Crimes “known to the police” are usually reported to them by the public, most frequently by the victim. This means that an event must first of all be defined by a member of the public, with no special legal knowledge, as an event requiring that the police do something about it. That is to say, a crime is usually first defined by a democratic process as “something that the police ought to do something about.” It may be that events defined by an ordinary citizen as a “crime worth reporting to the police” may not be a crime within the legal code of the country concerned, and, although the event is reported because it is perceived as a crime, the police will not record it. Although they may still take action to remedy the problem, they would not record an event as a crime simply because the reporter viewed it as such. On the other hand, there are many events known to the same citizen which he does not define as “something that the police ought to do something about” although they are in fact crimes under the law.

It would, of course, be possible to define as “crimes” all events which become known to ordinary citizens and are thought by them to be worthy of reporting to the police in the expectation of some action to remedy their complaint. Such events generally are called “complaints known to the police,” but not “crimes.” It might, however, be more useful operationally to define “crimes” as “complaints,” since this would amount to defining crimes as events that give rise to a level of disapprobation on the part of the victim or other members of the public such that they actively seek the assistance of the forces of social defense.

Criminal statistics

At present the figures relating to “crimes known to the police” (in countries where these are available), although nearest to the event which is regarded as “criminal,” provide an amended record of events believed by the general public to be crimes, plus some additional events where the police obtain direct evidence and where information regarding one event leads to disclosure of another. In most countries there are events which are crimes according to the law but which the average citizen does not define as anything that the police should know about. Similarly, in most countries there are events which are perceived by average citizens as crimes against their culture but which are not acknowledged in law.

In most democratic societies the law will tend to be amended to agree with public opinion, but the relationship between public opinion and legal definitions is not a one-to-one correlation. An example of public disapprobation leading to new legislation may be cited—the Offensive Weapons Act of England and Wales, which made it a crime for persons to offer certain types of knives for sale. In the other direction, attempted suicide, for a long time not a criminal offense in Scotland, has recently been removed from the criminal definition in England and Wales also.

Legal definitions of crimes, while very suitable for legal processes, are not directly translatable into sociological and psychological terms. Behavior usually regarded as “normal” includes some acts that are crimes by legal definition, while at the extreme end of a distribution are crimes that all sane persons, even offenders themselves, regard as such.

Crimes and morals

It is often argued that the cause of an increase in crime is a decline in moral standards of the population. If this argument is not circular (crime being held to be a reflection of morals), it is possible to throw some light on the relationship between moral values and crimes. Perhaps the layman who assumes, when he hears that crime has increased, that he is in greater risk of an attack upon his person or property is nearer to equating morals with crime than the official definitions allow. Indeed, it seems possible, and even probable, that any improvement in moral values would show in the official records of crime as an increase in the number of crimes known to the police and perhaps also as an increase in the number of arrests.

Any change in the social definition of an event worth notification of the police will, even in stable conditions, influence the bias of the sample of crimes represented by the “crimes known” figures. If a society is becoming more “moral,” it is possible to suggest that that society is becoming more stringent and requiring more conforming standards of behavior. If this occurs, the democratic definition of “things which the police ought to do something about” will tend to agree more closely with the legal definition of crime for the majority of events that are defined in the criminal law as crimes.

It is simpler to demonstrate the effect of change in public opinion in regard to expected levels of behavior where the criminal statistics are based on “crimes known to the police” than where data are derived from arrests. It may be supposed, however, that the police as public servants are aware of public pressure, and, of course, they are themselves members of the culture that forms the definitions to which they operate in their official capacities.

In England and Wales and some other countries, what is a “crime” to be included in the “crimes known” figures is determined by whether the offense is “indictable.” The definition of an “indictable offense” depends upon the way in which an adult person accused of the offense might be tried. Special provisions for the juvenile (persons under 17 years of age in England and Wales and certain states in the United States) are ignored for purposes of this definition. Perhaps the criterion of recording as crimes only indictable offenses was at one time related to levels of public disapprobation. Today it has no very strong association with public opinion, particularly in the distinction between offenses of larceny and vandalism. In England and Wales, larceny of any value is an indictable offense, but vandalism is a misdemeanor. For example, it would be regarded as an indictable offense for a person to open the doors of a parked car and remove a half-empty package of cigarettes from the glove pocket, but not an indictable offense to carve his name on the windshield or twist off the door handles. This illustration is not universally applicable, but in all legislations some similar event can be found.

The problem of trends and comparisons

It is generally agreed that precise cross-cultural comparisons of crime are impossible. Attempts have been made by committees of the United Nations to establish some form of comparison for the most serious offenses, like homicide and robbery, but even at this level of seriousness no strictly comparable basis can be found. In the case of murder, the social significance of weapons differs among countries, and vestigial traces of the dueling cultures of the past still remain in the legal codes of many countries. Comparisons have been attempted in terms of legal definitions, because it is believed that the legal basis for crime cannot be avoided. It might be possible to find some basis for comparisons if crimes were described in terms of exactly what happened, as perceived in the current cultural setting, but even this would be difficult. Add to the difficulty of cultural differences, which are current in their effects, traces of history preserved to greater or lesser degrees in the laws of different countries, and exact cross-cultural comparisons are impossible.

For legal purposes, and not without good reason, there is a tendency to try to preserve a law that has worked in the past to suffice for the newer conditions for as long as possible. The horse was a factor to be considered in relation to economic and criminal behavior in the past, but it is very doubtful whether the transition from horse to “horseless carriage” is a sufficiently direct one for the continuity of legal definition and sociological and psychological inferences based on this transition.

Perhaps the main problem in the study of trends arises from the fact that changes in the law can be made only in discrete steps, whereas the processes of technological change are continuous. Changes in perceptual processes that follow upon and are related to technological changes as well as value systems are also continuous changes. Some items in legal classifications must, no matter how much the law is changed, be out of step with social and economic conditions. The changes will be made in different countries and different states at different rates and with respect to different parts of the law. But these discrete adjustments immediately prejudice the study of trends. Trends seem to require a stable definition, but changes are essential if the law is to have any meaning in a changing society.

Clearly, the law cannot be in a process of continuous change if it is to function for the protection of society, although society, in order to preserve itself, must be continuously adjusting to change.

Changes within a culture

It may be thought that although the problem of trends and comparisons is difficult and complex when cross-cultural analysis is being attempted, something more positive may be said about trends within a culture. But even here there are serious problems.

It may seem a simple matter to adjust the figures for crime within a country or state according to changes in the population. The total amount of crime is expected to change because, if the population of a country increases and the definitions remain constant and are constantly interpreted, more persons would be expected to commit more crimes. But in some parts of the world it is not possible to estimate the population with any degree of accuracy during the years between censuses. In the United States this is particularly true for states with a rapidly growing or declining population. Even an accurate estimate of the total population may not provide sufficient information for adjustment of crime data to be meaningful. It is obvious that a better crime rate is provided if the crude number of crimes is modified by the number of persons available to commit them. The rate per 100,000 of population (the conventional rate) provides something which is obviously better than rates that make no allowance for population size. But the obviousness of the improvement may be a snare and a delusion. The majority of crimes, so far as is known from the persons identified as criminals, are committed by younger male persons. In all Western countries females commit from one-fifth to one-tenth of the amount of crime committed by males. Further, persons of either sex over thirty years of age commit (or are found guilty of) relatively few offenses.

Thus, if the age structure of a population is changing and if there are increasingly more young people in the population, then even with a constant population an increased amount of crime would be expected. The converse is also true. If a population is becoming older, the crime rate can be expected to drop, even if every person, age for age and sex for sex, remains as criminal as before. This argument assumes, of course, that crimes for which offenders are identified are similar, in respect to age and sex distribution, to crimes which are not “cleared up.” (The rate of clear-up varies between types of crimes and from place to place but is seldom greater than 50 per cent for crimes where the victim does not see the offender in a face-to-face situation.)

Taking all these points and bearing in mind others which could be raised, it is regarded as unsafe to make any statements about the state of crime or crime trends over time or between different countries, states, or districts, except perhaps in the crudest possible terms.

Crime and opportunity

Adjustments for changes in population are usually regarded as obvious and sound. But there are few crimes that relate to a basis of persons. Perhaps the number of murders may be expected to change in proportion to the number of persons available to commit murders or to be the victims of murder, but if adjustments are obviously necessary for persons whose crimes affect persons, why are other adjustments not equally obvious? If, for example, there are more cars available to be stolen, why should not the number of cars stolen be expected to rise proportionally to availability? If there is more money available for legitimate transfer, why should not the number of illegitimate transfers of money be expected to rise proportionally?

Some data relating to certain indictable offenses known to the police, adjusted for population, are given in Table 1. It will be observed that the adjusted number of murders has remained reasonably constant over the years from 1946 through 1959, whereas housebreaking has shown a fall and a rise, and embezzlement an almost continuous rise. Indeed, the figures for murder do not show

Table 1 – Certain indictable offenses known to the police, adjusted for population changes, England and Wales, 1946–1959
a. Uncorrected for cases subsequently found to be manslaughter, infanticide, and so on.
b. Base year 1946 = actual figures.
Source: Adapted from Wilkins 1964, based on Criminal Statistics of England and Wales, Annual Report.

any variation in excess of chance, whereas other offenses show considerable and significant variation. This raises the question of whether the murder figures remain constant because the factor used to compute these adjusted figures is based on the relevant “population at risk.” If equally meaningful bases could be used to construct rates for other crimes, it might even be discovered that the total amount of crime in this and other societies remains constant. However, it seems unreasonable to deny that major changes can occur in the long run; what is needed is a better understanding of both short-term fluctuations and long-term trends.

The problem of heterogeneity

It is possible to examine the problem of the heterogeneity of current definitions of crime in a number of ways. It may be postulated, for example, that if all types of crime tend to increase and decrease simultaneously over time, it does not matter which type of crime is selected as an index or whether all crimes are added together. It might seem desirable to select an offense that presents as little difficulty as possible in identification and classification. Another method is provided by an area analysis. It could be suggested that if different areas show different interrelationships between crimes, an index of crime should not mask these differences. But neither of these methods can begin with any finer breakdowns of the data than are provided by the original classifications. It is true that the law may subdivide into different crimes types of actions that may be sociologically and psychologically similar, but it may also place together into one category crimes that are dissimilar in other dimensions. Once information has been lost by coding it, it cannot be recovered without a basically new encoding system.

Despite these limitations, the writer has used both a historical analysis and an area analysis to gain information regarding ways of classifying similar crimes together and separating those which do not show similar patterns. The following classification system is proposed (Wilkins 1963a):

I. Homicide
(a) Murder
(b) Manslaughter
II. Serious crimes against the person (including sex offenses and violence)
III. Serious crimes against property (burglary, breaking and entry, robbery, etc.)
IV. Social disorganization (drunkenness, disorderly conduct, petty larceny, etc.)

In terms of variations over time and variations between districts, these categories tend to show different patterns and thus to suggest heterogeneity. In many jurisdictions the legal classification does not discriminate by degree of seriousness. Robbery, for example, will generally cover a bank robbery at one end of the scale and a small boy tripping another and stealing his pocket money at the other. Thus, the dividing line between serious and non-serious offenses against the person is not fixed in terms of injury to the victim or period of medical treatment occasioned. The perception of what is “serious” may well vary from time to time and from place to place according to the social attitudes of the culture in which the events occur.

Two comparisons. It would be unsatisfactory to leave the impression that all forms of research into crime which involve cross-cultural comparisons or even comparisons within one culture are invalid. It is true that it is difficult to sustain the common concept of crime and to make valid comparisons, and the legal definitions only make the problem the more difficult. Nonetheless, two examples will be given of comparisons that seem to be legitimate, and these may serve to indicate methods through which some positive contributions may be made.

Comparisons require well-defined and specific forms of behavior, and, with existing data, these are few. Larceny from motor vehicles and drug addiction are the examples used, the former for a comparison within one culture and the latter for a cross-cultural analysis.

Offenses of larceny from motor vehicles which

Table 2 — Larceny from motor vehicles, adjusted for number of vehicles, England and Walesr
* Crimes known to the police.
Source: Adapted from Criminal Statistics of England and Wales, Annual Report.
 Registered private motor vehicles, in thousandsLarceny from motor vehicles*Rate per 100 vehicles

were recorded as “known to the police” in England and Wales during the period from 1938 through 1961 are shown in Table 2, together with the number of motor vehicles registered. It will be noted that when we use as a divisor the number of motor vehicles “at risk,” the “crime rate” for this category of offenses shows a very different picture from that which would be obtained by dividing by the population. Were the moral values in England and Wales at a low ebb in the years 1944 to 1946, 1951, and 1961, when thefts from cars reached an index of 1.8 per cent or more? Or have moral values tended to deteriorate more or less steadily since the end of World War ii? Is the base of “opportunity” a meaningful base? Could thefts from other sources be better interpreted against the changes in the gross national product or some other economic measure of affluence? In this case, the highest rate of larcenies per 100 vehicles is only 1.9 times the lowest rate, although the largest absolute number of larcenies in any year is about ten times the lowest number. Would similar results be obtained for other crimes, or do these results represent a tendency toward a constant factor in crime after adjustment of crude figures to a suitable base? Whether any of these questions are answered one way or another, it would certainly seem to be meaningful to explore divergencies from the “constant” rather than to examine figures unadjusted by “vehicles exposed to risk.”

Can the study of crime be separated from economics and other forms of study of human behavior? Moral explanations are obviously not sufficient—unless it is seriously held that moral values have deteriorated (and improved) strictly proportional to the number of cars! Before there can be serious discussion of trends in crime, much more sophisticated models must be sought than the simple cause–effect models that have been considered so far. If “crime” concerns economic behavior, then other aspects of economic behavior must be considered in assessing its cause. If legitimate opportunities are increasing in any culture, it will usually mean that illegitimate opportunities are also increasing. If a society wishes to generate change in criminal behavior, it seems highly likely that it will have to consider changes also in economic behavior—at least insofar as the balance between legitimate and illegitimate opportunities for the exchange of wealth is concerned.

The need for more complex models seems to be illustrated by the cross-cultural comparison of drug addiction. The United States, and particularly the major cities on the east and west coasts, have a very serious problem of addiction. England has no such problem. Yet it is often claimed that the system of drug control in England is almost exactly the same as that in the United States. This point is argued, but it would appear that the difference in the addiction rates cannot be due to the small procedural differences—that is, if similar causes must have similar effects. But there are types of models, called “deviation amplifying systems,” in which similar causes can have different effects (Wilkins 1964). In order to illustrate such a model, let us reverse the present example and suggest how England might find itself with a drug addiction problem. One way could be if an attempt were made to reduce the number of addicts (at present about five hundred) by more stringent control. The existing “image” of addicts as sick persons might then be changed by increased pressure from the police authorities. The difference between the image of a sick person and a sinner may be unsubstantial, but it might generate considerable differences in behavior. No one goes out of his way to become sick, but sinning has some attractions! The deviation-generating model is very often found in economic behavior: what, for example, causes prices to fall on the stock exchange—a fall in confidence? Or does a fall in prices cause a drop in confidence? Clearly this is a mutual causal system where a small instability can cause a major deviation to be generated. The concepts of “image” and “confidence” are extremely similar; indeed, confidence in the market may be described as the “image” of the market.

Leslie T. Wilkins

[See alsoGovernment statistics; Statistics, descriptive; and the biography ofSutherland.]


Criminal Statistics of England and WalesAnnual Report. → Published since 1923.

Reiss, Albert J. JR.; and Rhodes, A. L. 1960 The Distribution of Juvenile Delinquency in the Social Structure. American Sociological Review 25:720–732.

Short, James F. JR.; and Nye, F. Ivan 1957–1958 Reported Behavior as a Criterion of Deviant Behavior. Social Problems 5:207–213.

Sutherland, Edwin H.; and Cressey, Donald R. (1924) 1960 Principles of Criminology. 6th ed. New York: Lippincott. → First published as a textbook, Criminology, under the sole authorship of Edwin H. Sutherland.

Wilkins, Leslie T. 1963a The Measurement of Crime. British Journal of Criminology 3:321–341.

Wilkins, Leslie T. 1963b What Is Crime? New Society 2, no. 42:15–16.

Wilkins, Leslie T. (1964) 1965 Social Deviance: Social Policy, Action, and Research. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


The concept of white-collar crime covers lawbreaking among the middle and upper (or “white-collar”) socioeconomic classes. This type of criminal behavior differs from that of the lower socioeconomic classes in several important respects; different, also, are some of the legal sanctions for the two classes of offenses. To include white-collar violations within criminology, crime must be defined in terms broad enough to cover any behavior punishable by the state, regardless of whether the penalty is criminal, civil, or administrative, and regardless of the offender’s social status.

Lawbreaking can be divided into two categories: conventional crimes (burglary, for example, or larceny), which are usually punishable under the criminal law, and white-collar crimes, which are not usually punishable in this manner. An apprehended burglar or robber is punished by a jail sentence, a fine, or probation; a doctor may be punished through revocation of his license. Penalties imposed on businessmen include enjoinment by the government, the levying of civil damages, suspension of license to do business, or (as in impure food cases) the seizure and destruction of commodities. All of these sanctions imply that the behavior is socially injurious; in each case, punishment is involved and society stigmatizes the offender.

History of the concept. The concept of white-collar crime is a relatively new addition to criminological theory, although the need for such a term had been apparent to at least one of the founders of American sociology (Ross 1907) and was reaffirmed in the 1930s (see, for instance, Morris 1934). However, the term itself did not gain wide currency until 1940, when Edwin H. Sutherland published a paper entitled “White-collar Criminality.” In it he developed the concept and outlined its widespread implications for criminology (Sutherland 1940). Nine years later, he published the first major study of white-collar crimes: those committed by seventy of the two hundred largest nonfinancial corporations in the United States (Sutherland 1949).

After World War ii, Clinard (1946; 1952) and Hartung (1950) published studies of white-collar crime in the form of black-market violations of price and rationing laws by United States businessmen during the war. Other offenses dealt with by social scientists that have the same general kind of orientation include employers’ violations of labor laws (Lane 1953), embezzlement and other violations of trust (Cressey 1953), violations of purefood laws (Newman 1957), and illegal activities of pharmacists (Quinney 1963). Theoretical articles on white-collar crime have been written by a number of American and European criminologists. But, with a few exceptions, such as Great Britain and Germany (see Mannheim 1946; 1965; Grygier et al. 1965; Strafrechtspflege … 1961; Zirpins & Terstegen 1963; Middendorff 1959), research in this field has remained a unique contribution of American criminologists, although white-collar crime occurs in nearly all countries.

Social status of the offenders. Sutherland used the term “white-collar crime” to refer to violations of the law by persons of relatively high social and occupational status. “White-collar crimes” are those crimes committed by “respectable” persons in connection with their occupations. The concept, therefore, does not include such conventional crimes as murder or robbery, offenses that are defined in the same way regardless of the status or occupation of the persons committing them. Nor does it include legal acts that are considered “unethical”; it cannot be a white-collar crime unless it is punishable in some manner by the state.

Sutherland was not specific about which occupations should be included in the concept, and as a result there has been considerable confusion. In his study of black-market violations, Clinard included all gasoline-station operators and anyone who rented property. Newman suggested that “farmers, repairmen, and others in essentially non-white-collar occupations could, through such illegalities as watering milk for public consumption, making unnecessary ’repairs’ on television sets, and so forth, be classified as white-collar violators” (Newman 1958, p. 737). Others feel that white-collar crime should be restricted to those in high status positions and that those with non-high status positions in the middle class should be dealt with separately (Mannheim 1965, p. 474). Consequently, some have suggested that it would be advisable to change the emphasis of the concept from “white-collar crime” to “occupational crime” (Quinney 1964); it would not include all violations of law by white-collar persons, such as income-tax evasion and rent-control violations, unless they occurred in connection with the violator’s occupational role.

White-collar criminal activities. Common forms of white-collar crime by businessmen include illegal activities of reorganization committees in receiverships and bankruptcies; restraint of trade, such as monopoly, illegal rebates, and infringement of patents, trade-marks, and copyrights; misrepresentation in advertising; unfair labor practices; financial manipulations; and wartime crimes, such as black-marketeering. In developing countries, businessmen are especially prone to violations of the income-tax laws, import and export regulations, and currency-control measures.

Embezzlement is an especially common form of white-collar crime. One classification of embezzlers identifies three types (Cressey 1953): “Independent businessmen” is the name given to violators who convert “deposits” entrusted to them for specific purposes while at the same time maintaining their regular businesses. The second group, the “long-term violators,” consists of employed individuals who convert funds belonging to their employers, or to their employers’ clients, by taking relatively small amounts over a long period of time. “Absconders” are persons who violate their trust by removing funds or goods entrusted to them and then severing connections with the trustor by leaving his employment or leaving the vicinity.

Politicians and government employees commit various white-collar offenses, including direct misappropriation of public funds as well as the indirect acquisition of these funds through padded payrolls, the placement of relatives on a payroll, or monetary payments from appointees. Their illegal activities are usually more subtle than this, however. Politicians and government employees make financial gains by granting favors to business firms, such as illegal commissions on public contracts, the issuance of fraudulent licenses or certificates, and tax exemptions or underestimated tax evaluations. Labor union officials engage in such criminal activities as the misappropriation or misapplication of union funds; failure to enforce laws affecting their unions; collusion with employers to the disadvantage of the union members; and the use of fraudulent means to maintain control over the union.

Doctors may illegally prescribe narcotics, perform illegal abortions, make fraudulent reports in accident cases, and split fees. Fee-splitting, wherein a doctor gives part of his fee to the doctor referring the case, is illegal in many places in the United States because of the danger that such referrals might be based on the fee rather than the practitioner’s ability. Lawyers engage in such illegal activities as the misappropriation of funds in receiverships; the securance of perjured testimony from witnesses; the practice known in the United States as “ambulance chasing,” that is, investigating as many accidents as possible soon after they occur in order to secure the damage-suit business of the victims; and collaboration in making fraudulent claims for damages. In these cases, an apprehended offender is more likely to be disbarred from practice than prosecuted.

Extent of white-collar crime. Obviously, to restrict the definition of “crime” solely to conventional crimes results in an underestimation of the extent of crime and its effect on society. Studies have indicated the widespread nature of white-collar crime; however, these crimes are far more difficult to tabulate than ordinary crimes. The categories of offenses covered by the term are not as precise as in conventional crime; the criteria for determining the social class of the offender are often not clear; and the criminal law, with few exceptions, makes no distinction regarding the social class of offenders (Caldwell 1958). National crime statistics, such as the Uniform Crime Reports of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States, tabulate only violations of criminal law and not those of administrative and civil law, and therefore include very little about white-collar crime. Some of the latter information may be obtained from reports of various other government agencies and investigations, but this requires considerable effort, and often the required information is not fully available. The financial losses to society in a single case of white-collar crime may be equal to the total amount involved in thousands of larcenies, burglaries, and robberies. However, society does not conceive of the white-collar criminal as a true criminal; this is reflected in the fact that poor and relatively uneducated offenders are usually sentenced to prison, whereas white-collar criminals are seldom imprisoned.

Sutherland’s study (1949) of 70 large nonfinancial corporations reported a total of 980 decisions rendered against them for violation of government regulations, an average of 14 per corporation. Restraint of trade, infringement of patents, and unfair labor practices were the most frequent violations. Sixty per cent of these decisions were rendered during a ten-year period (1935 through 1944) of increased government enforcement of business regulations. Although only 158 cases were dealt with by the criminal courts, crimes were actually committed in 779 of the 980 cases. Two-thirds of these corporations had been convicted in criminal court with an average of 4 convictions each; 97 per cent of the corporations were repeaters.

Violations of rationing and price-control laws by businessmen (black-marketeering) were a serious problem in many countries during World War ii. Clinard (1952) found that approximately one in fifteen of the three million U.S. business concerns were punished for such violations, but only 6 per cent involved the criminal sanction. Of the 250,000 concerns selling gasoline in the United States during the war, one in sixteen was punished for rationing violations, most of which were complex, evasive, and willful. A significant case of white-collar crime involved conspiracy in price-fixing and price-rigging violations of the federal antitrust laws by many leading U.S. electrical concerns (Herling 1962). Twenty-nine companies were convicted of illegalities in sales of heavy electrical equipment to both government and private purchasers; the federal court imposed fines totaling $1,924,000. Of the 45 company executives who were convicted, 7 at the policy-making level were sentenced to 30 days in jail, and 24 others received suspended sentences. These sentences, and the severity of the fines, are fairly unusual punishments for white-collar crimes. Civil suits involving millions of dollars were brought against many of the firms to recover damages.

The case of the electrical companies does serve, however, as a reminder that white-collar crime in many areas is a well-organized affair, ranging from the comparatively simple reciprocal relationships involved in doctors’ fee-splitting to the more complex illegal activities of large corporations. Most techniques of violation are, of course, selected because they involve the smallest danger of detection, but they may also recommend themselves, especially to a corporation, because the violators are confident that the case will either not be prosecuted, or not result in a conviction, or receive a minor penalty. Indeed, they may even hope to change the law itself, or at least demonstrate that it is unenforceable.

Punishment for white-collar crime. The punishments for white-collar offenses vary considerably, but almost without exception they differ from those given for ordinary offenses. One of the most significant of the many factors involved in this variation is the fact that many of these acts were not made illegal until recent years. For instance, the following practices were not made illegal in the United States until the beginning of the nineteenth century: restraint of trade, false advertising, insolvency of banks due to fraud or negligence of officials, sale of fraudulent securities, and misuse of trade-marks. Previously, the philosophy of laissezfaire (and its time-honored companion, the slogan caveat emptor) had completely dominated public thought and policy. Legislation directed toward controlling the more powerful economic groups was an inevitable, although somewhat tardy, outcome of industrialization, as the entrepreneur was gradually displaced by the corporation and large-scale labor unions began to appear on the economic scene. Public recognition of the socially injurious nature of white-collar crime has also developed slowly. White-collar crimes are usually both more complex and diffused over a longer period of time than ordinary crimes; and so the essential criminality of the acts tends to be obscured. Furthermore, the type of publicity given white-collar crimes, as contrasted with the more overt crimes like burglary or larceny, seldom creates much public resentment. It is therefore difficult to create and sustain the kind of public pressure needed for the enactment of stronger legislation designating this type of behavior, however antisocial, as “criminal.”

Most statutes outlawing white-collar crime differ from conventional criminal laws in five ways: origin, determination of responsibility or intent, philosophy, enforcement and trial procedures, and sanctions against violators (Newman 1958, p. 738). Responsibility for enforcement is delegated primarily to specially created agencies. The administrative process of hearing cases closely approximates juvenile court procedures, and the actions taken are more often remedial in nature—injunctions, for example, rather than fines or imprisonment. In fact, there has been a tendency in the United States to enact rather lenient statutes and then to enforce them in similar fashion, with favoritism shown to offenders of high social status. Even when criminal sanctions are included, they have generally been used hesitatingly. Criminal action against corporations presents difficulties, for even after long litigation, often the only result is a fine that is modest by corporate standards or a sentence for an officer that is light when matched against the gravity of the offense. Some of the specific legal problems connected with white-collar crime have been discussed by Mannheim (1965, pp. 481–484).

Criticisms of the legal concept. Some law professors and sociological criminologists have criticized the expansion of the concept of crime beyond the criminal law, stressing the criminal law’s more rigorous procedures, greater stability, and greater capacity to stigmatize the offender (Tappan 1947; Caldwell 1958). Such critics think that “crime” and “criminal” relate only to overt acts of ordinary convicted offenders: “there is an obvious and basic incongruity involved in the proposition that a community’s leaders and more responsible elements are also its criminals” (Void 1958, p. 253). Mannheim has pointed out that the basic issue involves the elements of conviction and stigma. He feels that the legalistic view that only punishable acts dealt with by criminal law are crimes and the view that punishable acts are always crimes are both unsatisfactory: “What is needed is an injection of sociological thinking into the whole administration of criminal justice to insure that the present incongruities between stigma and conviction will be reduced to an unavoidable minimum” (Mannheim 1965, p. 33).

It is true, of course, that the criminal law is more integrated into the mores than civil law, since the latter is more recent and derives largely from the prevailing economic system. But the boundaries have also expanded; indeed, the nature of modern criminal law has been used as evidence in favor of a concept of criminality that includes almost any behavior showing “a lack of a developed social feeling and ethical code” (Hurwitz [1947] 1952, p. 31). Such a view certainly includes white-collar crime, but it neglects the crucial factor of legality, which is an essential part of the definition (see Clinard 1952, pp. 226–262; Mannheim 1965, pp. 30–31). The concept of white-collar crime is not as tendentious and moralistic as has been claimed by some of its critics (see, for instance, Jones 1956, p. 8). It was not Sutherland who designated these types of behavior as undesirable; they had already been so designated by laws in the United States and elsewhere. We must therefore conclude that the white-collar offender is indeed a criminal; what kind of criminal remains to be seen.

Typologies of white-collar crime. The study of white-collar crime has been handicapped by subsuming under this term a large variety of behaviors needing different causal explanations. To avoid this, it has been suggested that white-collar crimes be separated into three categories: those committed by relatively autonomous professionals, such as lawyers or doctors; those committed by employees against corporations, for example, embezzlement; and those committed in the form of policy-making decisions by officers of corporations (Bloch & Geis 1962). Whatever scheme is adopted, there seems to be a need for some classification according to the occupational status of the offender. Geis has thought that white-collar crimes should be concerned with more homogeneous occupational groups; he therefore has restricted the concept to “corporate violations” (1962).

Quinney has argued that more homogeneous occupational units would be desirable, but that they have to be delineated by the researcher, since the construction and explanation of occupational crime rates is a task that has been largely neglected by sociologists. He therefore suggests concentrating on studies both of the violation of legal norms and of deviation from occupational norms; both types of deviance could then be related to occupational behavior in general. Occupations change, and so do the types of crime and other deviance associated with them; thus an increase in the extent of an occupational practice hitherto considered merely deviant may evoke a law that renders it illegal. In distinguishing categories of crime based on occupation, one should consider the kind of occupation, its position in the occupational structure, the occupational role of the offender, and the nature of the institutional setting. The researcher should also acquaint himself with the effect of the law on that particular occupation and with the relevant norms and values embodied in the law (Quinney 1964).

Theories of white-collar crime. The concept of white-collar crime, in the fifteen years since it became current, has had little effect on the theory and research of criminologists in the field of psychiatry and psychology. But a useful theory of crime should apply alike to the ordinary criminal and the white-collar criminal. Most current studies of ordinary criminals have largely disregarded this fact. On the basis of studies of offenders, chiefly of the lower socioeconomic groups, various theories have attempted erroneously to explain criminal behavior as the result of childhood emotional insecurity, unrepressed primitive desires, guilt feelings, and the like. Similarly, attempts have been made to explain crime as a result of poverty, poor housing, broken homes, and feeble-mindedness. Such writings have made almost no references to the contradictory evidence presented by white-collar offenders.

Sutherland stated that white-collar crime could be explained within the general framework of criminal behavior as a process of differential association, wherein the behavior is learned from those who consider it favorable, in isolation from those who do not. For example, lawbreaking may be normative in certain business concerns, and persons who are isolated from other situations may learn values, rationalizations, and techniques that will enable them both to violate the law and to feel justified in so doing. Several factors isolate businessmen from unfavorable definitions of illegal activity. The media of mass communication usually treat white-collar crime leniently as compared with their treatment of conventional crime. Furthermore, government officials often shield businessmen from severe criticism, since many of the officials either were formerly in business or may have accepted political contributions from business sources. In addition, businessmen associate chiefly with other businessmen, both at work and in their social activities, so that the implications of white-collar crime are removed from outside scrutiny (Sutherland 1949).

Clinard (1952) has pointed out that most white-collar violations appear to originate in behavior learned through association with others. But this does not explain why some persons engage in such behavior and others do not. Such an explanation would require an examination of the roles played by the individual. Also, some violations may involve the independent invention of complex techniques without learning from others.

Cressey (1953) has developed what he believes to be a universal explanation of trust violations by individuals entrusted with funds or property, although not an explanation of white-collar crime generally. He has identified three essential elements in a trust violation: a “nonshareable” financial problem, knowledge of how to violate, and rationalizations about the violations. Financial problems which are experienced as nonshareable include business reversals and important obligations involving the person’s status or sense of personal responsibility. Trust violators are aware that these problems can be resolved secretly by violating their positions of trust, and they have acquired knowl-edge of the techniques to do so. They define the situation through rationalizations in terms that enable them to regard their criminal behavior as essentially noncriminal. For example, they explain that they were “only borrowing,” that their behavior is part of the “general irresponsibility” for which they are not completely accountable, or that their behavior is due to unusual circumstances. Unfortunately, Cressey’s study does not describe the characteristics of trust violators and does not specify the situations that most often result in violations. Future studies may enable us to predict more accurately which persons will be violators and what situations are most conducive to violations.

Conception of self. The white-collar criminal is set apart by his distinctive conception of himself. He generally regards himself as a “respectable citizen” rather than as a “criminal”; at most, he sees himself as a “lawbreaker.” In this sense, he is similar to some offenders convicted of such crimes as statutory rape, nonsupport, and drunken driving. The white-collar criminal gains support for this image of himself from the general public, which, although it does not necessarily condone his activities, finds it hard to conceive of them as being associated with “real” criminal behavior. More-over, the white-collar offender usually suffers little loss of status among his associates. Although some of them may frown upon his behavior, others may even admire it, especially if his transactions reveal considerable shrewdness. This last reaction may be related to a general contempt for laws affecting them as well as for government (especially government personnel) as a whole on the part of large sections of an occupational group.

Role orientations. So far, we have emphasized characteristics that the white-collar offender shares with other kinds of criminals. But there is one important aspect in which he differs from them: he may play a variety of other, noncriminal roles, and the degree to which he recognizes the existence of conflict between these roles and his criminal role may vary considerably.

The theory of differential association, especially if there has been continuous and intimate association with unethical and illegal norms and some isolation from other norms, cannot explain why many people never become white-collar criminals at all, even though they are likely to have both the means and the opportunity to do so, as well as the inducement. Nor it is enough to say that most people are “honest,” but some are not. The known variations in individual rates of deviance cannot be explained simply in terms of the differential acceptance of general social values, although this is of course an important fact. The best available empirical evidence shows that people appear to accept or reject opportunities for white-collar crime according to their orientations toward the various roles they play in society, especially their occupational role.

But most criminologists interested in white-collar crime have been concerned more with establishing its existence than with studying variations in offense rates within various occupations. Quinney, who did study such variations among retail pharmacists, found that prescription violations are related both to the structure of the occupation and to the differential orientation of retail pharmacists toward it. The retail pharmacist was found to have two divergent occupational role expectations—that of the professional and that of the businessman; the structural strain inherent in this situation is usually met by the adoption of an “occupational role organization” that, in both including and emphasizing the “professional” aspect of the occupation, tends to restrain the pharmacist from violating the prescription laws. On the other hand, pharmacists who emphasize the “businessman” aspect of the occupation tend to have the highest violation rate, whereas those who emphasize neither aspect have a rate somewhere between those of the two other groups (Quinney 1963).

White-collar crime and the social structure. White-collar crime cannot be fully understood without reference to the value conflicts presented to people in higher-status positions. These vary according to the social structure and value system of society. For instance, the values involved in the state regulation of commercial transactions in the United States may conflict with those of the American free-enterprise system. When such conflicts occur, attitudes that are involved in selective obedience to a “good” or “bad” law become the key to compliance. “The demand for law arises out of the conflicts in cultures; and because there is a conflict in cultures, the law is not effective as a deterrent upon the other groups that did not at first demand the law” (Sutherland [1929] 1956, p. 108). Further research should focus on the conditions that lead to a definition of behavior as criminal and to a definition of the way in which legal norms intersect and are integrated with the norms of other institutional structures (Jeffery 1956). Study of the values, norms, and other aspects of middle- and upper-class subcultures and occupations may help to explain white-collar crime in much the same way that knowledge of the subculture of the lower class and the culture of poverty is necessary to understand many conventional crimes.

The recent concern of sociologists with white-collar crime brings into focus a long-neglected relationship between criminal behavior, criminal law, penal sanctions, and social structure (Aubert 1952). Studies of white-collar crime in highly differentiated societies have focused on the ambivalent attitudes of average citizens toward the law, with the result that structured conflicts have been discovered between social roles and the larger social system. In this way, as Cressey (1961, p. xii) has emphasized, there is need for study of the entire society if we are to understand why white-collar crime is often not reported or studied. White-collar crime can often be viewed as violation of laws which are not part of the moral values of the groups concerned (Fuller 1942).

Marshall B. Clinard

[See alsoPunishmentand the biography ofSutherland.]


Aubert, Vilhelm 1952 White Collar Crime and Social Structure. American Journal of Sociology 58:263–271.

Block, Herbert A.; and GEIS, GILBERT 1962 White-collar Crime. Pages 379–404 in Herbert A. Bloch and Gilbert Geis, Man, Crime, and Society: The Forms of Criminal Behavior. New York: Random House.

Caldwell, Robert G. 1958 A Reexamination of the Concept of White Collar Crime. Federal Probation 22, no. 1:30–36.

Clinard, Marshall B. 1946 Criminological Theories of Violations of Wartime Regulations. American Sociological Review 11:258–270.

Clinard, Marshall B. 1952 The Black Market: A Study of White Collar Crime. New York: Holt.

Clinard, Marshall B. (1957) 1963 Sociology of Deviant Behavior. 2d ed. New York: Holt.

Cressey, Donald R. 1952 Application and Verification of the Differential Association Theory. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 43: 43–52.

Cressey, Donald R. 1953 Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Cressey, Donald R. 1961 Foreword. In Edwin H. Sutherland, White Collar Crime. New York: Holt.

Fuller, Richard C. 1942 Morals and the Criminal Law. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 32: 624–630. → Now called the Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science.

Geis, Gilbert 1962 Toward a Delineation of White Collar Offenses. Sociological Inquiry 32, no. 2:160–171. → The journal of the Alpha Kappa Delta National Sociology Honor Society.

Grygier, Tadeusz; Jones, Howard; and Spencer, John C. (editors) 1965 Criminology in Transition: Essays in Honour of Hermann Mannheim. London: Tavistock. → See especially “White Collar Crime,” by John C. Spencer.

Hartung, Frank E. 1950 White-collar Offenses in the Wholesale Meat Industry in Detroit. American Journal of Sociology 56:25–34.

Hartung, Frank E. 1953 White Collar Crime: Its Significance for Theory and Practice. Federal Probation 17, no. 2:31–36.

Herling, John 1962 The Great Price Conspiracy: The Story of the Antitrust Violations in the Electrical Industry. Washington: Luce.

Hurwitz, Stephan (1947) 1952 Criminology. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published in Danish.

Jeffery, Clarence R. 1956 The Structure of American Criminological Thinking. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 46:658–672.

Jones, Howard (1956) 1962 Crime and the Penal System: A Textbook of Criminology. 2d ed. London: University Tutorial Press.

Lane, Robert E. 1953 Why Business Men Violate the Law. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 44:151–165.

Mannheim, Hermann 1946 Criminal Justice and Social Reconstruction. London: Routledge.

Mannheim, Hermann 1965 Comparative Criminology: A Text Book. 2 vols. London: Routledge.

Merton, Robert K. (1938) 1957 Social Structure and Anomie. Pages 131–160 in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in the American Sociological Review.

Merton, Robert K. 1957 Continuities in the Theory of Social Structure and Anomie. Pages 281–386 in Robert K. Merton, SociaZ Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Middendorff, Wolf 1959 Soziologie des Verbrechens: Erscheinungen und Wandlungen des asozialen Verhaltens. Düsseldorf (Germany): Diederich.

Morris, Albert 1934 Criminology. New York: Longmans.

Newman, Donald J. 1957 Public Attitudes Toward a Form of White Collar Crime. Social Problems 4:228–232.

Newman, Donald J. 1958 White-collar Crime. Law and Contemporary Problems 23:735–753.

Quinney, Earl R. 1963 Occupational Structure and Criminal Behavior: Prescription Violation by Retail Pharmacists. Social Problems 11:179–185.

Quinney, Earl R. 1964 The Study of White Collar Crime: Toward a Reorientation in Theory and Research. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 55:208–214.

Reckless, Walter C. (1950) 1961 White-collar Crime and Black-marketing. Pages 207–229 in Walter C. Reckless, The Crime Problem. 3d ed. New York: Appleton.

Ross, Edward A. 1907 Sin and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Strafrechtspflege und Strafrechtsreform. 1961 Wiesbaden (Germany): Bundeskriminalamt. → See especially pages 81–118.

Sutherland, Edwin H. (1925–1951)1956 The Sutherland Papers. Edited by Albert K. Cohen et al. Indiana University Publications, Social Science Series, No. 15. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Sutherland, Edwin H. (1929) 1956 Crime and the Conflict Process. Pages 99–111 in Edwin H. Sutherland, The Sutherland Papers. Edited by Albert K. Cohen et al. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1940 White-collar Criminality. American Sociological Review 5:1–12.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1941 Crime and Business. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 217:112–118.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1945 Is “White Collar Crime” Crime? American Sociological Review 10:132–139.

Sutherland, Edwin H. (1949) 1961 White Collar Crime. New York: Holt.

Tappan, Paul W. 1947 Who Is the Criminal? American Sociological Review 12:96–102.

Vold, George B. 1958 Theoretical Criminology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Zirpins, Walter; and Terstegen, Otto 1963 Wirtschaftskriminalität: Erscheinungen und ihre Bekämpfung. Lübeck (Germany): Schmidt-Römhild.


Homicide is the killing of one human being by another and may be criminal or noncriminal. Noncriminal homicide is considered to be either excusable, that is, accidental or in self-defense, or justifiable, such as when a police officer shoots a felon or an executioner carries out a penalty of death. Criminal homicide, on the other hand, may be murder (first-degree or second-degree) or manslaughter (voluntary or involuntary). The legal distinctions are important because the sanction imposed on the offender in each case is a function of the adjudged degree of criminal homicide.

Among the different state and federal jurisdictions in the United States, there is considerable similarity in the meaning of these degrees of homicide, partially because the Pennsylvania homicide statute of 1794 was used as a model. First-degree murder generally means premeditated killing, “by lying in wait” or by poison, and with malice; all the states but Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin retain the death penalty as the maximum sanction. In addition, by statute any death that occurs during the commission of one or more types of felonies, which vary among the states, is a first-degree murder. Although some states include all felonies under this “felony-murder rule,” most restrict it to rape, arson, burglary, robbery, and kidnaping.

Second-degree murder refers to a killing without premeditation but with malice and in the heat of passion. A maximum sentence of 20 years is common. Voluntary (or nonnegligent) manslaughter is a killing that occurs with the presence of intent to do bodily harm; and involuntary (or negligent) manslaughter is unintentional killing, usually during commission of some criminal act other than a felony or through negligence during an act that is otherwise noncriminal.

Legal codes of other countries reflect different juridical situations. Mord and Totschlag have meant murder and manslaughter, respectively, in the German code. Meurtre in the French code is not murder but manslaughter, and premeditated homicide is assassination (assassinat), which is a common designation in Latin countries. The Italian penal code distinguishes between omicidio doloso (willful killing, which may be aggravated by premeditation or other circumstances); omicidio preterintenzionale (the intent is not to kill, only to do harm, but death results); and omicidio colposo (no intent, but death occurs by negligence or the like).

Homicide statistics

Like other crimes, criminal homicides may be reported by the police as the number of offenses known or the number of persons arrested, by the courts as the number of persons convicted, or by the prisons as the number of persons committed. Unlike most other crimes, offenses may be counted by the number of persons victimized; if two persons are killed in a single criminal event, the public authorities will generally count two criminal homicides even though there is only one offender. Moreover, because there is a death, governments at almost all levels, using the international list of causes of death, will record the act under the title of homicide in the mortality statistics.

Valid international statistical comparisons are difficult to make because of differences in the legal definition of criminal homicide and the range of variations encompassed by the term. Hence, all such references must be examined with caution and understanding of these variations. The Demographic Yearbook of the United Nations reports homicide data for many countries; in 1960 the rates (per 100,000 population) ranged from 34.0 for Colombia to 0.2 for Ireland (United Nations 1961). Although the United States does not have a criminal-homicide rate as high as those of Mexico, Colombia, and several other nations, the contrast with England, which is one of the leading low-rate countries, is dramatic. For example, the city of Philadelphia (population two million) has about the same number of criminal homicides each year as all of England, Scotland, and Wales combined (population 45 million). Yet the rate per unit of population for Philadelphia is about the same as that for the United States as a whole.

For the United States, one of the major sources of criminal homicide data is the Uniform Crime Reports, published annually by the Department of Justice. These are compilations of information submitted voluntarily by police departments through-out the country, and they provide interesting breakdowns by city size and region. The New England states consistently have the lowest rates; the southeastern states, the highest rates. In 1960 the regional rates (per 100,000 population) varied from 1.5 for New England to 9.7 for the South Atlantic states (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation 1960). The criminal homicide rate in the United States has been declining since 1933, when the rate was 7.1. Although there were some slight upward changes in 1945 and 1946, the rate gradually fell to 5.1 in I960; this rate still means that as many as 9,136 persons met death as a result of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter. A breakdown by murder and manslaughter or degrees is not available on a national level. In Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (county or counties having at least one core city of 50,000 or more inhabitants), the rate was 4.9 in 1960. All other cities had a lower rate of 3.8, and rural areas had a higher rate of 6.4 (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation 1960).

Patterns in criminal homicide

Research has shown that although criminal homicide is largely an unplanned act, uniformities and patterns exist nonetheless. There is, for example, a statistically significant association between criminal homicide and the race and sex of both victim and offender. Negroes and males involved in homicide far exceed their proportions in the general population of the United States, and rates for these two groups are many times greater than the rates for whites and females. In a study of criminal homicides in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1952, the rate per 100,000 by race and sex of offenders was in the following rank order of magnitude: Negro males (41.7), Negro females (9.3), white males (3.4), and white females (0.4) (Wolfgang 1958). The association between race and homicide is statistically more significant than that between sex and homicide. Thus, the proportion (but not the rate) of female offenders is much higher in England than in the United States; it has been suggested that in those countries with high homicide rates the proportion of female offenders is low, while in countries with low homicide rates the proportion of female offenders is high (Verkko 1951, pp. 55–56). In fact, it seems likely that there is a greater constancy to female homicide.

Variations by age

Among offenders the age group 20–24 predominates, while the highest rate for victims is in the age group 25–34. Victims are generally older than their offenders; the median age of the former, in the Philadelphia study, was 35.1 years and of the latter, 31.9 years. The race differential by age is particularly striking; the lowest five-year age-specific rates for Negro males and females are similar to, or higher than, the highest five-year age-specific rates for white males and females, respectively. Although males of both races more frequently commit criminal homicide during their twenties than during any other period of life, Negro males in their early sixties kill as frequently as do white males in their early twenties. Sociocultural and psychological evidence appears to offer the best explanations for these age-race differentials.

Variations by method

Methods of inflicting death vary, but about one-third of criminal homicides in the United States are shootings, one-third are stabbings, and the remainder are mostly beatings, with a small percentage involving miscellaneous methods, such as poisoning. There appears to be some cultural preference for particular weapons: males, if Negro, usually stab and are stabbed, if white, beat and are beaten; females generally stab their victims with a butcher knife, but are themselves often beaten to death.

Temporal variations

Although homicides tend to increase during the hot summer months, there appears to be no significant association by seasons or months of the year (Brearley 1932, pp. 189–190; Wolfgang 1958, pp. 98–100). But homicide is significantly associated with days of the week and hours of the day. The weekend in general and Saturday night in particular are related to homicide, as are the hours between 8 P.M. and 2 A.M. In one study (Wolfgang 1958, pp. 106–110) it was pointed out that about two-thirds of all homicides occur during the weekend, as compared to one-third from Monday to Friday.

The social significance of the weekend period as a time of increased social intercourse between persons of similar groups is even more strikingly revealed by data on the use of alcoholic beverages by both victims and offenders. Either the victim or offender or both had been drinking immediately prior to the slaying in nearly two-thirds of the 588 cases in the Philadelphia study (Wolfgang & Strohm 1956); other studies have shown slightly different proportions. Caution must be exercised in evaluating the presence of alcohol in homicides, because drinking—particularly on Saturdays, the day of highest incidence of homicide—is an integral part of the mores of the lowest socioeconomic group, whose members are most likely to be involved in this crime. The consumption of alcohol is involved in a significantly higher proportion of weekend homicides than of homicides occurring during the remainder of the week.

Victim and offender

Criminal homicide usually results from a domestic quarrel, jealousy, argument over money, robbery, or some more vaguely defined altercation. These are the “motives” that are commonly recorded by the police and that have been mentioned with only slightly varying terms and classifications in many studies over time and space (Gillin 1946; Hentig 1948). Most victim-offender relationships may be classified as “primary-group” relations, or those that include intimate, close, frequent contacts. Close friends and relatives alone usually account for more than half of the known relationships that involve male offenders, and much more than half of those that involve female offenders. Mate slayings are common and may constitute as much as one-fifth of the cases in some areas. Wives killed by their husbands make up nearly half of all female victims, but husbands slain by their wives rarely constitute more than 10 per cent of all male victims. When a woman commits homicide she is more likely than is a man to kill her mate; and when a man is killed by a woman, he is most likely to be killed by his wife. With rare exceptions, criminal homicide is an intragroup phenomenon; where there is racial heterogeneity, as in the United States, victims and offenders are of the same race in more than 90 per cent of the cases.

Previous criminal records

Many studies report that participants in homicide do not generally have previous criminal records (Brearley 1932, pp. 85— 86; Gillin 1946, p. 551). They have also proved to have good disciplinary records in prison and are among the best risks for parole. However, the definition of “previous record” is often unclear in reported studies and sometimes refers to prior police or arrest record, other times to prior conviction or prior institutional commitment. In contrast to earlier research, the Philadelphia study revealed that nearly two-thirds of the offenders and almost half of the victims had a previous arrest record, and that more male victims than female offenders had such a record. Moreover, when an offender had a previous record, it was more likely to be one of offenses against the person than against property; and when he had a record of offenses against the person, he was more likely than not to have a record of having committed a serious assaultive offense.

Rates of clearance and conviction

Among serious offenses, homicide has the highest rate of “cleared by arrest,” that is, the taking into custody by the police of one or more suspects held for prosecution. In the United States, among the seven offenses used by the Uniform Crime Reports to construct a crime index, the over-all “clearance rate” is usually less than 30 per cent, but that for homicide is consistently about 90 per cent. The intragroup, unplanned, primary-group character of the offense partially explains this high rate. However, the rate of conviction among persons charged with homicide is relatively low, often less than 50 per cent. The seriousness of the charge, the severity of the penalty, the greater use of a jury trial, the greater strain placed on the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” and the greater probability that cases of homicide will be disposed of by ways other than a conviction all contribute to a low conviction rate. Those who commit suicide (usually directly after homicide) and those who plead insanity may together constitute as much as 8 to 10 per cent of offenders known to the police. Homicide-suicide is relatively uncommon in the United States, however, for studies show that only about 2 to 4 per cent of offenders kill themselves after killing others. In England homicide-suicide has reached very high proportions: as much as half the homicide cases in 1939 and, not uncommonly, as much as one-fourth to one-third each year (Grünhut 1952). About the same proportions appear to hold for both the United States and England in regard to homicide offenders declared to be insane.

Theories about criminal homicide

There are more studies using descriptive data and case reports of homicide than there are acceptable theories. Unfortunately, there is little interdisciplinary theory or research, and most “explanations” of homicide are limited to the biological, psychological, or social aspects of the problem.

The published anthropometrical and medical studies are few and contribute little to explanation. It is generally asserted (Buss 1961) that the causative chain of aggression is traced back to stimuli that are external to the organism and that, although there may be individual differences in the reactivity to external stimuli evoking aggression, these inner characteristics do not by themselves explain aggressive, particularly homicidal, behavior.

Psychometric studies

With few exceptions, psychometric studies of homicide have not emerged from testable hypotheses; furthermore, they have failed to distinguish different types of homicides and have neglected the use of control groups and adequate statistical analysis. Most studies on the differential psychology of homicide have been exploratory and tentative. The intelligence of homicide offenders in different countries has generally been noted to be lower than that of property offenders (Berg & Fox 1947; Lazzari et al. 1958). However, the differences are not very discriminative, and the intragroup differences are greater than the differences between various criminal typologies.

Personality tests have been used to some descriptive advantage, indicating, for example, that with the Thematic Apperception Test, “heroes” of an antisocial type and themes of rebellion and impulsivity occur with high frequency (Paolella 1960). In a careful study of an aggressive-content scale applied to the TAT, Stone (1956) found that the scale was able to correctly identify murder cases. Most psychometric studies have used the Rorschach test; leading traits of homicide offenders as obtained from Rorschach protocols appear to be introversion, impulsivity, and explosive emotions. In summarizing several Rorschach studies of homicide, Endara (1960) stated that one of the most important findings is the fact that those who commit homicide produce about half the number of “human-content” responses as compared to other criminals, which indicates a lack of empathy and the presence of hostility and rebelliousness against authority. However, as Buss (1961) claimed in his review of studies assessing aggression through projective techniques and questionnaires, the tests appear to measure behavioral, not latent, aggression. Moreover, as Schuessler and Cressey (1950) earlier had stated in their criticism of studies on the personality characteristics of criminals, the studies generally apply a personality test without reference to any hypothesis about the relation of personality elements and criminal behavior.

Frustration-aggression theory

The frustration-aggression theory (Dollard et al. 1939) was readily accepted by many sociologists and psychologists as a useful theoretical framework, but few psychologists today would assert that the presence of frustration inevitably leads to aggression or specifically to homicide. In a review of the literature on the social psychology of aggression (McNeil 1959) it was concluded that scientific research on this theory is difficult because of the nearly inherent problems of circular logic. However, Leonard Berkowitz (1962), using the theory, has been doing some very interesting experimental research on violence in general, and Lewis Coser (1962) in a theoretical paper demonstrated that violence can be viewed from a sociological perspective.

Henry and Short (1954) and, to a more limited extent, Palmer (1960) have used elements of the frustration thesis in specific analyses of homicide. Henry and Short assume that in American society such lower status groups as Negroes, females, and the elderly are socially deprived of upward status mobility opportunities; hence frustration will lead them to aggression. The hypothesis, they contend, is supported by data relative to Negroes but not to all females. Suicide has higher incidence among the aged than does homicide. They further argue that the degree of internal restraints is greater for members of the upper social classes, who commit suicide more frequently than members of the lower social classes. External restraints operate more among lower social classes, for whom other-oriented aggression is legitimized and manifested frequently as homicide. There is some theoretical connection in these terms to Reckless’ containment theory (1950) of criminal and noncriminal behavior. Palmer’s study (1960) defines frustration in such a general way that items like epilepsy, severe measles, head trauma, are taken as “frustrating” factors, with no concern for the aggressive personality deformations that they can cause by themselves, exclusive of any “frustration” hypothesis. Moreover, Palmer’s study lacks the more systematic logic and analytical consistency of the study by Henry and Short and is methodologically inadequate in many ways.

In sum, frustration, it is generally agreed, is an inevitable and necessary part of the socialization process. The frustration-aggression thesis is challenging and should not be abandoned, but its present value for research purposes in homicide studies appears to be limited (Buss 1961; McNeil 1959).

Homicide and suicide

Much the same may be said of the concept of anomie, although Bohannan (1960) has provided a taxonomy of homicide in primitive societies that follows the “anomie,” “egoistic,” “altruistic” classification earlier proposed for suicide by Durkheim (1897). It should be noted that theory and research on suicide and homicide often have considered these two phenomena to be related—either as complementary phenomena, as similar manifestations of the same stream of aggression, or as the antithesis of one another (Henry & Short 1954; Verkko 1951; Hentig 1948, chapter 12; Wolfgang 1959).

The subculture of violence

A sociopsychological theory of a subculture of violence has been suggested as an explanation for homicides, most of which are crimes of passion or violent slayings that are not premeditated or psychotic manifestations (Wolfgang 1958, pp. 188–189; Wolfgang & Ferracuti 1962). The empirical data have shown that homicide rather consistently occurs with highest frequency among certain social groups and that in these groups there is close contact between offender and victim. The group members’ characteristics and expected responses to certain stimuli, their perceptual differences in the evaluation of the stimuli, and the limited importance they place upon human life in the scale of values appear to be conducive to the use of violence as a principal way to solve everyday problems. If there exists among these certain social class-sexage groups a subculture of violence, it is further suggested that the greater the degree of integration of the individual into this subculture, the higher the probability that his behavior will often be violent; or, that there is a direct relationship between rates of homicide and the degree of integration into the subculture of violence to which the individual belongs.

This thesis has been used to view the high rates of homicide among nonwhites in American society. As a group nonwhites have been segregated both physically and socially and thus constitute to some extent a “subcultural” area. This subgroup is characterized by poor housing, high population density, overcrowded home conditions, and often by a system of values that condones violence and physical aggression, all the way from child-rearing processes to adult interpersonal relationships, which sometimes end in criminal slayings. To a lesser degree, whites in the lower socioeconomic class also are part of a subculture of violence and participate in criminal homicide. By the dispersal of this culturally isolated group and the integration of its members into the general community of morality and values, there may occur some reduction of the violence that results in homicide.

Finally, this theory contains working hypotheses that can be tested by psychological tools. The fact that an individual belongs to a deviant subculture, which is reflected in commitment to a set of values that is characterized by the ready use of violence, will cause him to adopt a differential perception of the environment and of its stimuli. In this subculture of violence, the continuous challenges and daily frustrations that are faced and solved by the adaptive mechanisms of the individual have a greater chance of being perceived and reacted upon as menacing, aggressive stimuli, which call for immediate defense and counteraggression. Such a hypothesis lends itself to objective study through appropriate psychological methodologies.

A review of homicide studies tends to reaffirm the contention of many criminologists that meaningful and significant contributions to an understanding of the phenomenon can occur only through parsimonious, integrated theory that generates hypotheses to be tested by the collection of data from allied disciplines.

Marvin E. Wolfgang

[See alsoAggression, article onPsychological aspects; Feud; Suicide.]


Bensing, Robert C.; and Schroeder, Oliver Jr. 1960 Homicide in an Urban Community. Springfield, III.: Thomas.

Berg, Irwin A.; and Fox, Vernon 1947 Factors in Homicides Committed by 200 Males. Journal of Social Psychology 26:109–119.

Berkowitz, Leonard 1962 Aggression: A Social Psychological Analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bohannan, Paul (editor) 1960 African Homicide and Suicide. Princeton Univ. Press.

Brearley, Harrington C. 1932 Homicide in the United States. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Buss, Arnold H. 1961 The Psychology of Aggression. New York: Wiley.

Coser, Lewis A. 1962 Violence and the Social Structure. Unpublished manuscript. → Paper presented at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dollard, John et al. 1939 Frustration and Aggression. Yale University Institute of Human Relations. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Durkheim, £MILE (1897) 1951 Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in French.

Endara, J. 1960 Degradazioni e devitalizzazioni nei criminali, rilevabili per mezzo del test di Rorschach. Quaderni di criminologia clinica 1:21–36.

Gillin, John L. 1946 The Wisconsin Prisoner: Studies in Crimogenesis. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

GrÜnhut, Max 1952 Murder and the Death Penalty in England. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 284:158–166.

Harlan, H. 1950 Five Hundred Homicides. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 40:736–752.

Henry, Andrew F.; and Short, James F. Jr. 1954 Suicide and Homicide: Some Economic, Sociological, and Psychological Aspects of Aggression. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Hentig, Hans von 1948 The Criminal and His Victim. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Lazzari, Renato; Ferracuti, F.; and Rizzo, G. B. 1958 Applicazione della scala di intelligenza Wechsler-Bellevue, Forma 1 su un gruppo di detenuti italiani. Volume 8, pages 449–456 in Convegno Internazionale di Criminologia Clinica, Atti. Rome: The Congress.

Mcneil, Elton B. 1959 Psychology and Aggression. Journal of Conflict Resolution 3:195–293. MORELAND, ROY 1952 The Law of Homicide. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.

Palmer, Stuart 1960 A Study of Murder. New York: Crowell.

Paolella, Alfredo 1960 Resultats au T.A.T. chez des homicides. Pages 669–670 in International Congress on Applied Psychology, Thirteenth, Rome, 1958, Proceedings. London: International Association of Applied Psychology.

Porterfield, Austin L. 1949 Indices of Suicide and Homicide by States and Cities: Some Southern—Non-Southern Contrasts With Implications for Research. American Sociological Review 14:481–490.

Reckless, Walter C. (1950) 1961 The Crime Problem. 3d ed. New York: Appleton.

Robin, Gerald D. 1963 Justifiable Homicide by Police Officers. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 54:225–231.

Schuessler, Karl F.; and Cressey, Donald R. 1950 Personality Characteristics of Criminals. American Journal of Sociology 55:476–484.

Sellin, Thorsten 1959 The Death Penalty: A Report for the Model Penal Code Project of the American Law Institute. Philadelphia: American Law Institute.

Stone, Harold 1956 The TAT Aggressive Content Scale. Journal of Projective Techniques 20:445–452.

Svalastoga, Kaare 1956 Homicide and Social Contact in Denmark. American Journal of Sociology 62:37–41.

United Nations 1961 Demographic Yearbook. New York: United Nations. → See especially pages 398–471, Table 17, on “Deaths and Death Rates by Cause, and Percentage Medically Certified: 1955–1960.”

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation 1960 Uniform Crime Reports for the United States. Washington: Government Printing Office. → See especially page 33, Table 1, on “Index of Crime, United States, 1960” and pages 36–37, Table 2, on “Index of Crime by Geographic Divisions and States, 1959–1960.”

Verkko, Veli K. 1951 Homicides and Suicides in Finland and Their Dependence on National Character. Copenhagen: Gad.

Wertham, Frederic 1949 The Show of Violence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Wolfgang, Marvin E. 1958 Patterns in Criminal Homicide. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Wolfgang, Marvin E. 1959 Suicide by Means of Victim-precipitated Homicide. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology and Quarterly Review of Psychiatry and Neurology 20:335–349.

Wolfgang, Marvin E.; and Ferracuti, Franco 1962 Subculture of Violence: An Interpretive Analysis of Homicide. International Annals of Criminology [1962]: 52–60.

Wolfgang, Marvin E.; and Strohm, Rolf B. 1956 The Relationship Between Alcohol and Criminal Homicide. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 17:411–425.

Wood, Arthur L. 1961 Crime and Aggression in Changing Ceylon. American Philosophical Society, Transactions New Series 51, part 8.


views updated May 11 2018

Chapter 7


The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that certain population groups—the poor, younger people, males, African-Americans, Hispanics, and residents of inner cities—are more likely to be victimized and are more vulnerable to violence than other groups. As discussed in other chapters of this book, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be poor and to be unemployed than are whites. These factors put minorities at an especially high risk of being victimized.

Violent Crimes

African-Americans are more likely than individuals of other races to be victims of violent crimes. In Criminal Victimization, 2004 (September 2005,, Shannan M. Catalano reports that in 2004 for every one thousand people in each racial group there were twenty-six violent crimes committed against African-Americans, twenty-one committed against whites, and 12.7 committed against people of other races. Hispanics were victimized at a rate of 18.2 per one thousand, lower than the rate for non-Hispanic whites (21.9 per one thousand). Although minorities were particularly likely to be victimized, the rate of violent crimes in each racial and ethnic group had declined significantly between 1993 and 2004—and the percentage of decline was particularly high for minorities. The rate of violent crimes committed against Hispanics had dropped 67%, the rate of violent crimes committed against African-Americans had dropped 61.4%, and the rate of violent crimes committed against people of other minority races had dropped 68.1%. (See Table 7.1.)

The rates of violent crimes by type of crime show that minorities are more likely than whites to be victims of some types of violent crime, while about equally likely to be victims of other types of violent crime. In 2004 African-Americans were more likely than whites to be victims of aggravated assault (6.7 per one thousand and four per one thousand, respectively) and robbery (3.7 per one thousand and 1.8 per one thousand, respectively). However, African-Americans and whites are about equally likely to be victims of rape/sexual assault or simple assault. And while non-Hispanics were more likely than Hispanics to be victims of simple assault in 2004 (14.6 per one thousand and 11.7 per one thousand, respectively), Hispanics and non-Hispanics were about equally likely to be victims of rape/sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault. (See Table 7.2.)


African-Americans are also more likely than people in other groups to be victims of homicides. African-American males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have had the highest homicide victimization rate in the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. That proportion rose from 89.8 homicide victims per one hundred thousand population in 1976 to 102.3 homicide victims per one hundred thousand population in 2002, but the number had actually dropped since peaking at 183.5 in 1993. The homicide victimization rate among white men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four had also risen, from 11.3 homicides per one hundred thousand population in 1976 to 12.7 homicides per one hundred thousand in 2002. Again, there was a spike in the early 1990s, with the victimization rate topping out at 18.2 in 1991. Among African-American and white women, the homicide victimization rate decreased in all age categories between 1976 and 2002. (See Table 7.3.)

Circumstances surrounding homicides vary from racial group to racial group. While African-Americans are overrepresented as both victims and offenders in all types of homicide compared with their presence in the U.S. population as a whole, African-Americans also are overrepresented compared with their already heightened representation among homicide victims in homicides

Violent victimization rates of selected demographic categories, 1993–2004
Demographic category of victimNumber of violent crimes per 1,000 persons age 12 or olderPercent change, 1993–2004
Note: Annual rates are based on interviews conducted during the calendar year. Beginning in 2003 the racial categories are white/black/other "only" and "two or more races." "Other race" includes American Indians/Alaska Natives, Asians, and Native Hawaiians/other Pacific Islanders identifying a single racial background. The collection of racial and ethnic categories in 2003 changed from that of previous years; however, because about 0.9% of survey respondents identified two or more races, the impact on the victimization rates for each race is small.
"—" not available.
source: Shannan M. Catalano,"Table 4. Violent Victimization Rates of Selected Demographic Categories, 1993–2004," in Criminal Victimization, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2005, (accessed January 24, 2006)
Other race39.849.941.933.228.027.624.520.718.214.716.012.7−68.1
Two or more races67.751.6  —
Hispanic origin
Annual household income
Less than $7,50084.786.077.865.371.063.857.560.346.645.549.938.4−54.7%
$75,000 or more41.339.537.330.530.733.122.922.318.519.017.517.0−58.8
Rates of violent crime and personal theft, by gender, race, Hispanic origin, and age, 2004
Characteristic of victimPopulationVictimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older
AllViolent crimes
Rape/sexual assaultRobberyAssaultPersonal theft
Note: The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) includes as violent crime rape, sexual assault, robbery, and assault. Because the NCVS interviews persons about their victimizations, murder and manslaughter cannot be included.
aRacial and ethnic categories in 2004 are not comparable to those of years prior to 2003.
bBased on 10 or fewer sample cases.
source: Shannan M. Catalano, "Table 6. Rates of Violent Crime and Personal Theft, by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, 2004," in Criminal Victimization, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2005, (accessed January 24, 2006)
Male117,486,84025.00.1b2.922.1 5.816.31.0
Female124,216,87018.11.61.315.1 2.812.30.9
Black29,030,65026.01.73.720.7 6.713.91.5
Other race11,848,97012.70.0b2.6b10.1 1.8b8.31.0b
Two or more2,150,27051.62.4b3.8b45.3 5.5b39.83.2b
Hispanic origina
Non-Hispanic209,415,30021. 4.414.61.0
20-2420,272,75043. 9.428.00.7b
25-3439,509,56023.70.7b2.420.6 4.815.80.6b
35-4965,580,13017. 3.911.40.7
65 or older34,590,0502.10.1b0.3b1.8 0.5b1.30.8b
Homicide victimization rates, by age, race, and gender, 1976–2002
[per 100,000 population]
White maleBlack maleWhite femaleBlack female
source: James Alan Fox and Marianne W. Zawitz, "Homicide Victimization Rates per 100,000 Population by Age, Race, and Gender," in Homicide Trends in the United States, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, (accessed January 24, 2006)

involving drugs. While 46.8% of all homicide victims were African-American in 2002, they represented 62.1% of all victims of drug-related homicides. Conversely, African-Americans are underrepresented as victims among sex-related homicides (30.5%), workplace killings (11.6%), and homicides by poison (17.1%). (See Table 7.4.)

Most murders are intraracial. The Department of Justice reports in Homicide Trends in the U.S. (September 2004, that between 1976 and 2002 most murders of whites were perpetrated by whites (86%), while most murders of African-Americans were perpetrated by African-Americans (94%).

Property Crimes

In 2001, which is the most recent year for which detailed data including race and ethnicity and property crimes are available, African-Americans were more likely than whites to be victims of property crime. That year, 42.8 per one thousand African-Americans were burglarized, compared with 26.6 per one thousand white people. Approximately 16.1 per one thousand African-Americans had a vehicle stolen, compared with 8.2 per one thousand whites. Still, the trend reversed for other types of theft: 120.8 per one thousand African-Americans, compared with 130.3 per one thousand whites. (See Table 7.5.)

Hispanics were more likely to be victims of property crime than non-Hispanics. In 2001, 224.1 per one thousand Hispanics reported a burglary or theft, compared with 161.3 per one thousand non-Hispanics. Hispanics (19.8 per one thousand) were more than two times as likely as non-Hispanics (8.2 per one thousand) to experience motor vehicle thefts. (See Table 7.5.)

Hate Crimes

The 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act (PL 101-275) required the U.S. attorney general to "acquire data about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity [and] publish an annual summary of the data acquired under this section." In 1994 the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (PL 103-322) amended the Hate Crime Statistics Act to include crimes motivated by discrimination against people with physical and/or mental disabilities. For an offense to be considered a hate crime, law enforcement investigation must reveal sufficient evidence to lead to the conclusion that the offender's actions were motivated by his or her bias against a certain group. Therefore, data on hate crimes must be considered underreported, as many incidents and offenses motivated by bias go uncounted without sufficient evidence concerning that motivation. And

Homicide type by race, 1976–2002
source: James Alan Fox and Marianne W. Zawitz, "Homicide Type by Race, 1976–2002," in Homicide Trends in the United States, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, (accessed January 24, 2006)
    All homicides51.1%46.8%2.1%45.9%52.1%2.0%
Victim/offender relationship
Felony murder55.0%42.4%2.5%39.2%59.2%1.6%
Sex related67.1%30.5%2.4%55.2%42.9%1.9%
Drug related37.0%62.1%.9%33.5%65.5%1.1%
Gang related57.9%38.7%3.4%54.3%41.5%4.2%
Gun homicide47.6%50.6%1.8%42.3%56.0%1.7%
Multiple victims or offenders
Multiple victims64.1%32.5%3.3%56.6%40.1%3.3%
Multiple offenders55.3%42.0%2.7%45.0%52.6%2.3%
Property crime victimization, by demographic characteristics, 2001
Characteristic of household or head of householdNumber of households, 2001Victimizations per 1,000 households
TotalBurglaryMotor vehicle theftTheft
source: Callie Rennison, "Table 7. Property Crime Victimization, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Household Income, Region, Locality, and Home Ownership of Households Victimized, 2001," in Criminal Victimization 2001: Changes 2000–01 with Trends 1993–2001, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002, (accessed January 24, 2006)
Hispanic origin
Household income
Less than $7,5005,777,210184.658.08.4118.3
$75,000 or more16,668,470180.022.77.4149.9
Home ownership

while hate crimes can be perpetrated against majority groups, most hate crimes are directed at minorities: racial minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian people, or people with disabilities.

The hate crime data collection program counts one offense for each victim of crimes against people, but only one offense for each distinct crime against property, regardless of the number of victims—therefore, the number of victims is higher than the number of offenses. Of the 9,035 hate-bias offenses reported in 2004, 4,863 were racially motivated and 1,201 were ethnically motivated. Of the racially motivated incidents, 3,281 were committed against African-Americans and 998 were committed against whites. Of the offenses motivated by ethnicity or national origin, 611 were anti-Hispanic and 590 were directed against another ethnicity or national origin. (See Table 7.6.)

The Intelligence Project (2005, of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, a private organization that monitors hate groups and paramilitary organizations nationwide, reports that there were 762 hate group chapters in 2004, including racist groups such as chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, racist skinhead groups (a particularly violent element of the white supremacist movement), neo-Confederate groups (an alliance of southern heritage organizations that claims allegiance to the antebellum South), and others. The organization also tracks black separatist groups that typically oppose integration and want separate institutions for African-Americans. Although the Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes that this black racism is in part a response to centuries of white racism, it believes that a criterion for considering a group racist should be applied to all groups regardless of color. The Intelligence Project states that there were 162 Ku Klux Klan chapters, 158 neo-Nazi groups, 108 black separatist groups, ninety-seven neo-Confederate groups, forty-eight racist skinhead groups, twenty-eight Christian identity groups, and 161 other types of hate groups operating nationwide in 2004.

Crime at School

Although students are less likely to be victimized at school than they are away from school, any crime at school, especially violent crimes, justifiably horrifies students and the community at large. In Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005 (November 2005, http://nces.ed. gov/pubs2006/2006001.pdf), J. F. DeVoe et al. state, "Any instance of crime or violence at school not only affects the individuals involved but also may disrupt the educational process and affect bystanders, the school itself, and the surrounding community."

Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by crimes at school. All types of crimes—theft, violent, and serious violent—as reported by the Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005 were most likely to occur in urban, rather than suburban or rural, schools. (See Figure 7.1.) Urban students were also most likely to report that street gangs were present at school during the previous six months. Gangs were particularly a problem for Hispanic students in 2003. Of urban students, 43% of Hispanic students reported street gangs were present at school, compared with 33% of African-American students and 20% of white students. (See Figure 7.2.)

Hate-bias incidents, 2004
Bias motivationIncidentsOffensesVictimsaKnown offendersb
aThe term victim may refer to a person, business, institution, or society as a whole.
bThe term known offender does not imply that the identity of the suspect is known, but only that an attribute of the suspect has been identified, which distinguishes him/her from an unknown offender.
cIn a multiple-bias incident two conditions must be met: 1) more than one offense type must occur in the incident and 2) at least two offense types must be motivated by different biases.
source: "Table 1. Incidents, Offenses, Victims, and Known Offenders by Bias Motivation, 2004," in Hate Crime Statistics, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, November 2005, (accessed January 24, 2006)
Single-bias incidents7,6429,0219,5147,136
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-American Indian/Alaskan Native839710097
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-Asian/Pacific Islander217252266188
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-multiple races, group182235251109
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-other religion12814014768
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-multiple religions, group35373914
Sexual orientation:1,1971,4061,4821,258
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-male homosexual738855902832
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-female homosexual164201212163
Ethnicity/national origin:9721,2011,2541,047
#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;#x00A0;Anti-other ethnicity/national origin497590608462
Multiple-bias incidentsc714149

Drugs were another serious problem at school. In 2003, 29% of all students reported that drugs were made available to them on school property during the previous twelve months. That percentage, however, varied by race and ethnicity. Hispanics (37%) were most likely to have had drugs made available to them on school property during the previous twelve months, followed by Pacific Islanders (35%), Native Americans (31%), and whites (28%). African-Americans (23%) and Asian-Americans (23%) were least likely to have had drugs made available to them on school property during the past year. (See Figure 7.3.)

Students were also made the target of hate-related words and saw hate-related graffiti at school all too often in 2003. Twelve percent of all students had been the target of hate-related words in the past six months—particularly African-American students (14%). More than a third of all students (36%) had seen hate-related graffiti at school: 40% of Hispanics, 38% of African-Americans, and 35% of whites. (See Figure 7.4.) Of all African-American students surveyed, 7% reported having been the target of hate-related words related to their race; among Hispanic students, 5.5% reported being targets of hate-related words related to their race and 4.8% reported being targets of hate-related words related to their ethnicity. Students were more likely to report being targeted for their race (4%) and ethnicity (2.4%) than for any other reason, including religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation. (See Table 7.7.)


African-Americans—particularly males—commit a higher number of offenses as a proportion of the population than other groups. Between 1976 and 2002, 52.1% of murders were perpetrated by African-Americans. (See Table 7.4.) African-American males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up a growing proportion of homicide offenders between 1976 and 2002. In 1994 African- American males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up more than 30% of homicide offenders, but that number dropped somewhat by 2002. (See Figure 7.5.)

Percentage of students ages 12-18 who reported being targets of hate-related words at school during the previous 6 months, by selected student and school characteristics, 2003
Student or school characteristicTotalaHate-related words to student's characteristics
RaceEthnicityReligionDisabilityGenderSexual orientation
Note: "At school" means in the school building, on school property, on a school bus, or going to and from school. Population size for students ages 12-18 is 25,684,000 in 2003.
aIn the School Crime Supplement (SCS) questionnaire, students were asked if they were the targets of hate-related words at school. If the students responded that they were called a hate-related word, they were asked to choose the specific characteristics that the hate-related word targeted. Students were allowed to choose more than one characteristic. If a student chose more than one characteristic, he or she is counted once under the "total" category. Therefore, the percentage of students who reported being called a hate-related word is less than the sum of all the individual characteristics.
bOther includes Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians (including Alaska Natives). In 2003, students were given the option of identifying themselves as more than one race. For this report, non-Hispanic students who identified themselves as more than one race in 2003 (1 percent of all respondents) were included in the other category. Respondents who identified themselves as being of Hispanic origin are classified as Hispanic, regardless of their race. Due to changes in race/ethnicity categories, comparisons of race/ethnicity across years should be made with caution.
source: "Table 11.2. Percentage of Students Ages 12-18 Who Reported Being Targets of Hate-Related Words at School during the Previous 6 Months, by Selected Student and School Characteristics: 2003," in Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics and U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2005, (accessed February 3, 2006)

The circumstances under which African-American and white homicide offenders committed their crimes varied by race. African-American offenders were most likely to commit homicides related to illegal drug activity. Between 1976 and 2002, 65.5% of homicide offenders who had committed their crimes under drug-related circumstances were African-American. A high proportion of felony murders (deaths that occur during such violent crimes as burglary, sexual assault, or robbery) between those years were committed by African-Americans (59.2%) as well. By contrast, whites committed a disproportionate number of workplace murders (69.7%), sex-related murders (55.2%), and gang-related murders (54.3%). (See Table 7.4.)

Whites were more likely than African-Americans to commit homicide in the context of an intimate victim-offender relationship or family relationship. Between 1976 and 2002 whites committed 54% of homicides of intimate partners, while African-Americans committed 43.9%. During the same period, whites committed 58.8% of homicides of family members, while African-Americans committed 38.9% of those murders. (See Table 7.4.)


In June 2004 there were more African-American males in state and federal prisons and local jails than

there were non-Hispanic white or Hispanic males. Of a total of 1.9 million incarcerated males, 842,500 were African-Americans, 695,800 were non-Hispanic whites, and 366,800 were Hispanics. Young men between the ages of twenty and twenty-four made up the largest proportion of African-American males in the prison population. (See Table 7.8.)

The rate of incarceration for African-American males greatly exceeds the rates for non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic males. Out of every one hundred thousand African-American males in the United States in June 2004, 4,919 were incarcerated. This proportion was much higher than that among non-Hispanic whites, with 717 inmates for every one hundred thousand residents in the same period. Among Hispanic men there were 1,717 inmates for every one hundred thousand residents. (See Table 7.9.)

While non-Hispanic white women outnumbered African-American women in federal and state prisons and local jails in June 2004, African-American women were incarcerated at more than four times the rate of non-Hispanic white women (359 per one hundred thousand residents and eighty-one per one hundred thousand residents, respectively). Hispanic women were incarcerated at a rate of 143 per one hundred thousand residents. (See Table 7.9.)

In "Policy: Minorities and the Criminal Justice System" (adopted July 18, 1999, and revised July 22, 2003,, the National Criminal Justice Association discusses the overrepresentation of minorities among the ranks of offenders in the criminal justice system, noting social factors that play a role in that overrepresentation, including lack of employment and educational opportunities, poor economic conditions, lack of minority role models, and the negative portrayal of minorities in the media. Observing that an estimated 4.4% of white males will enter prison during their lifetime, compared with 16% of Hispanic males and 28% of black males, the National Criminal Justice Association resolves that state and local criminal justice policymakers must continually address minority-related criminal justice issues. Among these issues are the overrepresentation of minorities in both the juvenile and adult criminal justice populations and yet the underrepresentation of minorities in law enforcement, corrections, and legal professions; conscious and unconscious tensions between members of minority groups and law enforcement personnel; accurate reporting of hate crimes; racial profiling by law enforcement and its effects on community relations and prison crowding; racially biased effects of drug laws and enforcement strategies; minorities' equal access to the court system; racially biased sentencing patterns; and unequal socioeconomic conditions.

Probation and Parole

Because African-Americans account for the largest proportion of prison and jail inmates, it is no surprise that African-Americans outnumber other racial and ethnic groups in the nation's parole system. The parole system grants inmates early release from prison with fewer rights than the general population and under monitored conditions.

Number of inmates in state or federal prisons and local jails, by gender, race, Hispanic origin, and age, June 30, 2004
Note: Estimates were rounded to the nearest 100.
aIncludes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. The total also includes ages not shown.
bExcludes Hispanics.
source: Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, "Table 13. Number of Inmates in State or Federal Prisons and Local Jails, by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, June 30, 2004," in Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 2005, (accessed January 25, 2006)
55 or older71,90039,90021,4009,3004,0002,3001,000600
Number of inmates in state or federal prisons and local jails per 100,000 residents, by gender, race, Hispanic origin, and age, June 30, 2004
AgeNumber of inmates per 100,000 residents of each group
Note: Based on the U.S. resident population for July 1, 2004, by gender, race and Hispanic origin. Detailed categories exclude persons identifying with two or more races.
aIncludes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. The total also includes ages not shown.
bExcludes Hispanics.
source: Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, "Table 14. Number of Inmates in State or Federal Prisons and Local Jails per 100,000 Residents, by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, June 30, 2004," in Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 2005, (accessed January 25, 2006)
55 or older2471708984731182925

In 2004, 41% of inmates paroled from state prisons were African-American, 40% were non-Hispanic white, and 18% were Hispanic. (See Table 7.10.) These numbers were about proportional to these groups' representation in the prison and jail population in June 2004. (See Table 7.8.)

However, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites on probation, a system where people convicted of a crime are under supervision by a probation officer rather than incarcerated, is much higher than their representation in the criminal justice system. Table 7.11 shows that 56% of probationers in 2004 were non-Hispanic whites, compared with the 36.5% of inmates of prisons and jails who were non-Hispanic whites in June 2004. (See Table 7.8.) Conversely, only 30% of probationers were African-American, while 42.7% of inmates were African-American; 12% of probationers were Hispanic, while 18.6% of inmates were Hispanic. These numbers show that non-Hispanic white offenders were more likely than minority offenders to receive the more lenient sentence of probation.

Hispanics in the Criminal Justice System

While much attention has been given to the fact that African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, a report released in 2002 by Michigan State University's Institute for Children, Youth, and Families points to a growing number of Hispanic youths being targeted by law enforcement. The study, ¿Dónde Está la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of the Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S Justice System, finds that Hispanic youths are often treated more harshly than their white counterparts and suggests that the problem will only intensify because Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the country.

TABLE 7.10
Characteristics of adults on parole, 1995, 2000, and 2004
Note: For every characteristic there were persons of unknown status or type. Detail may not sum to total because of rounding.
aExcludes persons of Hispanic origin.
bIn 1995 "absconder" and "other unsuccessful" statuses were reported among "other."
cNot available.
dLess than 0.5%.
source: Lauren E. Glaze and Seri Palla, "Table 6. Characteristics of Adults on Parole, 1995, 2000, and 2004," in Probation and Parole in the United States, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2005, (accessed January 25, 2006)
Male 90% 88% 88%
Female 10 12 12
Race/Hispanic origin
Whitea 34% 38% 40%
Blacka 45 40 41
Hispanic 21 21 18
American Indian/Alaska Nativea  1  1  1
Asian/Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islandera  d  d  1
Status of supervision
Active 78% 83% 85%
Inactive 11  4  3
Absconder  6  7  7
Supervised out of state  4  5  4
Other  d  1  1
Sentence length
Less than 1 year  6%  3%  5%
1 year or more 94 97 95
Type of offense
Violent  c  c 24%
Property  c  c 26
Drug  c  c 38
Other  c  c 12
Adults entering parole
Discretionary parole 50% 37% 31%
Mandatory parole 45 54 52
Reinstatement  4  6  8
Other  2  2  9
Adults leaving parole
Successful completion 45% 43% 46%
Returned to incarceration 41 42 39
    With new sentence 12 11 12
    With revocation pending 18 30 26
    Other 11  1  1
Absconderb  c  9 10
Other unsuccessfulb  c  2  2
Transferred  2  1  1
Death  1  1  1
Other 10  2  1
TABLE 7.11
Characteristics of adults on parole, 1995, 2000, and 2004
Note: For every characteristic there were persons of unknown type. Detail may not sum to total because of rounding.
aExcludes persons of Hispanic origin.
bIn 1995 "absconder" and "other unsuccessful" statuses were reported among "other."
cNot available.
dLess than 0.5%.
source: Lauren E. Glaze and Seri Palla, "Table 3. Characteristics of Adults on Probation, 1995, 2000, and 2004," in Probation and Parole in the United States, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2005, (accessed January 25, 2006)
Male 79% 78% 77%
Female 21 22 23
Race/Hispanic origin
Whitea 53% 54% 56%
Blacka 31 31 30
Hispanic 14 13 12
American Indian/Alaska Nativea  1  1  1
Asian/Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islandera  d  1  1
Status of probation
Direct imposition 48% 56% 56%
Split sentence 15 11  8
Sentence suspended 26 25 24
Imposition suspended  6  7 10
Other  4  1  1
Status of supervision
Active 79% 76% 74%
Residential/other treatment program  c  c  1
Inactive  8  9  9
Absconder  9  9  9
Warrant status  c  c  5
Supervised out of state  2  3  2
Other  2  3  d
Type of offense
Felony 54% 52% 49%
Misdemeanor 44 46 50
Other infractions  2  2  1
Most serious offense
Sexual assault  c  c  3%
Domestic violence  c  c  6
Other assault  c  c 10
Burglary  c  c  5
Larceny/theft  c  c 12
Fraud  c  c  5
Drug law violations  c 24 26
Driving while intoxicated 16 18 15
Minor traffic offenses  c  6  7
Other 84 52 10
Adults entering probation
Without incarceration 72% 79% 76%
With incarceration 13 16 14
Other types 15  5 10
Adults leaving probation
Successful completions 62% 60% 60%
Incarceration 21 15 15
    With new sentence  5  3  8
    With the same sentence 13  8  6
    Unknown  3  4  1
Absconderb  c  3  4
Discharge to custody, detainer, or warrant  c  1  1
Other unsuccessfulb  c 11 10
Death  1  1  1
Other  16  9  9

In addition, Hispanics face harsher treatment in the federal court system. In "Hispanic Prisoners in the United States" (August 2003,, the Sentencing Project points out that Hispanic defendants are about one-third as likely as non-Hispanic defendants (22.7% versus 63.1%) to be released before their cases come to trial.

Minorities on Death Row

Thomas P. Bonczar and Tracy L. Snell report in Capital Punishment 2004 (November 2005, that 3,314 state and federal prisoners were incarcerated under sentence of death as of December 2004. Whites made up 55.8% and African-Americans made up 41.9% of all death-row prisoners. Only 2.2% were of other races, including twenty-nine Native Americans and thirty-five Asian-Americans. Of those whose ethnicity was known, 12.7% were Hispanic. (See Table 7.12.)

Of those sentenced to death row in 2004, 60% were white and 40% were African-American. Hispanics made up 15.2% of those sentenced to death row in 2004. (See Table 7.12.)

Racial Disparities in Sentencing

In 1984 the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) set forth sentencing guidelines in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 designed to implement uniform sentencing practices that would eliminate disparities based on race. In November 2004 the USSC released Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing: An Assessment of How Well the Federal Criminal Justice System Is Achieving the Goals of Sentencing Reform (, which evaluated the effectiveness of those practices. The report concluded that remaining disparity in sentencing was the result of sentencing rules and charging practices that had "institutionalized" disparity. In fact, variables such as mandatory minimums and plea bargaining had had "a greater adverse impact on Black offenders than did the factors taken into account by judges in the discretionary system … prior to guidelines implementation."

In Racial Disparity in Sentencing (January 2005,, Tushar Kansal of the Sentencing Project reviews the literature about the nature of this ongoing racial disparity. Kansal finds that in noncapital cases racially discriminatory sentencing outcomes do exist, but that they are not uniform or extensive. Key findings include that the following groups suffer harsher sentencing: young, African-American and Hispanic males, especially if unemployed; African-Americans convicted of harming white victims; and African-American and Hispanic defendants convicted of less serious (nonviolent) crimes. An examination of death-penalty cases finds that in most cases, if the murder victim was white, the defendant was more likely to receive the death sentence, and in the federal system, minority defendants, especially African-Americans, were more likely to receive a death sentence than were white defendants.

TABLE 7.12
Demographic characteristics of prisoners under sentence of death, 2004
CharacteristicPrisoners under sentence of death, 2004
Note: Calculations are based on those cases for which data were reported. Detail may not add to total due to rounding. Missing data by category were as follows:
Hispanic origin4132024
Marital status334258
*At yearend 2003, other races consisted of 29 American Indians, 35 Asians, and 14 self-identified Hispanics. During 2004, 2 Asians and 1 American Indian were removed; and 1 Asian was executed.
source: Thomas P. Bonczar and Tracy L. Snell, "Table 5. Demographic Characteristics of Prisoners under Sentence of Death, 2004," in Capital Punishment, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2005, (accessed February 25, 2006)
    Total number under sentence of death3,314 125188
Male 98.40%96.00%100%
Female  1.6 4.0  0
White 55.80%60.00%56.90%
Black 41.940.041.0
All other races*  2.2  0 2.1
Hispanic origin
Hispanic 12.70%15.20% 8.50%
Non-Hispanic 87.384.891.5
8th grade or less 15.1%14.00%16.60%
9th-11th grade
High school graduate/GED 38.533.337.3
Any college  9.2 8.6 8.9
  Median 11th11th11th
Marital status
Married 22.1%15.00%23.90%
Divorced/separated 20.62222.8
Widowed  2.9 6.0 3.9
Never married 54.457.049.4


Testifying before the U.S. Senate, Steven R. Wiley (April 23, 1997, explained that law enforcement agencies define a street gang as a "group of people that form an allegiance based on various social needs and engage in acts injurious to public health and safety." Although gangs have been involved with the drug trade for many years, gang-related deadly violence is more likely to come from territorial conflicts.

Gangs are often (but not always) racially or ethnically based. As a rule, ethnic gangs require that all members belong to a particular race or ethnic group. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, criminal activity by ethnic gangs has been increasing since the 1990s.

The most frightening crime committed by gangs is murder. More than half of all gang-related homicides between 1976 and 2002 involved whites. Approximately 57.9% of gang-related homicide victims during that period were white, while 54.3% of offenders were also white. African-Americans were the victims of gang-related homicides 38.7% of the time; 41.5% of offenders were African-Americans. (See Table 7.4.)

Wiley said that in June 1996 the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) released a National Street Gang Report (the most recent report of its kind) based on data from 301 participating municipal and county law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The study revealed the level at which nationally recognized street gangs have particularly established themselves in new communities. According to Wiley, the NDIC noted the following trends:

  • Gang activity was reported in 88% of the 301 jurisdictions responding to the survey and in 98% of the 120 jurisdictions with populations over one hundred thousand.
  • Gang activity was not confined to major metropolitan areas and was reported in 68% of the fifty-nine responding jurisdictions with populations under twenty-five thousand and in 78% of the 120 responding jurisdictions with populations under fifty thousand.
  • More than seventy-four hundred individual gang sets were identified.
  • Hispanic gangs were reported in 167 jurisdictions in forty-one states and made up 20% of all gangs reported.
  • White gangs were reported in 157 jurisdictions in forty-four states.
  • Asian-American gangs were reported in 104 jurisdictions in forty-one states.
  • Gangs claiming affiliation with the Blood and/or Crip sets were reported in 180 responding jurisdictions in forty-two states.
  • Chicago-based gangs, such as the Black Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Almighty Latin Kings, were reported in 110 of the responding jurisdictions in thirty-five states.

During the 1990s violent street gangs emerged as a problem among Native Americans as well. Wiley reported that "on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona alone there are approximately 55 street gangs, many of which have some affiliation with gangs in California, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Chicago. These gangs have been responsible for a dramatic increase in violent crimes in the Navajo Nation."


views updated Jun 08 2018


Pieter Spierenburg

In the past, no less than today, crime has been seen as a problem and contemporaries have expressed concern about it. Notions of what is criminal and what is not, however, vary over time. These variations are related to changes in both social structure and the material environment. Obviously, an offense like reckless driving can only exist in a world with cars. Similarly, sorcery can only be a crime in a society in which belief in magic is widespread. And the variability of the content of crime extends further. The definition of morals offenses changed as ideas about sexuality and gender and notions of privacy changed. Homosexual activities involving adult men, for example, ceased to be illegal in most European countries since the nineteenth century. Although stealing another's property and assaulting a person are unlawful in almost any society, the meaning and context of these actions greatly differ with time and place. In less developed, feudal regions, for example, cattle rustling was not primarily a means to enrich oneself but a challenge to the power of a rural patron and a test of his capacity for protecting his people and goods. Crime, then, is not a single, straightforward social category but rather a multifaceted phenomenon. Consequently, the historical study of criminality is not just about what some people actually do but also about perceptions, attitudes, and cultural stereotypes.


Most historians adopt a practical definition of crime, which reflects its diversity. With minor variations in terminology, they define crime as illegal behavior which, if detected and prosecuted, can be punished in a court of law or by some other official agency of law enforcement. Thus crime is simply anything forbidden by the secular authorities. When they determine that blasphemy can be prosecuted and punished in court, it is a crime; should they decide that burglary is no longer punishable, it would not be a crime. Any other definition would be based on the investigator's own sense of right and wrong, bringing the danger of anachronism. Of course, contemporaries never unequivocally agreed with the authorities' demarcation of the range of punishable offenses. Investigating the extent to which various social groups had different views of what is wrong and what is not is an important subject within the historiography of crime. Finally, our definition is not restricted to behavior actually prosecuted: it includes those acts which remain undetected, the so-called dark number.

This practical or institutional definition means that illegality is the sole characteristic all crimes have in common. Criminality is a "container concept." Hence few studies deal with total crime, and if they do, they break it down into categories again. This applies to qualitative as well as quantitative studies. It is not very meaningful to add up figures for theft, fornication, and insulting policemen and present them as a total crime rate. This would be like adding, without specification, corn prices and tax returns and calling them an "economic figure." The diversity of criminal activities also has a distinct advantage: there is a very broad range of historical studies which all, in one way or another, belong to the historiography of crime. Because of the broad range of criminal activities, it is impossible to present a neat chronological account, with crime being like this in the sixteenth century in Scandinavia, Germany, or England, like that in the seventeenth, and so on to the twentieth. The treatment must necessarily be thematic, pointing at change along the way.

By definition, crime is intimately related to the state. Through criminal legislation and court action, the state demarcates the borders of lawful and unlawful behavior. Historically, this implies a parallel relationship between processes of state formation and criminalization. It is only when stronger states emerged that the perception of wrongful acts changed. A number of harmful activities were gradually redefined as being not merely conflicts between private individuals but directed against the state as well. Henceforth they were a breach of the peace, offending the sovereign. While "classical offenses" like theft and assault were thus redefined, a number of newly created offenses—smuggling, begging, prostitution—were included in this category. Consequently, the activities in question came to be listed under the same heading as crimes. This process extended over a long period, but for most of Europe the sixteenth century was the crucial period of transition. We can term this the beginning of criminalization: the creation of the category of crime itself. From the beginning of the period with which this encyclopedia deals, then, crime was a reality, albeit a reality defined from above.

Crime is what you find when you study court records. In the tradition of legal history, criminal records are studied, if at all, as a supplement to legislative sources. To the legal historian, laws and statutes are of primary interest, and the courts' activities are merely the application of the rules. Social historians, by contrast, are interested in court records because crime is a mirror of society. It reflects, among other things, relations between social classes, submerged tensions, the position of immigrants versus natives, gender relations, and structural change over the long term. More particularly, court records are one of the few sources dealing almost exclusively with common people. They reveal things about the way of life of ordinary men and women, not just of the lawbreakers among them but also their families and neighbors. From the beginning, therefore, the study of historical crime received an impetus from the fashion of writing "history from below." Whereas the first generation of crime historians (from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s) was especially concerned with either the quantitative analysis of property crime or particular offenses which revealed social tensions, the second generation (from the late 1980s) preferred violence over property crime, focusing on issues of ritual, honor and shame, and gender.

The extent to which such issues can be studied in depth depends on the quality of the sources. Much of the earlier work on England, for example, has been done with so-called indictments: brief statements in which the defendant's offense is defined in legal terms and not much more. The prevalence of these documents follows from a peculiarity of the English criminal trial, which remained largely accusatory (allowing only private prosecution by a wronged party) until the early nineteenth century and was based on a jury system. Whereas continental procedure was largely based on written records, the oral element remained more important in England. The main part of the English trial was public and oral before the jury. Examination documents merely served to bolster the prosecution's case at this oral trial and were considered of little worth afterward. Few of these documents have survived. However, later British historians discovered that extensive trial papers have been preserved of some of the lower courts, dealing with neighborly conflicts in urban neighborhoods and rural communities. On the Continent, interrogation protocols have been preserved for many of the higher courts as well, due to the greater importance attached to the written dossier in countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Incidentally, a Dutch sentence of the early modern period is the opposite of an English indictment: it says what the defendant actually did, often without legally defining the offense.

The records of criminal trials are not the only sources for the historical study of crime. Prison records exist in several countries from the seventeenth century onward, but these are primarily valuable for the history of punishment. When we deal with perceptions of criminality, the contemporary crime literature is an important source, available from the late seventeenth century. From the nineteenth century onward, newspaper accounts inform us about individual cases, but they can also be used to provide supplementary data for quantitative studies. In the twentieth century, finally, police records constitute a source of major importance.

Although no standard categorization of crimes, approved by all scholars, exists, it is common to distinguish four general categories: (1) violence, or crimes against the person; (2) crimes against property, from theft and fraud to robbery; (3) morals offenses, punished either by secular or church courts; and (4) a residual category of offenses against authority, the state, or public order. Historians whose research goes back further in time often add a separate class of religious offenses, such as heresy and blasphemy. With the exception of the third category, especially when prosecution for prostitution was intense, men constituted the majority of offenders. It should be stressed, however, that male preponderance in criminality is much greater in the twentieth century than it was before. In early modern Europe, women often made up 30 to 40 percent of offenders; their share in theft could be considerable. From the late seventeenth century onward, the proportion of women tried in court gradually declined.


Quantitative studies of crime mainly deal with violence, in particular homicide, and various types of property offenses. Major issues include the proportional share of categories of offenses, temporary peaks and lows in criminality, trends in property and violent crime, and urbanization and crime. The first of these issues led to the oldest thesis in the historiography of crime. It was developed in the 1960s and early 1970s by French historians, who spoke of a shift de la violence au vol, from violence to theft. They argued that the feudal code of honor led to a preponderance of violent offenses, while the central place of the market in bourgeois society produced a larger share of property offenses. Society still was rough and rife with emotions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in the eighteenth a more pacified and commercialized society emerged. In this view, the modernization of crime took place during the eighteenth century, as a concomitant of the transition from a feudal to a bourgeois society.

Since the late 1970s, the thesis of a shift from violent to property offenses has been under attack. Although the data from France appear to be congruous with it, a later generation of French historians doubted whether these data reflected a shift in real crime. For one thing, the violence-to-theft thesis refers to the ratios of criminal categories rather than the absolute rates; it is about the share of the two categories of offenses in the total criminal caseload of particular courts. This share is mainly the outcome of decisions at the judicial level; it has to do with the priorities of courts. The courts of prerevolutionary Paris, for example, eagerly prosecuted theft of even the smallest item of food, while they cared less for fights among men and women of the lower classes. It is more likely, therefore, that late-eighteenth-century France witnessed an increase in concern for the protection of property than a peak in real property crime.

Finally, the violence-to-theft pattern has not been found in other countries of early modern Europe. In England property offenses accounted for a large share of the courts' business already in the 1590s, in some cases amounting to three-quarters of all indictments. The proportion of property offenses declined as the seventeenth century progressed, and it remained low during most of the eighteenth. Only in the last decades of the eighteenth century did the prosecution of property offenses again reach the level of the late sixteenth. In Amsterdam the proportion of property offenses rose steadily from about 30 percent in 1650 to about 45 percent in 1750. However, since total prosecuted criminality dropped sharply in this period, the rate of property offenses actually declined. It rose again, also elsewhere in the Netherlands, at the very end of the eighteenth century. With converging data from France, England, and the Netherlands, this last trend appears international: ratios and rates of property offenses peaked toward the end of the early modern period.

Determining crime rates. The French studies upon which the violence-to-theft thesis was based remained confined to the the ancien régime. However, for the quantitative study of crime in Europe, the main historical dividing line is between the prestatistical and the statistical periods. During the first half of the nineteenth century, most European countries began to compile criminal statistics. Only from then on is it possible to investigate crime rates on a national scale. Before that period, research is largely restricted to individual courts. The geographic scale constitutes the main difference, rather than the origin of the figures. Well into the twentieth century, national statistics were generally based on figures for prosecuted crimes. This was the case, for example, with the Prussian criminal statistics from 1836 to 1850. From 1857 English criminal statistics included information on main indictable offenses and figures for summary trials before a magistrate; the larger category of crimes known to the police was not reported nationally. The Swedish police did not keep statistics until 1949. Yet most historians accept the opinion of criminologists that every stage of the criminal justice process represents a distortion of the figures and that hence the figures at the first stage, crimes known to the police, are best.

With regard to the quantitative study of crime in both the early modern period and the nineteenth century, then, one methodological problem looms large. How do we know if the level of prosecuted crime reflects the level of real crime? Apart from having police reports available, modern criminologists supplement their statistics with data from victims' surveys. Historians, on the other hand, only have figures based on prosecuted cases. The problem is not the existence of a dark number as such, but the question of whether it remains constant. If the ratio of prosecuted to undetected thefts is always 4 to 2, for example, any increase or decrease in prosecuted theft represents a proportionate increase or decrease in real theft. However, such a situation is unlikely to prevail. If the number of prosecuted thefts rose in a year of hardship, for example, was this because people stole more often or because police and courts were particularly attentive in that year?

One of the earliest answers to that question was based on a negative argument: short-term fluctuations, if not too insignificant, may be taken as meaningful reflections of actual criminal activity, provided that they cannot be due to any legal, administrative, or other change taking immediate effect. This only applies to major fluctuations in crime and in years when the cited counterforces are absent. For the rest, there are two main tools for tackling the problem presented by the dark number. The first is a careful assessment of the influences upon the level of prosecution. For example, English historians emphasize that, in the course of the eighteenth century, concern among the public about the appropriateness of the death penalty for minor crimes against property increased, with a growing reluctance to report and prosecute these offenses as a consequence. This made the rate of indicted property crimes a poorer sample of actual property crime as the century wore on. The second tool is the attempt to look for other indicators to make one's assumptions about the incidence of real crime more plausible. During the crisis years 1771–1772 in Amsterdam, for example, the number of property offenses peaked. Simultaneously, the total amount spent by the various churches on poor relief and the total value of goods brought to the municipal pawn shop were considerably higher than in the years immediately preceding and following.

The two most systematic attempts by historians so far at counting real crime each elaborate one of the tools just mentioned. They refer to the prestatistical and the statistical period, respectively. In his 1982 article "War, Dearth, and Theft in the Eighteenth Century," Douglas Hay examined the impact of war and dearth upon the level of property crime, based on an analysis of Staffordshire cases in the eighteenth century. To distinguish the level of prosecuted from that of real property crime, he referred to the latter as "appropriation." The analysis focused on the influence of two factors, fluctuations in food prices and the alternation of periods of war and peace, upon the level of indictments for larcenies. The data clearly showed peaks in the level of indicted larcenies during the aftermath of war and in years of excessively high food prices.

To show that these peaks reflected increases in the amount of appropriation, Hay argued by way of deduction. In hard years, he noted, poverty was an acute affliction rather than a routine experience for a greater number of people. Consequently, he expected not simply more appropriation in those years but also a change in the nature of the offenses and the offenders. These expectations proved true. Among the offenders, for example, the proportion of women increased in years of high prices, suggesting that more people who did not otherwise run the risk of appearing before the courts stole in those years. The offenses included a disproportionate amount of lesser charges, rather than capital crimes, and the sort of appropriation committed without much planning increased in frequency. A parallel argument pertained to the alternation between war and peace. Demobilization increased the number of men who were likely to resort to appropriation. In the aftermath of war, then, one would expect the proportion of serious property crime to rise, and indeed professionally committed thefts predominated and the number of women decreased. The traditional factors influencing the level of indicted offenses, such as the formation of associations for the prosecution of felons, were unlikely to have operated to any special extent in years of dearth or following wars.

This analysis has a wider relevance. Studies done in other European countries have revealed similar patterns with respect to peaks and lows in property crime. Even though the data precluded a refined methodological analysis along the lines just described, we may assume that, parallel to the English case, peaks in prosecuted property offenses reflected peaks in appropriation. Generally, years of dearth were years of increased property crime throughout Europe, well into the nineteenth century. Regarding the aftermath of war, matters were a little more complicated. Unlike England, continental countries did not simply send away soldiers and navy men and take them back again. Notably in regions where military operations were held, war itself could equally lead to increases in vagabondage and appropriation, in particular by deserters. For the local population, to be sure, it may have made little difference whether they suffered from robbery by deserters or pillage by regular soldiers.

For the statistical period, V. A. C. Gatrell (1980) assessed the influences upon the level of prosecution over a longer term rather than in peak years. He dealt with property crime and serious violence, two types of offenses about whose heinous character and the desirability of a reaction there was widespread consensus during the period he investigated. In England and Wales, prosecutions for these crimes peaked in the 1840s, but from about 1850 until 1914 the rates, relative to the population, steadily declined. The national scale and longer term of this decline ruled out any influence of incidental or local circumstances. Only two important factors remained: the efficiency and determination of police and courts on the one hand and citizens' cooperation with the law on the other. Both factors had a steadily increasing impact throughout the nineteenth century. As a consequence, the dark number must have steadily decreased, or, as Gatrell put it, recorded and real crime converged. For the period from 1800 to 1850, when recorded crime rose sharply, this convergence can be consistent with either an increase or a decrease in real crime. For the period from 1850 to 1914, however, it necessarily implied that actual crime rates declined even more rapidly than the statistical record indicated. Although the method is adequate, Gatrell's "convergence principle" has a limited applicability. It only works when the efficiency and determination of police and courts and citizens' cooperation with the law are increasing, and it only leads to a meaningful conclusion when recorded crime rates decline or at least stay constant.

Again, these British findings have a clear relevance for other European countries, several of which appear to have partaken of the decrease in prosecutions for property crime since the middle of the nineteenth century. In Prussia, for example, prosecutions for theft started to decline in the 1850s. The rates for simple theft declined further in the statistics of imperial Germany from 1882 until 1914, although this trend was offset somewhat by a rise in other property offenses like embezzlement and fraud. In most of Europe, the second half of the nineteenth century was a period of expanding industry and rapid urbanization. Hence the data about criminality in this period are relevant for a debate about the "modernization" of crime, in which historians have engaged for long. The English and German figures contradict earlier notions that urbanization and industrialization brought about a greater preponderance and rising rates of property crime. Hence Eric Johnson (1995) argued against the thesis of Howard Zehr (1976), who stated that modernization led to an increasing preponderance of property crime, not only in Germany but also in France. Johnson believed that his own thesis, that modernization did not necessarily bring an increase in property crime, holds for Europe generally, but he admitted that more research, in various countries, is needed.

Informal handling of crime. This debate about "modernization" and crime refers to an early phase of urbanization and industrialization, roughly from the 1840s until the 1920s. In the course of the twentieth century, levels of crime, in particular property crime, increased again, especially since the 1960s. Throughout Europe, the level of prosecuted property crime in the second half of the twentieth century was much higher than in the early modern period, in absolute numbers of course but also relative to the total population. Part of the difference probably is real, as the opportunities for theft and fraud are so much greater in the modern world. Another part of the difference, however, is due to a combination of two factors characteristic of the early modern period: the lesser grip of police and courts on illegal behavior and the tendency of private individuals to solve their own problems. The result was that a lot of illegal behavior was dealt with informally at the community level. Historians commonly refer to this world of partly hidden crime and the reactions to it as the infrajudiciary.

Researchers discovered the world of the infrajudiciary because it occasionally surfaces in the judicial records themselves. Some defendants were charged by their neighbors with a long series of offenses, most of which dated back years. The last theft had finally prompted the victim to take legal action. Alternatively, it was simply mentioned that the defendant had a longer history of wrongdoing, which up to then the community had dealt with informally. A particularly illustrative example comes from a nonlegal source, the chronicle which the seventeenth-century yeoman Richard Gough wrote of his parish, Myddle:

But I must not forgett John Aston, because many in the Parish have reason to remember him. Hee was a sort of silly fellow, very idle and much given to stealing of poultry and small things. Hee was many times catched in the fact, and sometimes well cajoled by those that would trouble themselves noe further with him. Butt at last hee grew unsufferable, and made it his common practice to steal henns in the night and bring them to Shrewsbury, where hee had confederates to receive them att any time of night. Hee was att last imprisoned and indicted for stealing twenty-four cocks and henns. (Gough, 1981, p. 145)

John Aston's neighbors finally took him to court because he had become "unsufferable," but they did not want him to run the risk of hanging, so they fixed the worth of the stolen poultry at eleven pence.

The example from this chronicle highlights a common practice: a complaint to the court often was a last resort. Before it came that far, the neighbors dealt with the offender in an informal manner, as they also did with occasional thieves. Sometimes victims were able to recover their stolen property. Or they acquiesced when, for example, a poor neighbor had stolen their chicken and eaten it. In such cases they might give the thief a beating, as happened to John Aston. These types of informal reaction to crime were typical of an agrarian world in which villagers knew each other well. Well into the nineteenth century, the majority of Europe's population lived in such villages, which means that the informal system was a very common one. Moreover, even in a metropolis like Amsterdam it happened occasionally that victims came to the house of a thief to demand back their stolen goods. The pattern by which charges against fellow villagers often were the culmination of a series of complaints has been found in France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Scandinavia, from the beginning of the seventeenth century until the early nineteenth. Although the list of prior complaints can be included in crime figures, these cases are only the tip of an iceberg. For one thing, they only involve habitual malefactors, tolerated for some time but finally prosecuted.

Informal handling explains part of the difference in levels of prosecuted property crime between the early modern and the modern age. Although individual victims of crime were capable of acting on their own, historians assumed, upon discovering the infrajudiciary, that specific persons or institutions were involved in out-of-court settlements. French historians, for example, found that socially recognized arbiters such as the seigneur of a village or the parish priest sometimes acted as mediators. Notaries could be involved, too. In a sample of Parisian notarial acts from the first half of the seventeenth century, 153 acts concerned infrajudicial settlements. However, the overwhelming majority of cases concerned assault or verbal attack, not theft. Similarly, in Dutch notarial archives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries one finds depositions about conflicts among neighbors and marital quarrels but hardly anything about stolen property. In three-quarters of the Parisian cases, moreover, the wronged party had started judicial proceedings. Withdrawal of the complaint usually was one of the provisions of the settlement. These cases were not purely infrajudicial; rather, one of the parties had used a judicial complaint as a means of forcing the other to agree to an extrajudicial settlement. Thus, as far as mediation is concerned, we are left with the verbal intervention of local notables and clergymen, which left no trace in written records.

One type of ecclesiastical institution remained where historians hoped to find informal handling of illegal behavior: Protestant associations exercising discipline over church members. In particular, Calvinist consistories were active to promote harmony within the religious community. These institutions dealt with a broad range of activities deemed undesirable, including matters of doctrine, church attendance, morals, sexuality, marital harmony, and the maintenance of friendly relations between neighbors. Sometimes they dealt with violent conflicts among church members, especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, studies done so far on Protestant discipline in several countries have hardly disclosed any cases of conflicts arising from theft. In the case of Lutheran Sweden we know that the agencies involved in parish justice were interested in property crime, but the parishioners refused to cooperate. When the ecclesiastical committee visiting the village of Riklea in 1752 inquired about it, the villagers responded that a number of thefts had been committed during the previous year and that they had some idea who were guilty, but they refused to mention names. To conclude, the bodies exercising church discipline in the early modern period were important agencies of social control, but they hardly dealt with crimes, certainly not with property crimes. We know that the subterranean stream of property crime existed, but it is almost impossible to quantify.


Whereas most of the important work on property crime was done in the 1970s and 1980s, violence, in particular homicide, is a central concern of today's crime historians. They consider homicide rates as an indication of the level of serious violence generally. Homicide is an attractive subject because the problems of method are less serious than in the case of property crime: it is difficult to hide a dead body, and records exist of bodies found (called coroner's reports in England). Hence in this case it is feasible to count real crime, with only an insignificant dark number. As with property crime, the count is always relative to the population, the homicide rate being defined as the annual average, over a specified period, per 100,000 inhabitants in a specified area.

Yet there is no universal agreement about how to count killings. For one thing, some historians still accept rates of prosecuted homicide instead of only taking figures based on body inspections into consideration. This can make a difference. In early modern Amsterdam, for example, the ratio of detected to prosecuted homicide varied from 9:1 to 3:1. Therefore the homicide rate should always be calculated from reports about bodies found. For scholars investigating recent periods, this is the standard procedure. In most European countries, medical statistics about the causes of death are available from the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. A second disagreement concerns the figures for infanticide, commonly defined as the killing of a baby at birth or shortly after. Some historians insist that infanticides should be included in the homicide rate, whereas others reserve the latter concept for the killing of adults and adolescents. This, too, can make a difference, notably for the sex ratio among the killers. The solution adopted by most historians is to present both homicide and infanticide rates. Third, there is the problem of counting homicide in small towns and regions, especially acute for the period before 1500. Because of low population figures, the homicide rate depends too much on chance. For example, if a town has four thousand inhabitants, six killings per decade already make a homicide rate of 15. Because of this, and the great variation in the English medieval rates, J. S. Cockburn (1991) advocated discarding all figures prior to 1500. Twentieth-century rates, on the other hand, are somewhat less comparable to earlier ones, due to the influence of increased medical expertise and medical infrastructure such as fast ambulances. As a consequence, more people survive an attack, who, in an earlier period, would have died from their wounds.

Trends in homicide rates. The method adopted influences one's conclusions on the long-term trend of homicide, although, in all cases, this trend turns out to be one of decline. England was the first country for which a graph down the centuries could be constructed. The homicide rate in England declined from about 20 per 100,000 in 1200 to about 15 in the later Middle Ages, between 6 and 7 in the Elizabethan period, and then further down (with the most dramatic fall from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century), until the figure stood at 1 around 1900. These figures are averages in a double sense, representing the combined rates of several towns and regions, and, moreover, they are partly based on studies which counted prosecuted cases only. If these studies were discarded, the pre-1500 figures, in particular, would end up higher. The available data for the Continent in this period are suggestive. Towns in Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden had homicide rates of 50 or more in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Amsterdam, the rate still approached 30 in the sixteenth century. Thereafter, both the Dutch and Swedish trends resemble the English one. In Dutch cause of death statistics, kept since 1911, the homicide rate was under 0.5 until 1970, except in the 1940s.

For the statistical period, figures are available for all European countries. By the late nineteenth century the long-term decline in homicide had affected the whole of western, northern, and central Europe. The Prussian rates, for example, fluctuated between 1 and 2, and the French rate was under 2 as well. The decline set in later in southern and eastern Europe. The Italian homicide rate still stood at 9 around 1880. In Rome alone, the figure was 12.3 in the years 1872–1879, but then it declined to 4.8 in the years 1910–1914. Throughout southern and eastern Europe, homicide rates declined until they were mostly under 5 in the 1930s. After World War II the rates in most European countries tended to converge, which implied a slight rise for some. Since about 1970, however, homicide has been on the rise throughout Europe (and in the United States), reversing an agelong trend. This rise affects the big cities in particular. In Amsterdam, for example, the figure was 6 in the late 1980s and 1990s, and if correction is made for greater medical expertise it increases to 8. This nearly approaches the figure for the early eighteenth century. It is unclear yet whether the contemporary European-wide rise in homicide is temporary.

Most historians explain the downward trend in homicide from the thirteenth century to 1970 with reference to Norbert Elias's theory of civilization. According to this theory, the increasing differentiation and complexity of society forced people increasingly to control their impulses, violent and otherwise. Several historians paid attention to the social context in which homicide took place in different periods. In every period, this context includes gender. Homicide, and serious violence generally, took place in a male world. In periods of high rates, such habits as knife fighting among men accounted for the majority of cases. Killers as well as their victims were overwhelmingly male. In periods of low rates, on the other hand, while the great majority of killers still were men, women got greater prominence among the victims. The few existing studies counting killer-victim relationships over a longer term confirm this pattern. In Amsterdam a shift occurred by the middle of the eighteenth century, when homicide rates were dropping rapidly: the share of female victims rose, as well as the proportion of victims involved in an intimate relationship with the killer. In England, the long-term decline in homicide was accompanied by a parallel increase in the proportion of cases taking place within the biological family: from 8 percent in the fourteenth century to 45 percent in the second half of the twentieth. As still another way of placing homicidal violence in context, one can distinguish two axes, one with the opposite poles of impulsive versus planned violence, the other with poles of ritual versus instrumental violence. These axes show that the long-term decline in homicide was accompanied by an increasing prominence of instrumentality and planning in violence.

Violence and gender are linked in another way in infanticide. Rather than reflecting aggressive impulses or revengeful desires, this crime tells the story of shame and desperation. The criminal records from England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany confirm that infanticide was committed almost exclusively by unmarried mothers, often servant girls. The interrogation protocols reveal that most of the women involved saw no way out, because of shame but also because of the material consequences. A servant girl who bore a child was dismissed right away, left without a legal income for herself and her baby. The courts considered infanticide a serious offense against Christian morality in a double sense: illicit sexuality and the taking of human life. They were especially severe from the middle of the sixteenth until the middle of the eighteenth century. Then it was even a punishable offense, capital in France and England, for a woman to give birth to a dead baby if she had concealed her pregnancy and refrained from calling upon a midwife. There was no need to prove actual killing. Later, the male judges gradually became more merciful, often paternalistically seeing the accused as poor misled women. In the course of the twentieth century, as the social acceptance and material possibilities of raising children outside marriage increased and, finally, with increased availability of contraceptives, infanticide became a marginal crime.

Arson and minor violence. The attack on and destruction of a person's property is usually classified as a violent offense. Arson occupied a prominent place in the criminality of preindustrial Europe. It was a typically rural crime, facilitated by the material environment. A farmer's house, his barns and haystack, highly flammable, were easy targets for local people who knew their way. No nightwatchmen patrolled in villages, which also lacked public illumination. Arson has been investigated in Germany, France, and England. It was either a form of extortion by wandering groups or, more often, a product of conflicts within rural communities. The motive was to hurt or take revenge on the other party, for which the maiming of cattle sometimes served as an alternative. In the mountainous districts of Bavaria, arson was still a common means of taking revenge in the second half of the nineteenth century. Villagers resorted to it in order to maintain their honor when no other way of redress seemed possible. The perpetrators waited until the wind blew in the right direction, so that only the target farm would burn down. With less flammable material used for the construction of farms and the spread of insurance, arson is less of a threat in the modern world. Today criminal arson is rather the work of the proprietors themselves, wishing to cheat on the insurance company.

Minor violence and conflict in urban and rural communities have received ample attention from crime historians since the 1990s. In this case, the focus is less on quantification than on the character of communal relations. The lower courts in rural areas during the ancien régime dealt largely with petty conflicts among neighbors. Accusations of slander, for example, mostly brought forward by women, were often numerous. Rural lower courts, then, were involved in questions of gender, honor, and neighborliness. An example is the village of Heiden in the German county of Lippe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The villagers and the local authorities shared a common outlook as far as the sanctity of property and the code of honor were concerned, but their opinions diverged about violence as a means of solving conflicts and such public-order measures as the regulation of alcohol consumption.


For many people in Europe's past, crime was essentially something "the others" did. Contemporaries handled their fears of crime and made sense of it by locating it in specific social groups. Thus the supposed existence of a "criminal class," ready to infect the whole of the working class, haunted the bourgeoisie of Victorian England. At the same time, the French spoke of "the dangerous classes." Older studies saw these French and English fears as largely realistic. They viewed criminality in terms of a professional underworld: a criminal class existing in symbiosis with the working class as a whole and therefore posing a major threat to social order. They saw the urban proletariat as a permanent reservoir of criminality and revolutionary ferment, chaotic and irrational. This view, however, since the 1970s has been criticized by historians of popular protest as well as by crime historians. The former emphasized the rational character of collective action by the lower classes, while the latter showed that nineteenth-century lawbreakers did not form a group acting in conjunction with the working class as a whole. Workers who considered themselves respectable and abided by contemporary standards of morality distanced themselves from the "roughs." There was a widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of the rule of law. In the English Black Country, for example, workers themselves often acted as prosecutors in cases of theft. The public-order panics which occasionally broke out were staged by the media to promote the introduction or expansion of the police.

In the early modern period, vagrants were the group held accountable for a large part of criminality. Early modern Europe indeed knew a marginal population, recruited from the semiemployed and unemployed in towns and the landless proletariat in the countryside. Fears for the criminal potential of vagrants date back to the sixteenth century. Historians who studied the way of life of these marginal groups in France, England, and Germany came up with a nuanced picture. Certainly, vagrants were obliged to steal at times, but they were even more adroit in devising techniques for raising pity when begging. Sometimes this entailed purposely mutilating a child. Marginal people did not live according to the ethics of comfortable society, but they were masters in the art of survival. Although individuals gave alms at times, the majority of the settled population of early modern Europe expressed a hostile attitude to vagrants as a group. France introduced special courts in the eighteenth century to deal with vagrants. If any group in history approached the image of a "criminal class," they did. However, they did so not because all marginal people had the habit of stealing but because begging, vagabondage, and the mere fact of being born as a gypsy were offenses in themselves. Hence it is better to speak of a criminalized class.

The crime literature of the past offers another possibility to study popular perceptions, but in Europe this is still an underresearched subject. Rather than expressing collective fears of crime, we find it mostly concerned with notorious individual cases. In the early modern period, a large part was also punishment literature, since the pamphlets and small booklets of which it mostly consisted were usually published on the occasion of the offender's execution. Examples are the life accounts by the ordinary, or chaplain, of Newgate prison of the criminals hanged in London. This type of literature was highly moralistic in tone, explaining how the offender's ungodly life necessarily led to robbery or murder. Another type of crime literature was primarily sensational. One study (Wiltenburg, 1992) compared broadsides dealing with family violence in early modern England and Germany. While the majority of English ones were about husband murderers, the authors of German pamphlets focused on women and men who slaughtered their entire families in a moment of madness. Newspaper accounts and novels about crime after 1800 have hardly been studied yet by European historians.


Whereas in popular perceptions and literature crime was often portrayed as more fearful and atrocious than in actual reality, some actual criminal activities were not seen as crimes by a large part of the population. Sometimes offenders even enjoyed support. British historians in particular have argued that the offenses in question formed a category in itself, which they called "social crime." Others, while agreeing that popular support for offenders is an important subject, have objected to that term. It implies an antiquated understanding of the word "social," meaning "for the benefit of the poor or the lower classes" or "in the service of class struggle." In a modern, neutral definition "social" refers to the interaction of people; hence every crime is a social activity. Nevertheless, the question of whether certain crimes were an expression of popular protest is a valid one.

Eric Hobsbawm was the first to posit a link between crime and protest. His Bandits (first published 1969) dealt with bandits within a geographically wide range of peasant societies, including preindustrial Europe, and in particular with bands enjoying a measure of support. These bandits, he argued, were peasant outlaws, whom the state or feudal lords regarded as criminals but who actually remained part of the peasant world. The people regarded them as heroes, avengers, fighters for justice, or even leaders of liberation. The relatively long life of many of these bands could only be explained by the active or passive support they enjoyed from the peasant population. Hence their actions constituted an "archaic" form of protest against the prevailing order of society. Hobsbawm's thesis drew an obvious parallel between the bandit and the guerrilla soldier, who, in Mao Tse-tung's famous phrase, found a haven in the peasant population like a fish in the water. Simultaneously, the thesis was inspired by the image of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and distributing the proceeds to the poor.

We know for sure that the Robin Hood myth played an important role in the popular culture of preindustrial Europe. Noble robbers abound in chapbooks, for example, but most historians doubt whether this type existed in reality. Significantly, Hobsbawm's European data were mostly from eastern or Mediterranean Europe. In ancien régime France, for example, although some rural bands could count on a degree of popular support, this remained largely confined to accomplices. After 1789 it was the counterrevolutionary forces in particular who recruited former criminals and bandits. Neither do the data for eighteenth-century Germany provide much support for Hobsbawm's thesis. Although Carsten Küther (1976) accepted this thesis, distinguishing the peasant bandit, who enjoyed popular support, from the common outlaw, recruited from the marginal population or a minority group, the latter type appeared at least as numerous as the former. Uwe Danker (1988) criticized Küther, pointing out that most bandits were either Jews or people with "infamous" occupations, two groups despised by the peasants. Moreover, the peasants themselves often were victims of the operations of bandits. Danker explained the successes of robber bands primarily by the relative weakness of the German states.

Anton Blok provided the most explicit critique of Hobsbawm's thesis. He emphasized the weakness of the peasants in this context. Preindustrial peasants were so powerless that they hardly would have been able to support bands over a longer period. Thus he formulated a counterhypothesis: the more successful a person is as a bandit, the more extensive the protection granted him. This protection primarily came from powerful persons or groups, in the form of acquiescence or tacit support from landlords or regional elites. Bandits' activities often ran counter to peasant interests. Moreover, most members of successful bands were relative outsiders in the peasant world. They had been or were peddlers, skinners, or innkeepers, working in occupations involving a high degree of geographical mobility or offering special opportunities to cover illegal activities. Finally, most bands operated especially in areas where state authority was weak. In the Netherlands, for example, they enjoyed a longer life in border areas than in the urbanized western part. Throughout Europe, the chronology and geography of banditry confirmed its inverse relationship with the growth of state power. After the revolutionary period large bands disappeared from the scene in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, whereas Mediterranean areas remained infested with banditry until the early twentieth century.

Although the homeland of the Robin Hood story, England has been relatively free from banditry since the beginning of the early modern period. Yet the country had its own peculiar offenders who enjoyed local support, in particular in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. As rule, they were involved in collective activities not viewed as crimes by most of their neighbors. Rather than robbery, the offenses were poaching, smuggling, wrecking, and, in one case, coining. Local people considered these activities as lawful, often as ancient rights. They felt entitled to shoot deer in the nearby forest, for example, but the forest now belonged to the king, and his officials considered the poachers thieves of the king's property. Likewise, the law denied the inhabitants of coastal villages any entitlement to the goods in stranded ships. As in the case of banditry, the research into these crimes was motivated by a desire to find archaic forms of social protest. And again, the results were ambiguous.

For one thing, the protagonists' methods were ruthless at times. The wreckers in Cornish villages, for example, rather than waiting for a ship to run ashore, lured it to the rocks with false lights. This hardly qualifies as protest against social injustice. Generally, wrecking was not so much an activity of the poor as the favorite pursuit of an entire community. When news that a ship had stranded reached the inhabitants of one seaboard village during religious service, they all ran out of church, with the parson yelling after them, "Wait for me." In such cases, support for offenders simply meant local defense of the community's collective complicity against outside agents of law enforcement.

In a similar vein, poachers thought of themselves as defenders of local custom. The Blacks of Windsor Forest, a more or less organized group of deer poachers in the 1720s and 1730s, were experts in age-old privileges. The majority belonged to ancient local families, wealthy and respectable but not of the highest rank. Their opponents were agents of the bureaucracy administering the royal forests. Coining, on the other hand, never was viewed as an ancient right. Yet the so-called Yorkshire Mint, an organized group of counterfeiters and dealers in false gold coins in the 1760s, also enjoyed widespread protection in the county. The coins of this mint were widely accepted, to the advantage of local businessmen operating in a regional market. They were the counterfeiters' staunchest supporters. Other inhabitants of Yorkshire, businessmen and gentry with a concern for their long-term economic interest viewed in a national perspective, cooperated with the law to suppress the illegal mint. Thus the confrontation was between two groups with antagonistic interests, located within a regional and national context, respectively. In a similar vein, poachers, smugglers, and wreckers were locally or regionally bound. The poor never played a leading role in any of these groups of offenders. The laws they impinged upon mainly upheld the fiscal and economic interests of the national state.

A similar clash of interests was visible in other countries, in particular with smuggling. In Dutch cities in the eighteenth century it was a collective enterprise to sneak boats loaded with untaxed grain into town. The smugglers could count on the sympathy of a large part of the urban population. In Prussia's western provinces the smuggling of salt, tobacco, or coffee was a thriving business in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although increasing in intensity during manufacturing slumps, it was no poor man's game. Local merchants were involved, and the Prussian administration tried to counter the practice by setting up antismuggling cartels. The authorities were only partially successful.

The conclusion on smugglers, poachers, and their kind parallels that on bandits. The fact that the people refused to see some offenses as crimes cannot be explained by a simple model of class struggle such as that posited by Hobsbawm. Rather than archaic protest by the poor against the social order, these crimes represented local and regional resistance to the intrusion of the modern state.


Several major trends formed the changing face of crime from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. Foremost among them was the inclusion of certain forms of behavior into the category of crime and the exclusion of others from it. There was a steady increase in criminalization from the sixteenth century until the first half of the nineteenth. At the same time, however, decriminalization took place in certain fields.

The early modern process of criminalization first hit the marginal population of vagrants and beggars. Before the sixteenth century, these groups had been largely tolerated. Both begging and giving alms were viewed in religious terms, the wandering beggar following the footsteps of Jesus and his apostles. From the sixteenth century onward, beggars and vagrants increasingly came to be considered a nuisance or even a threat to public order. Increasingly, they were hunted and often committed to prison workhouses. By the early seventeenth century, vagrancy and unlicensed begging were defined as offenses throughout Europe, and licensed begging was severely restricted. The prosecution of these offenses was largely a matter of summary justice, leaving behind few quantifiable records.

Another wave of criminalization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had to do with the expanding power of the state. As governments increasingly taxed the population and set up tariff barriers, the law defined evasion of the tax as another crime. Smuggling was the result, with smugglers often enjoying support from local communities. Internal tariff barriers largely disappeared after the ancien régime, but in the border areas between European states, smuggling remained a lucrative business until the middle of the twentieth century.

An extension of the range of property crime represented the third wave of criminalization, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Taking away small "perks" from the workplace, for example, came to be treated as a criminal activity. Workers themselves thought they were entitled to perks, provided the commodities taken had a low value and it concerned small quantities. The prosecution of workplace offenses was mainly an urban affair, but around 1800 this wave of criminalization hit the rural population in particular. The forces of ongoing commercialization and an expanding state bureaucracy resulted in an intensified prosecution of various activities hitherto considered as the exercise of traditional rights by inhabitants of rural communities.

Poaching, redefined as stealing the game belonging to the owner of the land, has been mentioned already. In the Bavarian mountains, despite vigorous prosecution, poaching remained a favorite pastime of rural youths until the early twentieth century. With increasing urbanization and a dwindling number of wild animals, this crime became relatively marginal. Likewise, gleaning, the collection of leftovers from a harvested field, is no longer a frequent practice. It was a customary practice, usually performed by women and children, well into the nineteenth century. The English Court of Common Pleas declared in 1788 that no one had a right to glean without the permission of the owner of the land. Still, prosecutions for this offense remained infrequent in England. Unauthorized gathering of firewood, on the other hand, was frequently prosecuted in several European countries. A Prussian law of 1821 made the traditional gathering of wood punishable, going into the detail of specifying three types of the offense. The majority of the rural population continued to consider the use of the old common woods and meadows as their traditional right. The level of prosecutions for theft of wood remained high in all Prussian provinces between 1815 and 1848. Nowadays, mainly the rich have fireplaces in their homes, and they buy their firewood at gas stations. Thus this wave of criminalization has rolled back again because most of the activities involved have become obsolete.

Processes of decriminalization date back to the late seventeenth century. In many cases, decriminalization was directly or indirectly related to secularization. Secular courts stopped prosecuting people for blasphemy, for example. With the separation of church and state, most religious offenses disappeared from the books. We can add witchcraft and sorcery here, which the courts in most European countries no longer considered a crime by 1700. Suicide, for a long time punishable by exposing or piercing the dead body, was decriminalized in the eighteenth century. Other sins stopped being crimes, too, with the advent of the liberal state. Offenses such as simple fornication, bestiality, and, in most countries, sodomy have not been prosecuted since the nineteenth century. England and the Netherlands, however, witnessed a revival of criminalization for certain morals offenses around 1900. In the late twentieth century, sexual activities involving children increasingly became a target for prosecution. In 1998 a Swedish law made soliciting a prostitute a punishable offense for men. Criminalization has also extended to a violent offense with sexual overtones, rape. In the seventeenth-century Netherlands, judges made it clear that only forced sex with a respectable woman could attract their attention. Well into the twentieth century, rape victims had a hard time proving they had not provoked the act, but under the influence of the feminist movement since the 1970s this situation has changed.

Apart from social views about which activities are criminal, there were broad changes in the character of crime from preindustrial to modern society. Property offenses became more dominant among total criminality, a development which initially reflected an increasing concern of the courts for the protection of property. In modern society the preponderance of property offenses among total criminality is even more marked. For example, in the Netherlands in the 1980s, the ratio of violent to property crime was 1 to 32. This figure can hardly be the result of prosecution policies alone. The high crime rates of modern society are largely due to higher levels of theft and burglary. In their turn, those levels are related to the greater opportunities for appropriation compared to preindustrial Europe.

In connection with this, the traditional pattern whereby property offenses peaked in years of demobilization and especially economic crisis has disappeared. In England economic depressions still caused peaks in property crime in the nineteenth century, but after 1880 this correlation gradually weakened. French criminal statistics reveal a quite similar pattern: food prices explain most of the variance in theft rates until the 1870s and then no longer. Prior to German unification, Prussian and Bavarian statistics reveal a correlation between grain prices and thefts. This correlation significantly weakened in the statistics of the German Reich, available from 1882 onward. Factors such as ethnic discrimination became more important in explaining concentrations of property crime. In Sweden, finally, the correlation between economic hardship and property offenses decreased from the 1870s onward. Since industrialization came to Sweden much later than to England, factors such as the growth of a social welfare system partly explain the shift. Historians refer to this sea change as the shift from poverty-related to prosperity-related property crime. For ages people had stolen out of sheer necessity, but in twentieth-century Europe this was no longer the case.

The long-term trend in violent crime was unequivocal: homicide rates declined from the thirteenth century to about 1970; among the violence which remained, encounters of an instrumental type and conflicts among intimates occupied a greater share. Even though total prosecuted criminality now consists overwhelmingly of offenses against property, and today's homicide levels are far below those of the sixteenth century, the recent upsurge in homicide constitutes a puzzling countertrend, not yet satisfactorily explained by historians or criminologists. In eastern Europe, the dissolution of the Soviet Union obviously plays a part. Homicide rates in Estonia, for example, moved up from about 7 in 1989 to over 25 in 1994. It is more difficult to explain the rise in homicide in western and central Europe. Some of it is due to the increased availability of firearms, although these are much less common than in the United States. Other possible factors include the immigration of men from societies more accustomed to violence and the spread of organized crime with its violent elimination of competitors.

Finally, modern petty crime differs from its preindustrial counterpart. Minor conflicts in villages and neighborhoods no longer constitute a concern even for the lower courts. Sensitivity to personal honor has decreased. When neighbors are in conflict, it is largely subject to mediation by the police. Today's petty cases are traffic violations, breaches of administrative rules. The result is an intensification of the link between illegal behavior and state control.

See alsoRoma: The Gypsies (volume 1);Modernization; The Industrial Revolutions; War and Conquest; Urbanization (volume 2);The Military; Marginal People (in this volume);Honor and Shame (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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Beier, Augustus L. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560–1640. London and New York, 1985.

Blok, Anton. De Bokkerijders: Roversbenden en geheime genootschappen in de Landen van Overmaas (1730–1774). Amsterdam, 1991.

Blok, Anton. The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860–1960: A Study of Violent PeasantEntrepreneurs. New York, 1974.

Brewer, John, and John Styles, eds. An Ungovernable People: The English and TheirLaw in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. London, 1980.

Castan, Nicole. Les criminels de Languedoc: Les exigences d'ordre et les voies du ressentiment dans une société prérévolutionnaire, 1750–1790. Toulouse, France, 1980.

Chevalier, Louis. Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Frank Jellinek. New York, 1973.

Cobb, Richard. The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789–1820. Oxford, 1970.

Cockburn, J. S. "Patterns of Violence in English Society: Homicide in Kent, 1560–1985." Past and Present 130 (1991): 70–106.

Danker, Uwe. Räuberbanden im alten Reich um 1700: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte von Herrschaft und Kriminalität in der frühen Neuzeit. 2 vols. Frankfurt, Germany, 1988.

Dinges, Martin. Der Maurermeister und der Finanzrichter: Ehre, Geld, und sozialeKontrolle im Paris des 18. jahrhunderts. Göttingen, Germany, 1994.

Dülmen, Richard van. Frauen vor Gericht: Kindsmord in der frühen Neuzeit. Frankfurt, Germany, 1991.

Egmond, Florike. Underworlds: Organized Crime in the Netherlands, 1650–1800. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Eisner, Manuel. Das Ende der zivilisierten Stadt? Die Auswirkungen von Modernisierung und urbaner Krise auf Gewaltdelinquenz. Frankfurt, Germany, and New York, 1997.

Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England, 1750–1900. 2d ed. London and New York, 1996.

Emsley, Clive, and Louis A. Knafla, eds. Crime History and Histories of Crime: Studies in the Historiography of Crime and Criminal Justice in Modern History. Westport, Conn., 1996.

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Feeley, Malcolm M., and Deborah L. Little. "The Vanishing Female: The Decline of Women in the Criminal Process, 1687–1912." Law and Society Review 25 (1991): 719–757.

Frank, Michael. Dörfliche Gesellschaft und Kriminalität: Das Fallbeispiel Lippe,1650–1800. Paderborn, Germany, 1995.

Gatrell, V. A. C. "The Decline of Theft and Violence in Victorian and Edwardian England." In Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500. Edited by V. A. C. Gatrell et al. London, 1980. Pages 238–370.

Gough, Richard. The History of Myddle. Edited with an introduction and notes by David Hey. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1981.

Hay, Douglas. "War, Dearth, and Theft in the Eighteenth Century: The Record of the English Courts." Past and Present 95 (1982): 117–160.

Hay, Douglas, et al. Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-CenturyEngland. New York, 1975.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Bandits. 1969. Rev. ed. New York, 1981.

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Johnson, Eric A., and Eric H. Monkkonen, eds. The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages. Urbana, Ill., 1996.

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The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that certain population groups—the poor, younger persons, males, African-Americans, Hispanics, and residents of inner cities—are more likely to be victimized and are more vulnerable to violence than other groups. As discussed in other chapters of this book, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be poor and to be unemployed than are whites. These factors put minorities at an especially high risk of being victimized.

Violent Crimes

African-Americans are more likely than individuals of other races to be victims of violent crimes. According to 2002 statistics released by the U.S. Department of Justice, for every 1,000 persons in each racial group there were twenty-eight violent crimes committed against African-Americans, twenty-three committed against whites, and fifteen against persons of other races. During 2002 Hispanics were victimized at a rate of twenty-four per 1,000, down 56 percent from fifty-five per 1,000 in 1993. The rate of violent crimes in each group had declined significantly between 1993 and 2000. (See Table 8.1.)


African-Americans are also more likely than other groups to be victims of homicides. Historically, African-American males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have had the highest homicide victimization rate. That proportion rose from 89.8 homicide victims per 100,000 population in 1976 to 100.2 homicide victims per 100,000 population in 2000, but the number has actually dropped steadily since peaking at 183.4 in 1993. The homicide victimization rate among white men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four has also risen, from 11.3 homicides per 100,000 population in 1976 to 12.1 homicides per 100,000 in 2000. Again, there was a spike in the early 1990s, with the victimization rate topping out at 18.2 in 1991. Among African-American and white women, the homicide victimization rate decreased in all age categories between 1976 and 2000. (See Table 8.2.)

Circumstances surrounding homicides tend to vary from racial group to racial group. Of homicide victims between 1976 and 2000 who were killed by family members, 59.8 percent were white and 37.8 percent were African-American. In drug-related disputes that resulted in homicide in those same years, 62.3 percent of the victims were African-American, while only 36.8 percent of the victims were white. In gang-related homicides between 1976 and 2000, the victims were most often white (58.2 percent), while African-Americans accounted for 38.4 percent of the victims. (See Table 8.3.)

According to the Department of Justice, between 1976 and 2000 most murders of whites were perpetrated by whites (86 percent), while most murders of African-Americans were carried out by African-Americans (94 percent).

Property Crimes

In 2001 African-Americans were more likely than whites to be victims of property crime. That year, 42.8 African-Americans per 1,000 persons were burgled, compared to 26.6 per 1,000 white persons. Approximately 16.1 African-Americans per 1,000 had a vehicle stolen, compared to 8.2 per 1,000 whites. Yet the trend reversed for other types of theft, as 120.8 African-Americans per 1,000 experienced thefts other than burglary and motor vehicle in 2000, compared to 130.3 whites per 1,000. (See Table 8.4.)

Hispanics were more likely to be victims of property crime than non-Hispanics. In 2001, 224.1 Hispanics per 1,000 persons reported a burglary or theft, compared to 161.3 non-Hispanics per 1,000 persons. Hispanics (19.8 per 1,000 persons) were more than two times as likely as non-Hispanics (8.2 per 1,000 persons) to experience motor vehicle thefts. (See Table 8.4.)

Number of violent crimes per 1,000 persons age 12 or older
Demographic categories19931994199519961997199819992000Change in the rate per 1,000, 1993-2000
Hispanic origin
Annual household
Less than $7,50084.786.077.865.371.063.857.560.3−4.61
$75,000 or more41.339.537.330.530.733.122.922.3−1.62
Note: These rates are based on the collection year.
11993-2000 difference is significant at the 95%-confidence level.
21993-2000 difference is significant at the 90%-confidence level.
source: Callie Marie Rennison, "Appendix Table 1. Violent Victimization Rates of Selected Demographics Categories, 1993–2000," in Criminal Victimization 2000: Changes 1999–2000 with Trends 1993–2000, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2001
White maleBlack maleWhite femaleBlack female
source: James Alan Fox and Marianne W. Zawitz, "Homicide Victimization Rates per 100,000 Population by Age, Race, and Gender," in Homicide Trends in the United States, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2002 [Online] [accessed January 26, 2004]
All homicides51.1%46.7%2.2%46.4%51.5%2.0%
Victim/offender relationship
Felony murder55.2%42.2%2.6%39.2%59.2%1.5%
Sex related67.0%30.4%2.7%56.8%41.3%1.9%
Drug related36.8%62.3%.9%32.7%66.3%1.0%
Gang related58.2%38.4%3.5%56.7%39.1%4.2%
Gun homicide47.8%50.3%1.9%43.7%54.6%1.7%
Multiple victims or offenders
Multiple victims64.5%32.0%3.5%57.9%38.6%3.5%
Multiple offenders55.5%41.7%2.8%46.1%51.6%2.4%
source: James Alan Fox and Marianne W. Zawitz, "Homicide Type by Race, 1976–2000," in Homicide Trends in the United States, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2002 [Online] [accessed January 26, 2004]
Victimizations per 1,000 households
Characteristic of household or head of householdNumber of households, 2001TotalBurglaryMotor vehicle theftTheft
Hispanic origin
Household income
Less than $7,5005,777,210184.658.08.4118.3
$75,000 or more16,668,470180.022.77.4149.9
Home ownership
source: Callie Rennison, "Table 7. Property Crime Victimization, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Household Income, Region, Locality, and Home Ownership of Households Victimized, 2001," in Criminal Victimization 2001: Changes 2000–01 with Trends 1993–2001, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2002 [Online] [accessed March 11, 2004]


African-Americans—particularly males—commit a higher number of offenses as a proportion of the population than other groups. Throughout the 1990s African-American males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up a growing proportion of homicide offenders. In 1994 African-American males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up more than 30 percent of homicide offenders, but that number has since decreased somewhat. (See Figure 8.1.)

African-American offenders are most likely to commit homicides over drug-related activity. Between 1976 and 2000, 66.3 percent of homicide offenders who had committed their crimes under drug-related circumstances were African-American. A high proportion of felony murders (deaths that occur during such violent crimes as burglary, sexual assault, or robbery) between those years were committed by African-Americans (59.2 percent). Of homicides in the years spanning 1976 and 2000 that involved an intimate victim/offender relationship, 44.4 percent of the offenders were African-American. During those same years, in homicides where a gun was the weapon of choice, 54.6 percent of the offenders were African-American. (See Table 8.3.)

In workplace-related murders between 1976 and 2000, a high proportion of the offenders were white (70.2 percent), while 26.9 percent were African-American. Of gang-related homicides committed between 1976 and 2000, 56.7 percent of the offenders were white. Murders of family members were committed most often by whites (58.3 percent). White offenders accounted for 54.5 percent of arson deaths and 74.3 percent of deaths by poisoning between 1976 and 2000. (See Table 8.3.)

Between 1976 and 2000, when a white homicide offender killed a stranger, the victim was also white between 40 to 50 percent of the time. When an African-American offender killed a stranger, the victim was also African-American at roughly the same percentage. When homicide offenders kill friends or acquaintances, the victim is even more likely to be of the same race. Figure 8.2

Number of inmates in state or federal prisons or local jails
55 or older51,40027,60014,4007,0003,0001,900800400
Note: Based on custody counts from National Prisoners Statistics (NPS-1A), 2002, and Annual Survey of Jails, 2002. Estimates by age were obtained from Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, 2002, Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities, 1997, and Federal Justice Statistics Program (FJSP) for inmates on September 30, 2001. Estimates were rounded to the nearest 100.
1Includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders.
2Excludes Hispanics.
source: Paige M. Harrison and Jennifer C. Karberg, "Table 13. Number of Inmates in State or Federal Prisons and Local Jails, by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, June 30, 2002," in Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2002, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2003 [Online] [accessed March 11, 2004]
Number of inmates in state or federal prisons or local jails
55 or older194130665362972517
Note: Based on the latest available estimates of the U.S. resident population for July 1, 2002, from the 2002 census (by gender, race and Hispanic origin) and 1990 census, adjusted for undercount (by age).
1Includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders.
2Excludes Hispanics.
source: Paige M. Harrison and Jennifer C. Karberg, "Table 14. Number of Inmates in State or Federal Prisons and Local Jails per 100,000 Residents, by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, June 30, 2002," in Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2002, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2003

shows the racial breakdown of murders between 1976 and 2000.


In June 2002 there were more non-Hispanic African-American males in state or federal prisons or local jails than there were non-Hispanic white or Hispanic males. Of a total of 1.9 million incarcerated males, 818,900 were non-Hispanic African-Americans, 630,700 were non-Hispanic whites, and 342,500 were Hispanics. The largest proportion of non-Hispanic African-American males in the prison population was between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine. The largest proportion of non-Hispanic white males was between the ages of thirty and thirty-four. The largest proportion of Hispanic males was between the ages of twenty and twenty-four. (See Table 8.5.)

In addition to a greater total number of non-Hispanic African-Americans males in federal or state prisons or local jails, the rate of incarceration for African-American males greatly outnumbers the proportions of non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic males. For every 100,000 African-American males in the United States in June 2002, there were 4,810 African-American male inmates. This proportion is much higher than that among non-Hispanic whites, with 649 inmates for every 100,000 residents in the same period. Among Hispanic men, there were 1,740 inmates for every 100,000 residents. (See Table 8.6.)

Unlike their male counterparts, non-Hispanic African-American women did not outnumber non-Hispanic white women in federal and state prisons or local jails in June 2002. There were 68,800 non-Hispanic white women incarcerated, compared to 65,600 non-Hispanic African-American women and 25,400 Hispanic women. The largest proportion of non-Hispanic white inmates was between the ages of thirty-five and thirty-nine. The largest proportion of non-Hispanic African-American and Hispanic women inmates was between the ages of thirty and thirty-four. (See Table 8.5.)

Yet the rate of incarceration for non-Hispanic African-American females is, like that for African-American males, higher than that of non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics in the nation's federal and state prisons or local jails. In June 2002 there were 349 African-American female inmates for every 100,000 persons in that demographic group. In comparison, there were only sixty-eight non-Hispanic white female inmates for every 100,000 persons. Among Hispanic women, there were 137 inmates per 100,000 persons. (See Table 8.6.)

The Parole System

Since African-Americans account for the largest proportion of prison and jail inmates, it is no surprise that African-Americans outnumber other racial and ethnic groups in the nation's parole system. The parole system grants inmates early release from prison with fewer rights than the general population and under monitored conditions.

In 2002, 42 percent of inmates paroled from state prisons were non-Hispanic African-Americans. Whites made up 39 percent of the parolees from state prisons, while Hispanics accounted for 18 percent of Americans on parole from state prisons. (See Table 8.7.)

The proportion of whites on parole from state prisons rose slightly between 1995 and 2002, from 34 to 39 percent. Conversely, the proportion of African-Americans on parole from state prisons decreased slightly between 1995 and 2002, from 45 to 42 percent. Among Hispanics, the proportion of people on parole from state prisons also decreased slightly between 1995 and 2002, from 21 to 18 percent. (See Table 8.7.)

Many more men than women are on parole. In 2002, 86 percent of state prison parole entries were men, compared to only 14 percent women. (See Table 8.7.)

African-American Men Arrested Disproportionately

The Sentencing Project, an organization that seeks alternatives to incarceration, has published several reports showing racial disparities in state imprisonment. An analysis of the Justice Department report on prison and jail inmates in 2001 found that one of every eight African-American men between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five was either in

White34%38 %39%
American Indian/
Alaska Native111
Asian/Pacific Islander1
Status of supervision
Supervised out of state455
Sentence length
Less than 1 year6%3%4%
1 year or more949796
Type of offense
Adults entering parole
Discretionary parole50%37%39%
Mandatory parole455452
Adults leaving parole
Successful completion45%43%45%
Returned to
With new sentence121111
Other unsuccessful2**22
Note: For every characteristic there were persons of unknown status or type. Detail may not sum to total because of rounding.
**Not available.
—Less than 0.5%.
1Includes Native Hawaiians.
2In 1995 absconder and "other unsuccessful statuses" were reported among "other."
source: Lauren E. Glaze, "Table 7. Characteristics of Adults on Parole, 1995, 2000, and 2002," in Probation and Parole in the United States, 2002, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, August 2003 [Online] [accessed May 13, 2004]

prison or in jail on any given day. It also pointed out that the high incarceration rate among African-American men and African-American women leads to another disturbing trend—one in every fourteen African-American children has a parent who is either in prison or in jail.

In addition, the Sentencing Project concluded that the high rate of incarceration among African-Americans will hurt the African-American community in other ways. The political influence of the African-American community suffers when African-Americans are incarcerated because in twelve states those convicted of felonies lose their voting rights. According to the Sentencing Project, that amounts to roughly 13 percent of adult African-American males. Restrictions are also placed on such things as loans for higher education, access to welfare, and public housing for those with felony drug convictions.

In 1996 the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco conducted a study of California's prisons. The study found that, while African-American men made up only 7 percent of the state's population, they accounted for 32 percent of its prison population. Vincent Schiraldi, director of the center and author of the study, believed that the high number of African-American prisoners was due to tougher punishment for use of crack cocaine than for other drugs. He further cited additional causes: stricter sentencing laws, California's prison construction boom, poverty, the lack of good jobs, and poor education in inner cities. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, attributed the disproportionate figures to the war on drugs, in which police had focused their efforts in the inner cities because the drug trade was often conducted openly by African-American men.

Schiraldi predicted that California's "three strikes" law (automatic life sentence for criminals convicted of three felonies and double the usual sentences for those convicted of a second serious offense) would likely further increase the disproportionate number of young African-American men in the state's prisons. He also stated that African-Americans are charged at seventeen times the rate of whites under the three strikes law.

Hispanic Youth and the Criminal Justice System

While much attention has been given to the fact that African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, a report released in 2002 by Michigan State University's Institute for Children, Youth, and Families points to a growing number of Hispanic youths being targeted by law enforcement. The study, ¿Dónde Está la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of the Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S Justice System, found that Hispanic youths are often treated more harshly than their white counterparts and suggests that the problem will only intensify since Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the country.

Minorities on Death Row

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in Capital Punishment 2002 (Washington, DC, 2003), that 3,557 state and federal prisoners were incarcerated under sentence of death as of December 31, 2002. Whites made up 54.3 percent and African-Americans comprised 43.7 percent of all death-row prisoners. Only 2 percent were of other races, including twenty-seven Native Americans and thirty-three Asians. Of those whose ethnicity was known, 11.5 percent were Hispanic. (See Table 8.8.)

Prisoners under sentence of death, 2002
CharacteristicYear endAdmissionsRemovals
Total number under sentence of death3,557159179
All other races*
Hispanic origin
8th grade or less14.7%21.4%14.5%
9th–11th grade37.134.936.2
High school graduate/GED38.537.336.2
Any college9.76.313.1
Marital status
Never married54.350.750.9
Note: Calculations are based on those cases for which data were reported.
Missing data by category were as follows:
Year endAdmissionsRemovals
Hispanic origin3993821
Marital status3422720
*At year end 2001, other races consisted of 27 American Indians, 32 Asians, and 12 self-identified Hispanics. During 2002, 2 Asians and 1 American Indian were admitted; and 1 Asian and 1 American Indian were removed.
source: Thomas P. Bonczar and Tracy L. Snell, "Table 5. Demographic Characteristics of Prisoners under Sentence of Death, 2002," in "Capital Punishment 2002," Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, December 2003

Of those sentenced to death row in 2002, 52.2 percent were white, 45.9 percent were African-American, and 1.9 percent were other races, which included one Native American and two Asians. Hispanics made up 14.9 percent of those sentenced to death row in 2002. (See Table 8.8.)

In 1976 a ten-year moratorium on executions ended as a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The first execution that followed the moratorium occurred in 1977. Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics report Capital Punishment 2002, between 1977 and 2002, 6,532 persons in state and federal prisons were under death sentences. Of these, 49 percent were white, 41 percent were African-American, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were of other races. Figure 8.3 shows the increase in numbers of prisoners awaiting death, by race, between 1968 and 2002.

Capital Punishment 2002 also noted that from 1977 to 2002, 820 prisoners were executed. Approximately 57 percent were white; 34 percent were African-American; 7 percent were Hispanic; and 2 percent were of other races.


Law enforcement agencies define a street gang as a "group of people that form an allegiance based on various social needs and engage in acts injurious to public health and safety." Although gangs have been involved with the drug trade for many years, gang-related deadly violence is more likely to come from territorial conflicts.

Gangs are often (but not always) racially or ethnically based. As a rule, ethnic gangs require that all members belong to a particular race or ethnic group. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, criminal activity by ethnic gangs has been increasing since the 1990s.

The most frightening of gang crimes is murder. More than half of all gang-related homicides between 1976 and 2000 involved whites. Approximately 58.2 percent of the gang-related homicide victims were white, while 56.7 percent of the offenders were also white. African-Americans were the victims of gang-related homicides 38.4 percent of the time, while accounting for 39.1 percent of the offenders. (See Table 8.3.)

In 1996 the National Drug Intelligence Center released a National Street Gang Report based on data from municipal and county law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Approximately 300 law enforcement agencies participated. The study revealed the level at which nationally recognized street gangs have particularly established themselves in new communities. The Drug Intelligence Center noted the following trends:

  • Gang activity was reported in 88 percent of the more than 300 jurisdictions responding to the survey and in 98 percent of the 120 jurisdictions with populations over 100,000.
  • Gang activity was not confined to major metropolitan areas and was reported in 68 percent of the fifty-nine responding jurisdictions with populations under 25,000 and in 78 percent of the 120 responding jurisdictions with populations under 50,000.
  • Over 7,400 individual gang sets were identified.
  • Hispanic gangs were reported in 167 jurisdictions in forty-one states and made up 20 percent of all gangs reported.
  • White gangs were reported in 157 jurisdictions in forty-four states.
  • Asian-American gangs were reported in 104 jurisdictions in forty-one states.
  • African-American gangs claiming affiliation with the Blood and/or Crip sets were reported in 180 responding jurisdictions in forty-two states. Chicago-based African-American gangs, such as the Black Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, and the Hispanic gang Almighty Latin Kings were reported in 110 of the responding jurisdictions in thirty-five states.

During the 1990s violent street gangs emerged as a problem among Native Americans as well. In Violent Street Gangs in America (Washington, DC, 1997) Steven R. Wiley of the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported to the U.S. Senate that "On the Navajo Reservation in Arizona alone there are approximately fifty-five street gangs, many of which have some affiliation with gangs in California, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Chicago. These gangs have been responsible for a dramatic increase in violent crimes in the Navajo Nation."


The 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act (PL 101-275) calls for the U.S. attorney general to "acquire data about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity [and] publish an annual summary of the data acquired under this section." In 1994 the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (PL 103-322) amended the Hate Crime Statistics Act to include crimes motivated by discrimination against people with physical and/or mental disabilities.

Of the 7,462 hate-bias incidents reported in 2002, 3,642 were racially motivated and 1,102 were ethnically oriented. Of the racially motivated incidents, 2,486 were committed against African-Americans and 719 were committed against whites. Another 1,426 hate-bias incidents in 2002 were motivated by religion. Sexual orientation and physical and mental disabilities were other reasons cited for hate-based incidents. (See Table 8.9.)

Bias motivationIncidentsOffensesVictims1Known offenders2
Single-bias incidents7,4598,8259,2117,311
Anti-American Indian/Alaskan Native62687252
Anti-Asian/Pacific Islander217268280242
Anti-multiple races, group158202242143
Anti-other religion19821723773
Anti-multiple religions, group31323218
Sexual orientation:1,2441,4641,5131,438
Anti-male homosexual8259579841,022
Anti-female homosexual172207221172
Ethnicity/national origin:1,1021,3451,4091,247
Anti-other ethnicity/national origin622744770591
Multiple-bias incidents337113
1The term victim may refer to a person, business, institution, or society as a whole.
2The term known offender does not imply that the identity of the suspect is known, but only that an attribute of the suspect is identified, which distinguishes him/her from an unknown offender.
3A multiple-bias occurs only when two or more offense types are committed in a single incident. In a situation where there is more than one offense type, the agency can indicate a different bias for each offense. In the case of a single offense type, only one bias can be indicated.
source: "Table 1. Incidents, Offenses, Victims, and Known Offenders by Bias Motivation, 2002," in Hate Crime Statistics, 2002, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, DC, 2003 [Online] [accessed May 13, 2004]

The Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, a private organization that monitors hate groups and paramilitary organizations, reported 751 hate group chapters in 2003, up six percent from the 708 that were active the year before. Hate Web sites, according to the count by the Intelligence Project, increased from 443 in 2002 to 497 in 2003, a 12 percent increase.

In "The Year in Hate," an annual review of organized hate and paramilitary activity around the country, the Intelligence Project reported that among racist organizations active in 2003, the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a resurgence, and the number of skinhead groups doubled from eleven organizations in 2002 to twenty-two groups in 2003. The neo-Nazi category showed a decrease, but Holocaust denial organizations "seemed to be doing well." Another topic of the report included "Patriot" groups, which the Intelligence Project describes as "antigovernment groups like militias that are animated more by conspiracy theories than racial hatred." The number of these groups grew from 143 organizations in 2002 to 171 in 2003, and from 152 Web sites in 2002 to 162 in 2003. Other groups tracked include the neo-Confederate movement, an alliance of southern heritage organizations that claims allegiance to the antebellum South and shares religious conservatism. "The Year in Hate" also reported that racist black separatist groups increased almost 66 percent in 2003, "largely driven by the addition of more than thirty additional chapters of the New Black Panther Party."


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Jews in the Diaspora have generally been less involved in crime than the populations among which they lived. Their closely knit communities, cohesive family life, high educational standards, moderation in the consumption of alcohol, their solidarity, consciousness of mutual responsibility, and readiness for mutual help are regarded as the main causes for the generally low crime rates among Jews.

There are only a few countries where official crime statistics were recorded and published separately for Jews and non-Jews in certain periods. The limited data available – ranging from Czarist Russia prior to World War i to modern Canada – point to certain unmistakable trends. In the first place, crime rates were lowest where Jews were discriminated against and increased after Emancipation. Second, crimes committed by Jewish offenders were generally different in character in countries of discrimination and persecution from those committed by members of the dominant population groups. The more the Jews became emancipated and were enabled to participate in social, economic, and cultural life, the more the crimes committed by them became similar to those of the majority population.

In Czarist Russia, a country notorious for its discrimination against the Jewish minority, the conviction rate for Jews in 1907 was only about 67.5% of that for the dominant population group, while in Poland, another country where the overwhelming majority of the Jews lived in poverty and oppression, the ratio in 1937 was 63.9%. In Central Europe, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, the extent of criminality among Jews was somewhat higher. In Hungary, where the Jews were enjoying an ever-growing share in economic, social, and cultural life, the yearly average between 1909 and 1913 was 76.5%. Among German Jewry, from 1882 to 1910, when it had achieved formal emancipation and became the wealthiest and best educated Jewish community of the period, the crime rate rose from 76% to 91.7% of that for non-Jews. In Austria, in 1898, the ratio was 90%. Jacob *Lestschinsky notes that in 1918 the conviction rate for Austrian Jews was about 50% higher than for the poorer and less acculturated Jewish community of Galicia. Crime statistics for Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s seem to show that there is an inverse correlation between participation of Jews in crime and in the life of the country where they reside. However, after deducting the very high conviction rates of Jews for "racial pollution," passport exchange and industrial offenses – all results of discriminatory Nazi legislation – Jewish conviction rates for all other offenses combined were only about 30% those for non-Jews. In the Netherlands, where Jews enjoyed genuine emancipation and equality for centuries, the crime rate for Jews, which was only 67.7% in 1902, was about equal to that of the general population in 1931–33.

With the exception of Canada, no separate criminal statistics are available for most of the democratic countries, where Jews are fully emancipated. The United States' census does not register crimes committed by Jews. The only relevant data available for the United States are some prison statistics; but there the participation of Jews in crime appears to be even lower than elsewhere, as the more dangerous criminals are sent to prison, while Jews generally commit offenses of less severity. In the ten-year period 1920–29, 6,846 Jews, on the average, were imprisoned annually in the United States – 1.74% of the total of 394,080 convicted offenders. As Jews constituted 3.5% of the population at the time, their share in the more serious offenses, which were punished with imprisonment, was therefore about 50% of the general ratio. Imprisonment figures for New York and Los Angeles confirm these findings. In the early years of the 20th century, Jews represented 17–18% of the population of New York City; the percentage of Jewish prisoners was 9.2% in 1902, 9.4% in 1903, and 14.7% in 1904. In 1947, Jews made up 4.7% of the prison population in New York State, about a quarter of their share in the population. In Los Angeles, while the Jewish share in the population rose from 5.8% in 1933 to 11.9% in 1947, their share in 15 out of 18 offense groups – including murder, burglary, robbery, assault, and sex crimes – ranged from 2.8% to 3.9%. The situation has been similar in Canada. The Jewish population in the province of Quebec, where the great majority of Canadian Jews live, is 2.5% of the total, while their share in the penitentiary population during the last three decades has been never more than 1%.

In Tunisia the share of the Jews in the prison population was 60% of their share in the total population in 1939, and only 21% in 1965. (According to André Chouraqui, the situation was similar in Algeria and Morocco.) The data about the United States and Tunisia show that two Jewish populations – one wealthy, emancipated, well acculturated, and living in an affluent society, and the other generally poor, culturally segregated, and living in a backward country in conditions of oppression and discrimination – are both equally underrepresented among the prison population of their countries and commit proportionally fewer serious crimes. Not less significant is the fact that when anti-Jewish persecution and discrimination increased in Tunisia following the establishment of the State of Israel, crime among Jews declined still further. This seems to support the assumption that criminality among Jews increases with the measure of their emancipation.

Soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, it came as a surprise that Jews committed serious offenses, including murder, rape, and burglary, in their own country. It seems that the full freedom had also resulted in crime to an extent and of a character not known before in modern Jewish history. This seems to suggest that normalization of life in general also results in a "normalization" of the extent of deviant behavior. However, given the continuing rise of crime in Israel (see below), and particularly violent crime, in the post-Six Day War period, it may be suggested that the erosion of two particular psychological barriers has also been a decisive factor, namely, the Zionist ethos and, especially among Eastern Jews, the values of the traditional Jewish home.

in the diaspora

Offenses Against the Person

In all countries of the Diaspora, Jews committed proportionately far fewer offenses against the person than did non-Jews; their share in homicide was the smallest of all. This phenomenon was generally explained by the higher educational level of the Jews and their very moderate consumption of alcohol. In Europe before World War ii, the share of Jews in cases of physical assault increased proceeding from east to west. In Russia, in 1907, Jewish convictions for aggressive crimes were about 25% of the corresponding rates for non-Jews, while in Poland in 1937 the proportion was about 55%. On the other hand, of the overall figure in Germany, taking the average for 1899–1902, Jewish participation in offenses against the person was 71.4% and in the Netherlands about 70% from 1931 to 1933. Arthur Ruppin showed that the figures for the city of Amsterdam alone were even higher, and he ascribes this to the existence of a sizeable Jewish working class employed in industries owned mainly by Jews. Thus it seems that where Jews had achieved the highest measure of emancipation and equality, Jewish laborers behaved more like other working-class people.

Statistics show that on the North American continent, in the United States and Canada, convictions for assault among Jews are very low. This was explained by the fact that a generation or two after immigration, Jews had moved up to the middle class, where such aggressive behavior is less common. The same, however, applies to Jews in North Africa, who were very rarely imprisoned for physical assault, despite the fact that the great majority were impoverished and uneducated. Oppression and discrimination obviously cause Jews to contain their aggressive urges. This seems to confirm views expressed by Gustav Aschaffenburg and others that the position of the Jews as a closely knit minority group served as a crime-preventing agency, since potential offenders were constantly aware of the danger that deviant behavior by an individual could pose for the group as a whole.

Offenses Against Morality

Jews were generally less involved in aggressive offenses against morality than non-Jews: least in Eastern Europe, somewhat more in Germany, and more again in the Netherlands. United States prison statistics and Canadian offender statistics also point to the very low rates for sex offenses among Jews. Prison statistics in Tunisia, however, show that in 1955, when Jews were only 1.7% of the general population, Jewish women represented 2% of the "filles en cartes," or prostitutes. This is an indication of the fact that where Jewish offenders belong to the poverty class, they tend to commit offenses characteristic of such populations. In some countries, however, convictions for nonaggressive offenses against morality, such as brothel-keeping, were proportionally more numerous among Jews than among non-Jews. In the previously Austrian part of Poland, the ratio was 228% during 1924–25 and in Germany during 1899–1902 it was 127%. In the latter years, conviction rates among German Jews for "diffusion of immoral writings" were 260% of those of non-Jews. All this seems to indicate that Jews in the Diaspora were more represented in commercial offenses against morality than non-Jews. Experts explain this by the fact that Jews lived mainly in urban centers and engaged in commerce.

Offenses Against Property

The participation of Jews in the common crimes against property in the Diaspora was generally still lower than their share in offenses against the person. It was lowest in Poland, where in 1937 conviction rates for Jews were only 20% of those for non-Jews (though it is possible that thefts committed by Jews within the closely knit Jewish communities were not always reported to the hated Polish police), while in Germany, from 1882 to 1916, the ratio ranged from 30% to 40%. In the Netherlands the rates were again the highest – 97.6% of those for non-Jews in the years 1931 to 1933. In the United States and Canada Jewish participation in common crimes against property was always very low. In Los Angeles, for example, it was only about one-third of the proportion of Jews in the general population during the period 1933–1947, while in Canada (1936–37) convictions of Jews were only about two-thirds, proportionally, of the general figure. In North Africa, the participation of Jews in property offenses was much lower than that of non-Jews. Contrary to the situation in Europe and America, however, theft and drunkenness were the offenses most often committed by Jews in North Africa. Chouraqui observes that they constituted almost all the offenses with which Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian Jews were charged in 1948.


False pretenses, forgery, and fraud are offenses in which Jews in the Diaspora were often overrepresented. In Russia in 1907, conviction rates for "commercial swindlers" were 143%, while in Poland in 1937 rates for fraud were 137%, and for forgery 143% of those for non-Jews, while in Germany the ratio ranged during the years 1882 to 1916 from 183% to 217%. In the Netherlands, the average for 1901–09 was 160%, rising in the period 1931–33 to 249%. In Canada the adjusted conviction rates for fraud, comparing the urban populations only, are 160%. The higher conviction rates for "commercial" offenses are generally ascribed to the much higher proportion of Diaspora Jews than the non-Jewish population in commerce and in urban areas. In Germany, for example, there were proportionately about five times as many Jews as non-Jews, and in Poland about 20 times as many, in commerce. In Poland, between 1924 and 1937, fraud and forgery represented about 21% of all offenses committed by Jews. In Germany between 1882 and 1901 these offenses were about 13%, and in the Netherlands from 1931 to 1933 only about 5%, of all offenses committed by Jews. Thus, proceeding from east to west – from conditions of discrimination in Poland to those of emancipation in Germany and still further west to the Netherlands – the proportion of fraudulent behavior in all offenses decreased and crime among the Jews became more similar to that of the majority populations.

Offenses Against Public Order and State Security

In offenses against public order, the participation of Diaspora Jews is generally different from that of the non-Jews. In countries where Jews were discriminated against, their share is greater, while in countries of emancipation it is proportionally smaller. Thus, the conviction rates of Jews for these offenses seem to be a reflection of their treatment by governments and dominant populations. In Russia in 1907, when Jews were 4% of the population, they accounted for 17.1% of offenses against the security of the state and public order, including the circumvention of discriminatory anti-Jewish laws – over four times their due share. In Poland (1924 to 1937) such offenses represented 43.6% of all the violations committed by Jews. In Germany (1899 to 1902), on the other hand, they were only 25%, and in the Netherlands (1931 to 1933) only 6.2%, of all offenses committed by Jews. (The very low figure for the Netherlands is somewhat distorted because the available statistics include only the more serious offenses against the state, in which Jews were rarely represented.)

in palestine (before 1948)

From the First Aliyah (1882) to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, crime figures in the yishuv were extremely low for all types of offenses. As it was only during the last years of its existence that the mandatory government of Palestine published separate statistics for the different communities, figures for 1940, 1943, and 1945 give some indication of the incidence of criminality among Jews in Palestine. (See Table 1: Conviction Rates in Palestine shows the crime rates for Jews and non-Jews in Palestine.) The table shows that in 1940 conviction rates of Jews were only 51.4%; in 1943, 29.4%; and in 1945, 25.7% of those among non-Jews. The very low criminality rates obviously reflect the largely idealistic and pioneering character of the yishuv.

The general decrease in crime among Jews and the coincident increase among non-Jews should also be seen against the background of World War ii. Most young Jews served in the army or the *Haganah, which reduced the number of potential offenders in the Jewish civilian population. Non-Jews

YearJewsnon-JewsRatio Jews: non-Jews

generally did not join the forces, but many of them worked in military camps as laborers, often far from the social control of their families and communities.

in the state of israel

The First Decades

The entire structure of crime among Jews changed rapidly with the evolution of the new society in the State of Israel. Practically no feature that had been regarded as characteristic of criminality among Jews in the Diaspora appeared in Israel's criminal statistics. The common offenses against the person – such as assault, physical injury, and homicide – and against property – such as theft and burglary – which in the Diaspora were less frequently committed by Jews, account for the overwhelming majority of convictions of Jews in Israel. It seems that crime became, as E. Durkheim expressed it, one of the normal expressions of life in society. This normalization is also reflected in the fact that fraud and forgery, which had constituted in Poland about 21%, in Germany about 13%, and

Offenses19511952Average 1956–65
All OffensesTotal6,2229,600
Rate per 1,0007.45610.65510.129
Against Public OrderTotal5681,084
Rate per 1,0000.6851.2032.870
Against the PersonTotal1,4342,124
Rate per 1,0001.7172.3562.894
Against MoralityTotal138142
Rate per 1,0000.1650.1580.267
Against PropertyTotal2,8984,284
Rate per 1,0003.4704.7553.144
Fraud and ForgeryTotal120154
Rate per 1,0000.1430.1710.312
Economic OffensesTotal8141,464
Rate per 1,0000.9741.6250.226
Administrative and Fiscal OffensesTotal250348
Rate per 1,0000.2990.3860.414

in the Netherlands about 5% of all Jewish crime, made up only 3.1% in Israel (the average for the years 1956–65).

Another feature of crime in Israel is the fact that after an initial rise of about 30% – from 7.5 to 10.6 per thousand of the total population during the first years of mass immigration (1948 to 1952) – the crime rates for the Jewish population did not rise for over a decade. The average crime rate for Jewish adults from 1956 to 1965 was 10.1 per thousand. In spite of the upheavals and tensions accompanying Israel's birth, including the mass immigration of diverse ethnic groups, crime in Israel is relatively moderate in extent and characterized by the absence of brutal and ruthless offenses.

The changed physiognomy of crime in Israel, as shown in Table 2: Jewish Adult Offenders, is probably a consequence of the radical change in the occupational structure of the Jews.

A study of specific offenses committed by Jews and non-Jews in Israel will illustrate this further. (Figures given are conviction rates per thousand of the adult population concerned.)

Offenses Against the Person

The rates for all offenses against the person were on the average 2.9 among Jews and 8.8 among Arabs. The rates for homicide, rarely committed by Jews in the Diaspora, remained relatively moderate among Jews in Israel: 0.4 on the average for the years 1951 to 1965. Of the homicides, 34% were due to matrimonial and other emotional conflicts, 25% resulted from quarrels between neighbors and business partners, 14% were committed in the course of robbery and 8% during quarrels among criminals, 3% were connected with "family honor" in traditional Oriental families; 15% were committed for various other motives. Aggressive offenses involving bodily harm were 7.0% of all offenses against the person in 1964 and only 5.7% in 1965, which confirms the impression that crime among Jews in Israel is still less violent and brutal than in many other countries. Offenses against the Dangerous Drug Laws were rare: about 0.1 per thousand Jews and 0.2 for Arabs. There were 133 cases among Jews in 1964 and 135 in 1965. In most cases the offenders were immigrants from North Africa, Asia, and the Levant who acquired the drug habit in their countries of origin but did not pass them on to the next generation in Israel. Among the emerging class of habitual offenders in Israel, however, there were some who used drugs, trafficked in them, or induced others to become addicted in order to exploit them.

Offenses Against Morality

Offenses against morality were never characteristic of Jews in the Diaspora, and in Israel the conviction rates are also low – e.g., 0.29 for Jews and 0.45 for Arabs in 1964, a typical year. There were very few serious and brutal sex crimes, only 2.6% of all offenses against morality during the years 1956 to 1965. There were only eight convictions of rape or attempted rape in 1963, nine in 1964, and six in 1965. Most of the offenses against morality consisted of "indecent behavior," generally against minors. Cases of brothel-keeping and soliciting were also relatively few: 41 in 1963, 67 in 1964, and 59 in 1965.

Offenses Against Property

The common offenses against property are the most widespread. The rates were 3.13 among Jews on the average for the ten years 1956 to 1965 and 8.77 among Arabs, taking the average for five alternate years from 1956 to 1964. Theft from the person, which in some European countries was sometimes described as a "typically Jewish" offense, is rare in Israel and growing rarer: there were 44 convictions in 1951, and only 37 in 1965, when the Jewish population was almost twice as great. On the other hand, a class of habitual burglars is clearly emerging: there were 379 convictions in 1963, 468 in 1964, and 501 in 1965. Robbery, which entails direct contact with the victim, physical attack, and a threat to his life, is, however, comparatively rare: there were 7 cases in 1963, 9 in 1964, and only 3 in 1965. It seems that even the habitual criminal in Israel shies away from this aggressive form of offense against property.

Offenses Against Public Order and the Authority of the State

Offenses against public order and the authority of the state represent somewhat more than a quarter of all offenses committed by Jews and just over half among Arabs. This greater representation of Arabs is partly due to the political situation, Arabs being often convicted for illegal border crossings and other offenses connected with the emergency regulations. Violent disturbances of the peace in Israel make up more than half the total of offenses against public order – a very different situation from that in the Diaspora, where Jews are not generally involved in such behavior. Many of these violations have been aggressive acts committed against public servants, mainly due to the tensions arising out of mass immigration and absorption problems. All the other offenses in this main category are much less frequent in Israel than in the Diaspora. Evasion of military service is very rare. Corruption and abuse of office do not constitute a serious problem, but the public is deeply disturbed at the thought that they are committed at all, even if only occasionally. An average of 24.2 individuals per year were convicted for such offenses during the ten-year period from 1956 to 1965, and they have been on the decline in recent years: there were 33 cases in 1962, but only 19 in 1963, 18 in 1964, and 15 in 1965.

Share of Different Immigrant Groups

Statistics indicate considerable differences between the crime rates for those born in North Africa, Asia, and Europe, respectively. (See Table 3: Jewish Adult Offenders). The conviction rates for the various ethnic groups show that these differences

YearIsraelAsiaAfricaEurope and America

have been fairly consistent during the first years of the State of Israel.

S.N. Eisenstadt, in his study, The Absorption of Immigrants (1954), has pointed to some of the factors which may explain the differences in deviant behavior between European and Oriental Jews in Israel. The European immigrants, particularly in the earlier years, were inspired by the ideal of Jewish labor – the desire to engage in basic productive occupations in agriculture, industry, and public works – which implies a readiness for occupational change and a striving to create a new society based on social justice. The Orientals, on the other hand, hoped "to be able to follow more fully and securely their own way of life" (pp. 93–94) after their immigration. Thus they were not consciously prepared for radical changes in their economic and occupational way of life.

This situation was aggravated by the fact that the Oriental Jewish communities were composed mostly of a small wealthy and educated class and great masses of the poor and uneducated. The latter, due to lack of education and training, were unable immediately to make good use of the opportunities offered by Israel's expanding society and economy. Some of them resented the pioneering, vitally necessary work they were offered in distant development areas in afforestation, agriculture, road construction and the like, leaving such areas and moving into slum areas in the urban centers. Thus problems and situations of frustration and tension were created, resulting, in many cases, in crime. But there were great differences in the crime rates among the Oriental Jews themselves, which seem to have been caused mainly by the conditions under which they were absorbed and integrated and the measure in which their expectations and aspirations were fulfilled in daily life.

asian immigrants

Crime rates for newcomers from Asian countries are much lower than those for the North African countries, but they are also very similar to each other, in spite of the fact that the immigrants come from extremely different social and cultural conditions. This is particularly noticeable in the case of those from Iraq and the Yemen, respectively. Among the immigrants from Iraq, there is a substantial class of well-educated, wealthy leaders, some of whom had taken an active part in the political, economic, and cultural life in the country of their origin and often even occupied official positions of importance. The Yemenite Jews, on the other hand, had lived, with few exceptions, in a culturally backward country in conditions similar to serfdom. They were regarded as the property of the Imam; they had no political or civil rights and no modern education. These extreme differences, however, seemed to have no influence whatsoever on the crime rates for the two communities in Israel: among the Yemenites 11.5 per thousand in 1956–57 and 10.9 in 1958–60, and among the Iraqis 11.5 and 11.3 respectively.

The common factor seems to be that during the long period of their Diaspora life both communities remained deeply immersed in the lifestream of the Jewish people. Both studied and observed the religious traditions, always felt part of the Jewish people, and after the establishment of the state returned to Israel practically in their entirety (121,512 Iraqis and 45,159 Yemenites) during the very short period between May 1948 and the end of 1951. The fact that they moved to Israel as intact and cohesive communities, with their religious and political leaders, rich and poor, young and old, gave them a sense of mutual responsibility, security and pride, which sustained them through the inevitable difficulties and strains of the initial period.

Though the Iraqis found no substantial community of common origin on their arrival, and there were no officials from Iraq to receive the masses who were transplanted within a couple of years, this highly developed community, with all its trusted leaders and rabbis, intellectuals, wealthy men, doctors, bankers, nurses, and social workers enabled the sick and the dependent to turn for advice, guidance, and support in their own language to their own countrymen, who had soon found positions in hospitals and clinics, labor exchanges, housing and settlement offices, social welfare bureaus, and other agencies concerned with the absorption of immigrants. These conditions substantially helped to lessen absorption problems among the Iraqi immigrants and thus kept crime in this group down to reasonable proportions.

Yemenite Jews had settled in Ereẓ Israel in substantial numbers (about 18,000) in the Ottoman and Mandatory periods, before the entire community of 45,000 was transferred to Israel immediately after its establishment. Although these early immigrants were unable to take up positions of influence in the newly emerging Jewish society, they had certain characteristics and skills which paved the way for smooth integration and speedy absorption after the state had been established. Most of the Yemenite Jews had been artisans and craftsmen, and some had worked on the land. As early as in the 1880s they had made a name for themselves as highly skilled, reliable, and competent workers. Their industry, cleanliness, modesty, and reliability soon made them a respected and welcome element in the pioneering laboring class. There was no need for occupational change; they were easily absorbed into the new social and economic system.

The Yemenites enjoy life in Israel as the fulfillment of their hopes and prayers and feel that they fully belong to its society. These favorable circumstances are obviously the main reason for the low crime rate among them. The similarity of the rates for the Iraqis, many of them wealthy and well educated, and the Yemenites, who came from conditions of backwardness and poverty, seems to indicate that traditional values and, in particular, the cohesiveness and solidarity of the community go a long way to explain the comparatively low crime rates among Jews everywhere. The same principle, from the opposite end, is illustrated by the North African immigrants.

north african immigrants

Many Jews in the North African French protectorates had taken advantage of the promise of emancipation, equality, and full opportunities for participation in economic and social life offered to them by the French rulers. French became the language of every aspiring Jew and French culture was absorbed by the successful. They acquired the status of French citizens and ceased to cultivate their ethnic and religious autonomy. The younger generations of the better-educated Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian Jewish families thus became more and more estranged from Jewry and their own traditions. They took pride in being considered French, which they interpreted as being European. This led to severe disappointment, frustration, and tension when they came to Israel, where they were considered "Oriental" and were confronted with a society formed and led by European Jews with a background different from their own. Moreover, when the time had come for the exodus of the Jews from the North African countries – after they achieved independence and particularly with the establishment of the State of Israel – their political, intellectual, and economic leaders, with isolated exceptions, moved not to Israel but to France. The poor, the helpless, and the uneducated were left to their fate. Many of them had also lost contact with Jewish traditions, but they had been unable to acquire or share in French modern values. Hence many of them had become alienated from their own people and thus lost the moral and material support of group solidarity.

A mere thousand Jews went to Palestine from Morocco between 1919 and 1937; even in the early years of independence, 1948–51, when life in Morocco had become precarious for them, only about 45,000 immigrants came to Israel. The majority of Moroccan immigrants, about 88,000, left between 1955 and 1957, when Morocco had become independent and the Jews were threatened by mob violence. As the immigrants from North Africa consisted almost entirely of the less-educated and unskilled masses, they were unable, at first, to provide recruits for even the lower levels of Israel's political and social leadership. This fact was apparently the basic cause of the overrepresentation of North African Jews in crime in Israel. When 133,000 Moroccan Jews arrived in two waves, in 1948–51 and 1955–57, they found practically no members of their community to receive them and there were not enough educated people among them to be trained in a reasonable time to represent them in the administration and public services. This situation improved greatly with the evolvement of a local leadership in the development areas, particularly with the rapid acculturation of the young through army service and compulsory education, but the newly created slum population in the urban areas, as well as the disintegrating paternalistic structure and authority of the large families, still served as hotbeds of rebellious, antisocial attitudes, which often expressed themselves in crime (see below).

Juvenile Delinquency Before and Since the Establishment of the State

Although no reliable statistics are available on the subject, it is generally assumed that there was little juvenile delinquency among Diaspora Jews. In Mandatory Palestine as well, juvenile delinquency was probably very low, though no detailed statistics were published. During the years 1932–43, when the total Jewish population grew from about 175,000 to about 500,000, the number of juvenile offenders increased from 191 per year (average for 1932–37) to 322.5 per year (average for 1938–43). Among non-Jews the situation appears to have been similar during 1932–37, when differences in the demographic data and development are taken into consideration. During the period 1938–43, however, Arab juvenile delinquency increased by almost 100%, while the Arab population grew by less than 30%. As in the case of adult crime, this growth may be explained by the impact of the war and the opportunities for crime in and around military camps.

In the State of Israel, however, the incidence of juvenile delinquency among Jews started to increase. In 1951, the conviction rates for boys aged 9–16 and girls aged 9–18 were 4.5 per thousand of these age groups, while juvenile delinquency accounted for 12.1% of all crimes committed in Israel. Conviction rates for juveniles grew steadily to 9.8 per thousand in 1965, and juvenile delinquency now represented 23.8% of the crime total.

Of 4,453 young Jewish offenders in 1965, 430 were born in Europe or to European parents in Israel. The conviction rates were 7.4 per thousand for juvenile offenders born in Israel, 11.9 for the Asian-born, 23.0 for those born in North Africa and 3.6 for those born in Europe or America. One of the reasons for these developments has been the transition from one way of life to another. The Oriental family went through a severe crisis after immigration. The authority and functions of the family, and particularly those of the previously authoritative father, were substantially reduced or even shattered, while the young people did not yet feel the security that comes from integration into the new society. Many remained without a compelling system of values or effective social control and lived in a cultural and social vacuum. Most have cast off the yoke of religion and traditions without simultaneously achieving the educational and cultural standards of their peers of European origin. This created painful feelings of frustration and tension, which found expression in these comparatively high crime rates.

Juvenile delinquency among Jews in Israel consisted almost exclusively of offenses against property. Criminality figures for young Arab offenders were about twice those for Jews, and the forms of delinquency were also different. In 1961, for instance, only 46.7% of young Arab offenders committed offenses against property, as against 85.7% for Jewish juveniles. The other crimes were mainly offenses against the person, including acts of aggression resulting in physical injury. Trespassing on agricultural lands and illegal border crossing were also frequent. Arab juvenile delinquency is thus due partly to the traditional behavior patterns characteristic of rural societies in the Middle East and partly to tensions and conflicts arising out of the political situation in the region.

Crime Among Females

Authors always stressed the fact that crime among Jewish females in the Diaspora was very rare; some even claimed that the comparatively low general crime rates for Jews were due to the fact that crime was practically unknown among Jewish women. In Israel there has been only a slight increase in their share in crime, from 8.5% of crimes committed by Jews in 1951 to 13.8% in 1965. Crime rates for Jewish females were 1.3 per thousand in 1951 and 2.9 in 1965. Like the males, Jewish women were mainly convicted for offenses against public order and lawful authority, against the person and against property, the figures for these three types of offense being almost identical. Female juveniles committed mainly property offenses. Offenses against morality were rare: in 1961, a census year, 10 adult females and two juveniles were convicted of such offenses. The largest number of Jewish female offenders committed to prisons since the establishment of the state were sentenced for common theft, followed by disturbances of public order and common assault, including assaults on police officers. These facts also seem to reflect absorption problems in immigrant families, which express their dissatisfaction in aggressive behavior, mostly in governmental or other institutions dealing with public welfare and public health problems. Crime rates for non-Jewish females are somewhat lower than for Jewish ones due to the traditional patterns of the Arab village, where women are generally confined to the home. Offenses committed by non-Jewish females are mostly acts of assault and breach of the peace in public places, often in village feuds between clans. Offenses against morality are very rare among Arab women.

[Zvi Hermon]

After the Six-Day War

An extraordinary rise in crime in Israel was reported in 1966. During that year, the crime rate rose 13.5%, a jump not recorded by the Israel police at any other time during the decade. Two phenomena stand out in particular: growth in the number of robberies; breaking into box offices, booking offices, business firms, and private dwellings; various types of fraud; embezzlement; passing bad checks; and a rise in the crime rate among juveniles, whose share in the general crime rate reached 32.2% in that year.

The year 1966 was the climax of an economic recession, and the rise in offenses against property was possibly a consequence of the depressed condition of the economy. The rise in juvenile crime reflected the prevailing situation in the free world, though gangs of youngsters engaged in organized criminal acts, as found in other developed countries, had not been found in Israel, except small groups, organized ad hoc, for minor crime against property.

The year 1967 was one of war in Israel with the accompanying prewar and postwar periods. It is therefore possible to expect a large rise in crime, if one proceeds from the assumption that war naturally brings with it the collapse of restraints, a withdrawal from lawfulness and order, and a sense of permissiveness toward basic drives and impulses. The actual picture is therefore surprising, for in that year there was a 2.2% decline in crime. This is the only decline in the annual crime rate of the state since its establishment. It is possible that the reason for this decline is inherent in the mobilization – and thus removal from their regular activities – of the entire corpus of manpower, including the criminals; it is also probable that the general sense of danger, and the consciousness of national unity and civil cooperation, were also reasons for the drop.

Immediately afterward, in 1968, the situation returned to normal and there was another rise in the crime rate, this time of 10.6%. A study of the data proves that this percentage is approximately the average for the previous years, with slight fluctuations in both directions; but in comparison with the decline of the previous year, this was a sharp rise. It appears that the main factor behind the rise was the amnesty (albeit selective) declared after the war (July 1967), which set free a large number of criminals from prisons. More important than the widened scope of crime is that, beginning in 1968, the nature of the crimes committed became more serious. Violent crimes, involving the use of firearms and dangerous drugs, grew during that year. It appears that the rise in violent crimes (and not only those involving firearms) is more a reflection of the prevailing situation in most parts of the world, than a consequence of the war. The 1960s, which are sometimes described in other countries as the "Decade of Violence," left their mark on Israel as well. In reference to the use of arms, it is clear that many weapons, much more than in the past, were found in 1968–70 in the hands of citizens to protect their legitimate businesses (legally) and of hundreds of soldiers home on leave. Under such circumstances weapons found their way into the hands of unauthorized persons who used them to commit crimes. These conditions however, are a result of the prolonged emergency situation and only indirectly a result of the war itself.

The disturbing turn in events in the area of drugs after the Six-Day War is also merely an indirect result of the conflict. Many visitors who went to the country after the war – "volunteers" to work on kibbutzim and foreign students – brought with them drug habits and influenced some people of their age group. Another factor, which is also an indirect result of the war, is the fact that the usual routes for smuggling hashish were disrupted between the large supplier – Lebanon – and the large consumer – Egypt – by way of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. As a result, many suppliers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were left with large supplies of hashish and no marketing possibilities. This led to a drop in the prices of illegal drugs in Israel and the country therefore became a source at low prices for acquiring and smuggling hashish, which is more expensive than marijuana. The price in Israel fluctuated between $150–300 per kilogram whereas in the United States and Canada prices ran between $2,000–3,000 per kilogram.

Since the 1970s Israeli crime rates have been constantly rising, with the steepest rise in violent crime. Of the 243,719 crimes reported in Israel in 1985, 263 were cases of murder or attempted murder and 9,994 were cases of assault. By 1994 the figures had jumped to 4,629 and 18,368, respectively. In the same period sex crimes rose from 2,133 to 2,825. Drug offenses rose from 4,367 to 11,584.

The following decade showed a continuing rise in most crime categories, with murder, sex crimes, spouse and child abuse, and drug crimes increasing. Though not the highest in the Western world, Israeli crime rates were comparable to those in Germany and Austria. While in 1996, 454,622 files were opened, in 2004 the number grew to 517,238, among which 55% were offenses against property. The number of immigrants committing crimes rose from 11,287 in 1996 to 27,747 in 2004, reflecting problems of adjustment among Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. In 2004, the Arab share in Israeli crime was 36.8%, a further reflection of social and economic malaise. A relatively new phenomenon in Israel is what has been recognized as organized crime, involving such familiar agents as local crime families, a Russian Mafia, and foreign hit men and dealing in everything from money laundering to the white slave trade (the importation of women from the former Soviet Union). Of the 173 arrests for the latter offense in 2001–4, 80% were among Russian immigrants. There was also a steep rise in juvenile delinquency. Statistics for the 1990–2002 period show an increase in every category. While in 1990, 20,552 police files were opened for juveniles, by 2002 the number had jumped to 32,067. The nature of juvenile crime had also changed. While until 1965, 80% of juvenile crimes were against property, in 1999 the rate was only 45% as violent crime and drug abuse climbed commensurately. The growth of violence among teenagers, and even younger children – murder, rape, and assault, including violence in schools and disco clubs – has become a common occurrence in Israel, with a jump from 3,508 police files in 1990 to 14,696 in 2002.

[Yaacov Nash /

Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]


B. Blau, Die Kriminalitaet der deutschen Juden (1906); R. Wassermann, Beruf, Konfession und Verbrechen (1907); A. Ruppin, Die Soziologie der Juden, 2 vols. (1930); idem, The Jews in the Modern World (1934); W.A. Bonger, Race and Crime (1943); A. Chouraqui, Between East and West (1968); L. Rosenberg, Canada's Jews (1939), 288–99; S.M. Robison, in: M. Sklare (ed.), The Jews: Social Patterns of an American Group (1958), 535–41; J. Lestschinsky, in: yivo Bleter, 15 (1940), 202–16; N. Goldberg, ibid., 24 (1944), 131–2; idem, in: yivo Annual, 5 (1950), 266–91; J. Guttman, in: Yivo Bleter, 26 (1945), 210–7; I. Drapkin Senderey, The Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Israel (1965); S.N. Eisenstadt, The Absorption of Immigrants (1954); S. Shoham, in: Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 53 (1962), 207–14; U.(C.) Schmelz and D. Salzman (Gavish), Statistikah Pelilit be-Yisrael, 2 vols. (1962–65); Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Statistikah shel ha-Mishpatim ha-Peliliyyim (1952– ); idem, Avaryanut ha-No'ar (1960– ). add. bibliography: S. Ben-Baruch, "Juvenile Delinquency," at; G. Eshed, "Organized Crime in Israel and in the World – Processes and Directions," at


views updated Jun 27 2018


CRIME is any activity for which the law prescribes punishment, such as a monetary fine or a term of imprisonment. Many other activities are prohibited by law in a different way. For example, businesses are subject to a variety of regulations and may be fined or otherwise disciplined for violations. More generally, anyone who negligently harms a neighbor or breaches a contract violates the law and may be held to pay damages if the victim files a lawsuit. Those violations are said to be "civil" in nature in order to distinguish them from "criminal" infractions. A person who commits a crime may be charged by a public prosecutor regardless of whether any individual victim complains. Conceptually, the public at large is the victim of criminal lawbreaking.

Crimes are specified by statutes that are enacted by Congress or by state and local legislative bodies. Legislatures often change statutes according to contemporaneous attitudes about the activities that should be punished as criminal. Conduct that was criminal in one era may not be so in the next. The classic example is the Volstead Act, the short-lived federal statute in 1919 that made it a federal offense to sell or transport intoxicating liquor.

The Colonial Era

The idea that criminal law is a matter of legislative policy did not always prevail. The colonists understood deviant behavior to be a feature of divine order and acted in light of their religious beliefs. They expected individuals to misbehave and entertained no thought that they could or should determine for themselves what should be criminal and punish only that behavior. The colonists drew no clear distinction between crime and sin, and when they adopted criminal statutes they typically included religious offenses like blasphemy and witchcraft. They found it difficult to distinguish, in turn, between serious offenses and minor transgressions. All were of a piece; all were sins against God. By some accounts the colonists' sense of the unity of all crime led them to prescribe the same harsh punishments for widely divergent activities. Some offenders were fined, but many were put to death—or, if not hanged, were tortured, banished, or both. The point was neither to give offenders what they deserved nor to achieve some utilitarian objective. It was merely to vindicate God's will.

Colonial views and practices regarding crime and slavery were appalling by twenty-first-century standards. Slaveholders were permitted to whip and mutilate slaves as they saw fit, without concern that abuses would be regarded as criminal. By contrast, slaves themselves were routinely charged with crimes. Often they were punished summarily by their masters. In many instances slaves accused of crimes were brought before local boards composed of magistrates and slaveholders. The slaveholders participated to ensure that corporal punishments were not so harsh as to permanently damage their property. When states hanged slaves as punishment for crime, the slave owners were typically entitled to compensation for the loss of their assets.

The Nineteenth Century

American thinking about crime changed dramatically after the Revolution. Southern states perpetuated the harsh treatment of slaves. But apart from slavery, most states adopted new statutes specifying as criminal various activities that are still considered crimes. For example, nineteenth-century criminal statutes condemned homicide, assault, robbery, and other offenses against the person. They also identified a wide variety of property crimes such as larceny, embezzlement, and receiving stolen goods. The states did not regulate commercial affairs in the pervasive manner that later became common. But when they did regulate business, they often did it by making objectionable practices criminal. Individual states typically focused on the industries that were most important to their economies. For example, Maryland and Virginia used criminal law to regulate the production and sale of tobacco. Mississippi did the same with respect to cotton and the states in New England with respect to shellfish. Many states also used criminal sanctions to control hunting, to enforce public health regulations, and, in the last years of the nineteenth century, to limit monopoly power in the marketplace.

The growing mobility of Americans made it possible for itinerant rascals to cheat unsuspecting dupes by tricking them into surrendering cash. Schemes of that kind typically entailed gaining the victim's trust—hence the familiar term "confidence man." In some celebrated cases of the period swindlers from the lower classes represented themselves to be gentlemen and ran up extraordinary bills before they absconded. Many states responded by enacting new criminal statutes condemning rackets by which "con men" obtained money by false pretenses.

States in the nineteenth century formally recognized numerous "morals" offenses. They routinely condemned any kind of sexual activity outside the traditional monogamous, heterosexual marriage—namely, fornication, adultery, cohabitation without marriage, incest, prostitution, and bigamy. They also barred forms of sexual pleasure thought to be immoral. The "unspeakable crime against nature" (sodomy) was the chief illustration. Apart from sexual offenses, most states made gambling a crime,

and some flatly barred the manufacture and sale of liquor. In the latter half of the century many states also banned obscenity (variously defined) as yet another vice threatening moral decay. Evidence regarding actual prosecutions for morals offenses is incomplete. By most accounts, however, prosecutions were (or at least became) sporadic, and the punishments upon conviction were relatively modest by comparison to the penalties meted out in the colonial period.

The criminal regulation of abortion followed its own special path. Abortion was long formally condemned as criminal. Yet abortions performed prior to quickening (when fetal motion is felt) were typically treated as misdemeanors. Moreover, the evidence suggests that anti-abortion statutes often were not enforced.

The Development of Federal Criminal Statutes

Congress established very few federal crimes prior to the modern era. One reason was a perceived lack of authority to do so. The United States Constitution did not give the federal government power to create criminal law simply as a matter of legislative judgment. State legislatures had that authority, but not Congress. If Congress enacted a criminal statute, it had to be in service of some peculiarly federal interest.

Famous early criminal statutes were easy enough to justify. The Crimes Act of 1790 made it a federal crime to commit murder, but only if the offense occurred at a site under the control of federal authorities. Similarly, the Post Office Act of 1872 made it a federal criminal offense to use the federal postal service to deliver objectionable materials (like lottery tickets or obscene literature).

In time, Congress enacted federal criminal statutes under its authority to regulate commerce among the states. That was the theory underlying the Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1890 and the majority of federal criminal laws enacted in the twentieth century. The commercial regulatory basis of federal criminal jurisdiction was not disingenuous. As the interstate character of business activity grew, Congress's authority to use criminal law to enforce federal regulation of that activity grew in direct proportion. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 exemplified the kind of national criminal law needed to police commercial activities that no single state could manage. In addition, however, Congress exploited its authority to control the channels and instrumentalities of interstate commerce in order to advance noneconomic objectives. The chief examples were the Mann Act in 1910, which made it a federal crime to transport a woman across a state boundary for the purpose of prostitution, and the Dyer Act in 1919, which made it a federal offense to drive or deliver a stolen car across state lines. Those statutes engaged the federal government in policing activities that previously had been left to the states.

Crime Rates in the Twentieth Century

By common account, the rate of violent crime in the United States increased significantly during the early part of the twentieth century. Violent offenses include murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, and aggravated assault. Reliable data are unavailable for most offenses during those years, but homicides (for which data were kept) rose dramatically. The reasons for the upsurge are elusive. The immediate spur may have been the conclusion of World War I. Soldiers returning from Europe often had difficulty finding work and may have become frustrated and, in some instances, violent. Prohibition offered organized crime the opportunity to profit from distributing illicit liquor. Crime "families" contributed to violence in major cities, particularly New York and Chicago. The exigencies of the Great Depression may have driven impoverished people to property crimes ending in violence. As the depression drew to a close, by contrast, the rate of violent crime leveled off and remained comparatively stable for roughly the next twenty years, albeit with shifts downward during the three wartime periods of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam and upward again when each group of troops came home.

There was, however, another significant increase in the rate of violent crime during the 1960s and 1970s. The homicide rate reached an all-time high in 1980, when there were more than ten homicidal deaths per 100,000 residents. Again, the underlying reasons for the increase are debatable. Certainly the acceleration of violence tracked the sharp increase in the number of young people. In the fifteen-year period from 1960 to 1975, the population of men and women aged from fourteen to twenty-four increased by 63 percent, more than six times the rate of all other age groups. That cohort of young people, known as the baby boom, had been born immediately following World War II, the sons and daughters of soldiers eager to resume their lives. In 1960 persons aged from fourteen to twenty-four accounted for 69 percent of all arrests for serious crimes. Many youths may have found it difficult to adjust to life as adults, especially if their economic prospects were bleak. Their frustrations may have played out in rebellious activities that ultimately led to violence.

In the mid-1980s the rate of violent offenses began to decline just as the baby boom generation passed beyond its most crime-prone years. The rate of violent offenses by teenagers continued to rise for some time before dropping; the analog rate for persons in their twenties fell more steadily. In 1985 the homicide rate diminished to just under eight deaths per 100,000 residents. That rate rose for a few years, reaching more than nine per 100,000 in 1991. Thereafter, however, the homicide rate steadily dropped to a low of less than seven per 100,000 in 1998. The rate of robberies followed roughly the same pattern.

Violent crime in the United States is necessarily associated with firearms (especially handguns) for the obvious reason that firearms are often the instruments by which violent offenses are committed. The data reveal, moreover, that the use of firearms varies according to offender characteristics. After 1985, when the homicide rate for adult offenders declined, the rate at which adults employed handguns to kill dropped proportionately. During the same period, when the homicide rate for young offenders initially increased and then declined, the rate at which young people used handguns to kill increased dramatically. In 1993, 90 percent of the homicides committed by offenders under twenty-five years of age involved firearms. The rate of gun violence was particularly pronounced among young male African Americans in depressed urban areas. The rate of firearm homicides in that group was twenty-one times higher than the rate for the American population as a whole. After 1993 the rate of firearm violence among all offender groups fell along with the general decline in the rate of violent crime.

Even considering the diminution at the end of the twentieth century, the incidence of violent crime is still much higher in the United States than in any comparable developed nation. The rate of deaths or serious bodily injury from personal attacks is four to eighteen times higher in this country than in the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, or Japan. The rate of non-violent crime in the United States has always been high, but not markedly higher than in comparable nations. In the 1990s, for example, the general crime rate in this country was higher than in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan, but not grossly higher than in Italy and about the same as the general crime rate in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

Changes in Criminal Law Policy

By most accounts, the increase in the rate of violent crime that occurred in the 1960s deeply affected American attitudes about crime in general. Americans came to regard crime as an extremely serious problem meriting extraordinary efforts at control. That public sentiment persisted through the end of the twentieth century. According to a poll taken in 1994, when the rates of both violent and nonviolent crime had been declining for nearly a decade, more than 40 percent of Americans nonetheless viewed crime as the nation's most pressing social problem. Concomitantly, Americans came to regard criminal sanctions as the appropriate means by which to address an expanding variety of activities thought to threaten society. Many academicians contended that actual experience did not warrant the public insistence on anticrime measures, much less the wider use of criminal sanctions as a tool of social control. By some accounts, citizens who were concerned that they might become victims of violent assaults failed to distinguish between the violence they feared and other forms of criminal behavior. Accordingly, they supported a sweeping expansion of criminal law and its enforcement that bore fundamental implications for the prevailing social order.

Five developments illustrate the changes that have occurred in modern American criminal law policy: the adoption of lengthy terms of imprisonment as a routine punishment for all serious criminal offenses; the prosecution of juveniles as though they were adults; the expansion of the federal government's role in the making and enforcement of criminal law; the accelerating use of criminal law to regulate corporate behavior; and the escalating use of criminal law to address the social problems associated with drugs.

Longer sentences. Beginning in the 1980s, most states enacted arrangements under which persons convicted of crimes received much longer terms of imprisonment than had previously been prescribed. The shift in policy was deliberate and explicit. Legislatures largely abandoned the rehabilitative ideal that had dominated penal policy for more than a century and, in its place, recognized retribution and incapacitation as the primary purposes of punishment. Today convicts are chiefly punished with lengthy prison terms on the theory that they deserve it and because, during the period in which they are incarcerated, they are unable to commit more crimes. The terms of incarceration are extremely long. Life sentences have become common and terms of twenty or thirty years routine. Moreover, multiple-offender sentencing schemes often double or triple the sentences for offenders found guilty of more than one violation. So-called "three strikes and you're out" laws are not typically limited to violent offenders; anyone who commits three offenses of any kind may be sentenced to an extraordinarily long period behind bars.

Long terms of incarceration have significant effects throughout the system of American law. State courts send far more convicts to state prisons than existing institutions can accommodate. The crowding that ensues makes prison life, already harsh, more oppressive. Even before the flood of new prisoners in the 1980s, federal courts had held the poor conditions found in many state prisons to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution. Those courts ordered prison officials to make numerous adjustments and to eliminate crowding. With the subsequent flow of prisoners increasing so dramatically, most states have responded by constructing more penal facilities. New prisons, in turn, are little more than human warehouses confining prisoners for ever increasing periods of time at the least possible cost.

Treating juveniles as adults. The prosecution of juveniles as adults began in earnest in the 1990s. Previously, under juvenile justice codes adopted earlier in the twentieth century, persons under a certain age (typically eighteen) were formally regarded as unable to commit a serious criminal offense. They might engage in conduct that would be criminal if committed by an adult, but because of their immaturity (and thus their diminished culpability) they were treated differently. Young people were typically held to appear before special juvenile courts, which adjudicated them to be delinquent and, on that basis, specified remedial programs thought to be appropriate. In some instances, juveniles were sent to reformatories for vocational training; more often, they were channeled into some form of community supervision and counseling. In the 1990s, however, the extreme violence of which juveniles proved to be capable prompted many states to subject at least some of them to ordinary criminal charges, trial in ordinary criminal courts, and, if convicted, punishment of the ordinary (enhanced) kind.

The treatment of juveniles as adults also has important effects on the system as a whole. Tens of thousands of teenagers have received lengthy sentences, ostensibly to be served in one of the prisons designed to confine adults. Most penal authorities recognize that young offenders cannot easily be mixed with older convicts and have established special units for teenagers within larger institutions. Yet the length of the sentences imposed on young prisoners guarantees that they will eventually be assimilated into the adult prisoner population.

Expansion of the federal role. The idea that crime is a serious problem has led to the (quite different) idea that it is a national problem as well. Congress has responded by extending federal criminal jurisdiction on a host of fronts. In most instances Congress continues to base federal criminal statutes on its authority to regulate commerce among the states. Yet modern enactments dramatically extend that authority to activities with little demonstrable connection to interstate commerce. Toward the end of the twentieth century Congress enacted federal criminal legislation in virtually every session. Examples include the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1968 and 1988, the Crime Control Act of 1990, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Those statutes did not consolidate federal crimes in a coherent code but rather added numerous freestanding offenses to the sprawling body of federal law. By the year 2000 there were more than three thousand separate federal offenses. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, not only were more activities considered federal crimes than ever, but those crimes, like their state counterparts, typically carried extremely long prison sentences as well.

The federalization of American criminal law has significance for a variety of other governmental agencies and functions. Certainly the growth of federal crimes demands a consequent growth in federal law enforcement agencies and personnel: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Marshal Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and related organizations. For the first time in its history, the United States has commissioned a powerful central police force. The introduction of federal criminal law into spheres of local affairs also creates conflicts with state authorities. In many instances, suspects can be charged with violating a federal criminal statute, a similar state statute, or both. That overlap demands cooperation between federal and state law enforcement officials that was unnecessary before the 1990s. Federal criminal cases dominate the dockets of federal trial courts, forcing other judicial business to be postponed. The courts, in turn, sentence large numbers of convicts to lengthy terms of imprisonment at federal penal facilities that have no room for them. Thus the federal government, like many states, has launched a major prison-building campaign. Where once the Federal Bureau of Prisons operated only a few federal prisons like Leavenworth and Alcatraz, in 2002 the Bureau controlled 102 institutions.

Regulating corporate behavior. The use of criminal law as a means of regulating corporate behavior is a twentieth-century innovation. So-called white-collar crime, committed by comparatively wealthy people holding positions of trust, has substantial historical footing in American law. In many cases individual perpetrators commit familiar offenses for their own benefit: offenses like embezzlement, tax evasion, and fraud. In other cases, however, corporate officers and employees implicate their companies in criminal offenses like restraints of trade, unlawful manipulations of stocks and bonds, and violations of environmental protection statutes. Corporate crime thrives in the complexities of the modern technological economy and is characteristically difficult to detect and prosecute. The demand for effective enforcement has prompted the federal government to bring its considerable resources to bear on the problem. Congress has enacted a variety of statutes to contend with white-collar and corporate crime, most prominently the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act of 1970.

Individuals convicted of white-collar offenses are sentenced to some form of incarceration at about the same rate that street criminals are sentenced to prison. However, the terms for white-collar criminals are substantially shorter, measured in months rather than years. Of course, corporations cannot be given prison sentences for their crimes (though the individuals who act for corporations certainly can be). Accordingly, corporations are typically fined or subjected to some other form of economic penalty. Some academics contend that it is a mistake to subject corporations to criminal liability at all, because "civil" fines can achieve the same objective: the creation of economic disincentives to behave in a socially disadvantageous way.

Addressing drug problems. The policy of making it a crime to possess, manufacture, or sell hallucinogenic and addictive drugs has contributed significantly to the developing nature of American criminal law. By some accounts the criminalization of drugs increases the price that drug dealers can charge for their product and thus increases the resulting profits. Those high profits, in turn, perversely foster the very behavior that antidrug laws are meant to discourage. Certainly drug dealing has developed into a massive industry, stretching from source points both in this country and in foreign nations (principally South American states) through manufacturing facilities to "retail" sales on the streets. One-third of all state criminal prosecutions are for drug-related offenses, and one-fourth of the inmates serving terms in state prisons are there for possessing or selling drugs. A disproportionate number of those prisoners are young African Americans from inner-city areas.

The criminalization of drugs is also intimately linked with the expanding role of the federal government in crime control. Early in the twentieth century Congress enacted numerous federal criminal statutes regarding drugs, among them the Harrison Narcotic Drug Act of 1914, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, and the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. Subsequently, the growth of the drug industry, with its many international connections, prompted Congress to expand the federal "war on drugs" to much larger dimensions. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 organized federal criminal drug laws, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established mandatory minimum prison sentences for many violators. Between 1980 and 1990, when the general rate of criminal prosecutions in the federal courts rose by 69 percent, the rate of federal prosecutions for drug offenses rose by 300 percent. Drug cases in 2000 accounted for nearly half the criminal trials in federal court. The federal government's commitment to antidrug laws generated a corresponding expansion in the federal bureaucracy. The DEA was established in 1973 to take primary responsibility for federal enforcement efforts. Not only the DEA and the FBI but many other agencies (including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the navy, and the Coast Guard) are also engaged in interdicting the drug trade in this country, in foreign nations, and on the high seas.

All these features of modern criminal law have evoked intense controversy. With the exception of the prosecution of corporate crime, the practical consequence of each development has been the long-term imprisonment of a large and increasing population of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are young, poor people of color. There is no discounting the profound social (and moral) implications of a system that incarcerates so many of its dispossessed members. Nevertheless, public concerns about crime, particularly violent crime, continue to drive American policy toward more (and more punitive) uses of criminal sanctions.


Blumstein, Alfred, and Joel Wallman, eds. The Crime Drop in America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Friedman, Lawrence M. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Geis, Gilbert, and Robert F. Meier, comps. White-Collar Crime: Offenses in Business and the Professions. New York: Free Press, 1977.

Gray, James P. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs. Philadelphia: Temple University, 2001.

Robinson, Paul H., and John M. Darley. Justice, Liability, and Blame: Community Views and the Criminal Law. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995.

Silberman, Charles E. Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice. New York: Random House, 1978.

U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Report to the Nation on Crime and Justice. 2d ed. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Justice Statistics Clearinghouse, 1988.

Zimring, Franklin E., and Gordon Hawkins. Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. New York: Oxford University, 1997.


See alsoAbortion ; Drug Trafficking, Illegal ; Federal Bureau of Investigation ; Justice, Department of ; Juvenile Courts ; Mann Act ; Prohibition ; Salem Witch Trials ; Sherman Antitrust Act ; Volstead Act .


views updated Jun 08 2018


the pattern of crime
economy and geography
class and heredity
writing about crime

It is always difficult to measure the incidence of crime, and given the different legal definitions of offenses, it is equally difficult to draw clear contrasts or similarities between criminal activities in different states and regions. Nevertheless, the development of criminal statistics in the early nineteenth century enabled some significant assessments to be made of patterns and parallels. Across Europe as a whole the spread of the nation-state and of its powers of repression appears to have had some impact on crime. Changing ideas about how humankind had developed and functioned led to new and different emphases in the way people understood the causes of criminal offending; so too did anxieties about the burgeoning industrial cities and towns. Finally, the expansion of the popular press during the nineteenth century fed off and fed into people's perceptions of crime.

the pattern of crime

In the early nineteenth century European governments and intellectuals put tremendous faith in the ability of statistics to reveal the moral facts about a society and to enable rational, improved, and improving policies to be developed. The statistics of crime figured significantly in this faith. The British government began collecting statistics of this kind in the first decade of the century hoping that these would contribute usefully to debates about punishment and especially to debates about the death penalty. The French had begun collecting various forms of crime statistics toward the end of the Old Regime. During the Revolution such collection became more systematic, in part at least to enable checks to be made on the extent to which magistrates were doing what was expected of them. The most significant step forward, however, came in the 1820s with the annual publication of the Compte générale de l'administration de la justice criminelle (General account of the administration of criminal justice). By the end of the 1830s the Compte was providing a detailed breakdown of offenders by age, sex, place of birth, level of education, trade, and whether their residence was rural or urban. It provided a model for similar statistical collections in other countries.

The development of the Compte encouraged social thinkers to draw conclusions about patterns of criminality. The most important of the early analysts was the Belgian academic Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1894). Using the French statistics and such as he could glean from elsewhere, Quetelet made a series of deductions, some of which reflected the evolving opinions of his contemporaries about, for example, racial types, but others of which have stood the test of time. The statistics showed that, overwhelmingly, principal offenders were young men. They also suggested that the same number of crimes in roughly the same geographical regions were being committed year after year. But Quetelet was shrewd enough to appreciate that there were problems with the statistics. In particular he recognized the difficulty created by offenses that were never reported and hence never listed. Modern criminologists use the term the dark figure to describe the unknown number between the crimes reported and listed and the crimes that were actually committed. This makes any estimate of the actual level of crime impossible, though it did not discourage many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century criminologists and has not discouraged attempts by historians to gauge the changing patterns of crime across the period.

In very general terms the figures show property crime represented a much greater overall percentage of the total than violent crime. This can be seen as a continuation and perhaps even culmination of an overall shift in offending from violence to theft that historians have detected as developing from the late medieval and early modern periods. During the nineteenth century violent crime was more apparent in southern Europe than in the north. This was especially the case in those regions such as Corsica, Greece, the south of Italy, and Sicily, where vendetta and honor killing were still practiced and where the state struggled to establish its authority. But throughout the century violent crime, particularly murder and rape—those crimes that most frightened and shocked people—constituted only a small proportion of the offenses in the statistics. The greatest proportion of offenses involved property crime, and the overwhelming majority of thefts were small. Often the stolen goods were taken to a pawnbroker's shop for a few coins. In very general terms too the statistics suggest a gradual increase in crime in the first half of the century with a general leveling out and, in some instances, even a decline in the second.

Early on some of the individuals working with the crime figures began to suggest a close link between economic downturns and criminality. Most significant here was Georg von Mayr (1841–1925), who, in the mid-1860s as a member of the Bavarian Statistical Bureau, produced two important statistical surveys. The first concerned beggars and vagrants while the second showed a correlation between a rise in the price of grain and a rise in the figures for theft. But the possible link between poverty and crime was not always one that many commentators were keen to stress.

economy and geography

Changes in economic structure and the power of the state appear to have generated changes in the pattern of crime across the nineteenth century. The assumption was made by some of the earliest serious academic historians of crime that industrialization, the capitalization of industry, and an increasing sanctity surrounding private property fostered crime as a form of protest among the growing and increasingly self-conscious working classes. Evidence for such a change has, however, been difficult to come by. On the other hand, the growth of financial institutions and of capitalist investment provided unscrupulous but outwardly respectable gentlemen with considerable opportunities to profit, sometimes criminally, at the expense of gullible investors.

The wars at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries disrupted economies and left large numbers of draft dodgers, deserters, and army stragglers over much of continental Europe. Many of these men slipped in and out of banditry. At the same time there were sparsely populated districts, often spanning state frontiers, where banditry and smuggling throve among the poor peasantry. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars some of these bandits began to acquire the aura of anti-French Robin Hoods and guerrilla fighters. Johannes Buückler, known as Schinderhannes, was one such in the Rhineland, and Michele Pezza in Calabria, known as Fra Diavolo, was another. Several of the Spanish guerrilla gangs that claimed to be fighting Napoleon's armies were often bandits masquerading under more respectable colors. Theromantic image surrounding such figures was also often something that developed after the wars; the bandits themselves were usually cruel, violent, and as much a threat to the local peasantry and anyone else who crossed their path as they were to the French. The growth and greater effectiveness of the state's means of control and repression during the nineteenth century—the spread of gendarmerie corps in rural areas, for example—meant that the number of remote regions in which banditry could flourish became fewer and fewer.

By the second half of the century banditry was largely restricted to the south of Europe and to the vast expanses of the east where police were particularly thin on the ground. In Spain and Sicily, however, the bandit problem was aggravated by influential local landowners who recruited strong-arm men to discipline their workforces and to defend their properties. These strong-arm men slipped in and out of banditry but were protected by the landowners. Moreover, "bandit" and "brigand" are indeterminate labels present largely in the eye of a beholder. The draconian Pica Law of 1863 gave the army and the carabinieri a virtual free hand in suppressing peasant resistance in the south of the newly unified Italy. Under the directives issued to the forces of order in the south of Italy, even a small group of laborers carrying agricultural implements might be considered as "brigands."

Yet while there could be danger in the countryside, it was the towns and cities that during the nineteenth century were the principal focus of fears about crime and criminals. A variety of commentators worried that the wealth of expanding

towns and cities provided a temptation for thieves and that the anonymity of the urban world provided easy escape and plenty of hiding places for offenders. In the early nineteenth century particularly such fears became enmeshed with concerns about revolution and the assumption that the courts and tenements of towns and cities were infested with a dangerous, criminal class eager for revolutionary outbreaks that would furnish opportunities for mayhem, murder, and plunder.

class and heredity

In 1840 a French police administrator, Honoré Frégier (1789–1860), published Des classes danger-euses de la population dans les grands villes et des moyens de les rendre meilleurs (On the dangerous classes of the population in large cities and the means to make them better). Frégier was aware that corrupt and depraved individuals could be found in all social classes, but, he warned, when a poor man yielded to wicked passions and ceased to work seeking to exist by other means, then he became a dangerous enemy of society. In this he was echoing the kinds of comments made by his contemporaries elsewhere. In Britain, for example, in the Report of the Royal Commission on a Rural Constabulary, the Benthamite reformer Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890) argued that criminals were motivated by a general indolence and by a desire for excitement. According to Chadwick and his like-minded commissioners, men made a rational choice to follow a criminal career in the belief that the profits would be easier, quicker, and greater than those acquired by honest, respectable labor. What such commentators were doing was labeling as the cause of crime that behavior among the working class of which they most disapproved. This behavior included, most notably, drinking and gambling and also any leisure taken in the streets that looked like idleness. They ignored the fact that much labor in the first half of the nineteenth century remained seasonal, and consequently people were often on the move looking for work or on the streets passing time as a result of underemployment or simply unemployment.

Frégier's formulation "the dangerous classes" was employed in Britain and in Italy (classi pericolose), while the Germans preferred their traditional word Gauner to describe tricky, indolent, but always mobile working-class offenders. The assumption was that this was a kind of countersociety with its own hierarchy and language. Several of the commentators who described criminals wrote page after page on criminal argot and provided long lists of their words and phrases. At times the offenders could be described almost as a different race, and Friedrich Avé-Lallement (1809–1892), a German police official who wrote a massive four volumes on the German Gauner in the middle of the century, stressed the influence of Gypsies and Jews among them. Analyses of this sort also gendered the criminal classes: the men were thieves and murderers; the women were prostitutes. This kind of literature often warned that prostitutes led their clients to alleyways or rooms where their menfolk attacked and robbed them. It would be wrong to argue that

this never happened, though the evidence of the courts does not suggest that it happened with the frequency described in the popular accounts.

Criminal children also figured in the depictions of the criminal classes. There was an assumption that child offenders began their criminal careers as pickpockets and progressed from this to more serious crimes. Such offenders were sometimes portrayed as the offspring of criminals and thus bred to their careers, or else as the children of feckless or alcoholic parents who abandoned them on the streets. But again the evidence from the courts does not bear this out. A very few children and juveniles stole because they were put up to it by professional receivers such as Charles Dickens's Fagin. Some stole through need, but opportunism, peer pressure, and stealing or doing damage for fun all seem to have been at least as important. Moreover, the evidence does not suggest that these offenders were invariably the children of men and women who were known criminals or of drunken or otherwise bad parents. Often the parents appear to have been struggling for respectability and were distraught by the behavior of their offspring. Indeed, it was known for the police to be called upon by parents to discipline their difficult children.

In the last third of the century assumptions about a criminal class were given a significant scientific underpinning. Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) claimed that it was while he was serving as a doctor with the Italian army that he was presented with the head of a notorious brigand and that this inspired him to develop his theory of the born criminal. Over the following decade Lombroso combined his empirical study of the skulls of "inferior" and "primitive" peoples with the theoretical work of men such as Auguste Comte and Ernst Haeckel. Then, in 1876, he published the first edition of L'uomo delinquente (The delinquent man). Over the next twenty years the book went through five editions and increased eightfold in size to two thousand pages. At the same time his ideas shifted from the notion of criminal man carrying the atavistic tendencies of ancient and savage peoples and publicly demonstrating these through his facial and physical characteristics, to a much broader perception of criminality. While he continued to insist that some criminals were born, Lombroso's later work also pointed to other offenders formed through alcoholism, malnutrition, venereal disease, and other forms of degeneracy.

Lombroso rapidly acquired a school in Italy; indeed, it was one of his disciples, Enrico Ferri, rather than Lombroso himself, who coined the term born criminal. But during the 1880s, at a series of international congresses on what began to be called criminal anthropology, Lombroso and his Italian followers clashed heatedly with French experts. The French attacked Lombroso's use of ill-defined words as well as the idea of primitive anatomical characteristics being an indication of criminal propensities. At the same time they put much greater emphases on environment and nurture. The key figure here was Gabriel Tarde

(1843–1904), who had begun his working life as a provincial magistrate, went on to head up the Bureau of Statistics in the Ministry of Justice, and concluded his career as professor of sociology at the Collège de France. Tarde's La criminalité comparée (Criminality compared, 1886) and La philosophie pénale (Penal philosophy, 1890) rejected the idea of the born criminal, stressing environment and individual choice in the making of a criminal offender. But he was also wedded to the notion of the criminal career beginning with an apprenticeship in small offending and progressing to more serious crimes.

While one set of experts argued over the relative importance of heredity and milieu as causes of crime, another group focused their attention on gender and sexuality. From early on in the century there were some members of the new science of psychiatry who described some forms of theft as the result of a kind of madness. The idea of kleptomania became particularly popular in the last quarter of the century to explain why some bourgeois women, who appeared to want for nothing, were found stealing from the new retail phenomenon the department store. While there were some men who suffered from the same "disease," kleptomania was rapidly linked to assumptions about female weakness, the impact of the menstrual cycle, a difficult pregnancy, menopause, or becoming a widow.

Taking the nineteenth century as a whole, a broad shift can be detected in the way that criminal behavior was understood. In the first half of century the assumption was that committing a crime was a matter of choice by an individual. By the end of the century, however, the arguments of medical men and of exponents of the new science of criminal anthropology or criminology suggested that offenders were damaged individuals whose behavior was dictated by heredity, by nurture and environment, or by some combination of these. This shift in thinking led to shifts in arguments about how convicted offenders should be treated. Thus, at the beginning of the century there were attempts to establish equality of punishment and essentially to make punishments fit crimes. By the end of the century, encouraged by the arguments of criminologists and medical men, judges across Europe began to think increasingly in terms of passing sentences that involved a punishment designed to fit the individual criminal.

writing about crime

Few people experience crime on a regular basis. What most people know about crime is what they have learned from the media. This can have a distorting effect on the way that the population as a whole understands crime. Sensational and thrilling stories sell books and newspapers. Petty, opportunist theft does not attract an audience; major thefts and murders do. It was the same in the nineteenth century.

The eighteenth century witnessed the beginning of the gradual demise of the chapbook and the broadside that recounted the tale of a brigand, a highwayman, or a murderer and reported his farewell speech from the scaffold. These accounts of last words were usually coupled with a warning not to follow in the offender's footsteps and to avoid strong drink and loose women. By the middle years of the century this kind of literature had largely been replaced, at least in much of central and western Europe, with sensational novels and a few books written by former police officers and even by criminals. The books by policemen and criminals had an aura of authority even though they usually embroidered the truth. Indeed, François-Eugène Vidocq (1775–1857), the former convict who subsequently became head of the Paris police detective squad, was so outraged by the way in which a ghostwriter embellished his story that he refused to sign off the fourth volume of his memoirs. Pierre-François Lacenaire, a thief and multiple murderer, in turn was keen to portray himself as a poet of crime, and in the France of Louis-Philippe there were sufficient woolly headed romantics to encourage him and to romanticize his memory long after he had been guillotined.

Novelists of the 1830s and 1840s built on the image of the dangerous, criminal classes described by Frégier. Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837–1839)—with its evil receiver, Fagin, directing a gang of trained juvenile pickpockets and in league with a brutal burglar-murderer, Bill Sikes, who in turn lives with a young prostitute, Nancy—is simply the best known and arguably the best written of many. In the early 1840s the French novelist Eugène Sue published Les Mystères de Paris and set a trend of a variety of similar "mysteries" fancifully describing the criminal underworlds of cities all over Europe. More than thirty such appeared in Germany in 1844, and in the following year the Chartist G. W. M. Reynolds commenced publishing the weekly installments of The Mysteries of London, a popular underworld saga that continued until 1848.

The cheap popular press that began to appear in the middle of the century recognized from the start that sensational crime sold newspapers. It was the London newspaper press that, during the series of brutal murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel in the fall of 1888, popularized the murderer with the name Jack the Ripper. At the same time, the press pushed back the frontiers of decency in detailing the wounds inflicted by the Ripper on his victims. Some twenty years later the world's largest-selling newspaper of the time, Le Petit Parisien, which had always devoted a large amount of space to sensational crimes, launched a "Great Referendum" on capital punishment. The referendum was accompanied by an increase in the column space devoted to crime and was carefully constructed both to sell more copies of the newspaper and to generate a resounding "no" to proposals for the abolition of the death penalty.

Crime may have been leveling out according to the statistics, but that was not how the press chose to see the problem. In addition to the opportunities provided by such exceptional killings as those of Jack the Ripper, of Jean-Baptiste Troppmann on the edge of Haussmann's Paris, of Imre Balentics in Budapest and so on, the press also chose to construct threats from gangs and to link various forms of offending with the concerns for racial purity and preservation that influenced many politicians and commentators at the turn of the century. In the 1890s the British press made much of the threat from the youth gangs that acquired the new name of "hooligans." Youth gangs existed; they wore distinctive clothes and they fought ferocious battles with each other over territory and girlfriends. Yet while some of their members committed other offenses, the gangs were organized to fight each other rather than to assault and rob ordinary members of the public. In Paris an arguably greater panic focused on the so-called apaches. The French bourgeoisie's fascination with Native Americans went back at least to the July Monarchy and to translations of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. During Napoleon III's Mexican adventure, stories had come back about the alleged cold cruelty of the Apache, and when, at the end of the century, a name was felt necessary for young, violent street thieves, the French press looked no further.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that, on occasions even as late as the turn of the century, when dreadful crimes were committed old scapegoats were pointed at anew. There were suggestions that Jack the Ripper was a Jew and that his butchery was linked with a myth that Orthodox Jewish men were required ritually to murder any gentile woman with whom they had been sexually intimate. In several parts of Europe the discovery of a murdered child

or juvenile ignited the old panic about ritual murder by Jews. In such instances there were all too often vicious anti-Semites, sometimes in clerical robes, prepared to fan the flames or even to provoke the disorder by fabricating the rumors themselves. In the 1890s there was a series of such outbreaks, most notably in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussia. Among the best researched is that which occurred in the small West Prussian town of Konitz in March 1900. A high school student, Ernst Winter, disappeared. When parts of his dismembered body began to be found, rumors spread that he was the victim of a ritual murder. Several weeks of sporadic anti-Semitic violence ensued, and the only individuals to be prosecuted in the whole affair were the young men arrested for their part in the rioting.

By the beginning of the twentieth century it was possible to look back on a cluster of distinct changes that had taken place over the previous hundred years. The press continued to delight in bandit gangs when there was an opportunity, but except in remote areas such as the Russian steppes or parts of the Mediterranean where state power had yet to exert control, the old-style bandits and highwaymen had disappeared. Picking pockets remained possible, and the development of the bustle as part of women's fashion facilitated theft from pockets and purses that were carried in this new accoutrement. Goods remained exposed in markets and in front of shops, but they were also exposed in the new department stores, providing new opportunities for the shoplifter. Automobiles and trains were said to enable major offenders to make fast getaways. But motor transport and trains also made it difficult for thieves to jump onboard a freight vehicle and pull things from the back while it was moving. The telegraph made it possible to pass on a suspect's description before a train or boat arrived at its destination. At the same time, the photograph and the fingerprint, together with Alphonse Bertillon's system of physical recognition by measuring certain parts of the body, made the apprehension of the recidivist a little easier.

See alsoCities and Towns; Class and Social Relations; Degeneration; Lombroso, Cesare; Quetelet, Lambert Adolphe Jacques; Statistics; Working Class.


Becker, Peter. Verderbnis und Entartung: Eine Geschichte der Kriminologie des 19. Jahrhunderts als Diskurs und Praxis. Goöttingen, Germany, 2002.

Chevalier, Louis. Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Frank Jellinek. London, 1973.

Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England 1750–1900. 3rd ed. London, 2004.

——. Crime, State and Society in Europe 1750–1940. Oxford, U.K., 2007.

Emsley, Clive, and Louis A. Knafla, eds. Crime Histories and Histories of Crime: Studies in the Historiography of Crime and Criminal Justice in Modern History. Westport, Conn., 1996.

Evans, Richard J. Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Gibson, Mary. Born to Crime: Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminality. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Nye, Robert A. Crime, Madness, and Politics in Modern France: The Medical Concept of National Decline. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Clive Emsley


views updated May 18 2018


Crimes are commissions of acts that are publicly proscribed or the omissions of duties that thereby make offenders liable to legal punishment. More colloquially, a crime is any grave offense, particularly against morality, and thus something reprehensible, foolish, or disgraceful. Criminal behavior is in most cases unethical; it has also been subjected to scientific study in criminology. Technological change has in turn given rise to new forms of crime.

Legal Traditions

In some legal traditions, there is a distinction between crimes and torts. The former are offenses against the state or society that are enforced by agents of the state. The latter are offenses against specific citizens, which the machinery of the state will enforce only if victims pursue their grievances in the form of a civil suit. The boundary between these categories is fluid, as discussed below with respect to homicide's historical transition from tort to crime. In keeping with ordinary parlance, both sorts of offenses are considered here.

What qualifies as crime in both its technical and informal meanings is cross-culturally variable, because laws and norms are cross-culturally variable. Premarital sex, profanity, abortion, political dissent, alcohol use, homosexuality, littering, and remaining standing in the presence of the king are all crimes in some societies but not in others. Theories of crime are thus concerned not only with the causes of criminal behavior, but with social norms and the labeling of acts. However, the fact that what is considered crime varies between times and places does not imply that it is arbitrarily constituted. There is substantial overlap in the content of criminal codes, both written and traditional, from around the world. The acts that are most consistently criminalized are concentrated in a few principal domains: certain acts of violence, certain sexual acts, certain acts of expropriation, and certain betrayals of the collectivity to rival collectivities. In general, crime entails self-interested action that violates the interests of others.

Most crimes have identifiable victims, and for criminal sanctions to be widely accepted as legitimate and just, it is important both that the victimization was undeserved and that the offender behaved with inadequate consideration of the victim's interests. Law sometimes excludes consideration of whether a victimization was deserved when deciding an offender's guilt, but this is by no means generally true—consider the breadth of cases in which "provocation" can mitigate criminal responsibility—and even where it is true, the prevalent defense practice of "putting the victim on trial" suggests that desert is a more influential consideration than a literal reading of criminal codes might suggest. As for the offender, it is not enough in Anglo-American law that a wrongful act (an actus reus) was committed; there must also have been a wrongful intent (mens rea).

The essence of the mens rea criterion is that the wrong-doer was overvaluing his own interests and undervaluing those of others. The two principal justifications for criminal sanctions both demand such a criterion. If criminal sanctions constitute just moral retribution, then assigning culpability without reference to intent is wrong. Alternatively, if criminal sanctions are justified by their social utility, then punishing outcomes without regard to intentions is unlikely to deter antisocial behavior. However, the concept of mens rea is necessarily broader than just a specifically malevolent intent, because it encompasses reckless disregard for the well-being of others, thereby permitting the criminalization of acts such as drunk driving in which the perpetrator may have intended no harm to anyone but was still excessively overvaluing his own desires relative to the interests of others.

In modern nation-states, criminal offenses are considered offenses against the state and it is the state that prosecutes them. This practice has evolved historically from the "self-help" justice characteristic of traditional societies lacking professional police or judiciary, where victims or their relatives might demand material compensation or undertake retaliatory action in response to offenses against persons or property. Blood revenge in retaliation for homicide and persistent blood feuds between lineages are cross-culturally widespread manifestations of such self-help justice. The first step toward a criminal justice system occurs when a socially recognized power, such as a king or a council of elders, rules on the validity of grievances and hence the legitimacy of retaliation. Note, however, that punitive response remains in the hands of victims, with the consequence, for example, that killing someone who lacked family and friends would not be penalized.

It is only relatively recently that nation-states have assumed the responsibility (at least in principle) of punishing violations against all citizens. In Britain, for example, crimes became crimes against the state only after the Norman conquest of 1066, and even then, a murder victim's lord or kinsman might still negotiate monetary compensation from the killer or his/her kin. However, because such agreements did not affect prosecution by the crown and resultant fines, confiscation of the offender's belongings, and corporal or capital punishment, and because William the Conqueror also treated private retaliation as a crime, there was little incentive for a killer or his kinsmen to reach an accord with the victims. These practices gradually faded away, as did any central role for victims of crime other than as witnesses.

From the king's or state's perspective, blood revenge and feuds between powerful families were disruptive of social order, jeopardized the tax base, and weakened societal defensive capabilities against external threat. Why the citizenry succumbed to the rise of state authority also seems clear. An ideal of impersonal state-administered justice has been associated historically, and presumably causally, with a decline in the solidarity of kin groups and a rise in contractual relationships and individual responsibility. Impersonal justice is widely considered essential for keeping the citizenry safe from predatory victimization, and it certainly does extend the umbrella of protection to the relatively powerless. Moreover, even those with retaliatory and deterrent capability may welcome it. In the case of homicides, for example, the powerful as well as the weak may be relieved to relinquish the duty of vengeance, but only if they can trust the machinery of state to punish their enemies on their behalf.


Although crimes always entail conflicts of interest, not all conflictual action is criminal. It follows that a general theory of crime requires both a theory of the nature of human interests and a theory of what legitimizes some, but not other, ways of pursuing self-interest at others' expense. The academic discipline of criminology arose primarily within sociology, and most theories of crime rely primarily on sociological concepts such as inequity, power, norms, legitimacy, and social control. Underlying psychological theories, in the form of assumptions about human desires, developmental susceptibilities, and social inferences, are typically more implicit than explicit, and at an even more basic level, criminological theories almost never explicitly address the origins and elements of a human being's interests, which must be identified before one can recognize violations thereof. Arguably, this question is within the domain of evolutionary biology, which provides the only relevant scientific theory, namely that the apprehension of where one's interests reside has evolved to promote Darwinian fitness within the circumstances prevailing in ancestral environments. This level of analysis is uniquely able to shed light on such questions as why rape is considered a particularly horrific violation regardless of attendant physical trauma, why men are more likely than women to respond violently to social disadvantage, why maternally perpetrated infanticide is widely considered a less heinous offense than other homicides if indeed it is an offense at all, and why adultery is a sexually asymmetrical offense defined as sexual contact between a married woman and a man other than her husband in all premodern legal codes.

Psychological science is primarily concerned with elucidating the mental and behavioral processes characteristic of a prototypical human being: how memories are laid down and retrieved, how people make probabilistic inferences, what emotions people all share, and so forth. A secondary focus of psychological science is the elucidation of how individuals differ. Both lines of inquiry are relevant to understanding crime.

At the panhuman level of analysis, psychologists investigate basic mental processes, and attempt to explain historical, cultural, and ecological variability in behavior as contingent products of a universal psychology's responses to variable circumstances and experiences. Anger, for example, is a motivational/emotional state that can be elicited in any normal person, with characteristic effects on physiology and information processing; it plays a role both in mobilizing physiological resources for violent action and in advertising one's likelihood of engaging in such action. Note that these claims entail hypotheses about the functions of being angry. A psychologist who assumes, for example, that the principal function of the psychophysiology of anger is to mobilize the organism for effective physical assaults will look for a somewhat different set of manifestations and social controls than another who instead assumes that anger functions primarily to threaten and deter so as to limit the costs of violent confrontations. Within this universalist research tradition, the reasons why people vary in their frequency and intensity of anger are to be sought in the social and material forces impinging upon them.

Notwithstanding advances in the understanding of how this universal human response operates, both centrally and peripherally, it is also evident that individuals differ in their responses to identical circumstances and stimuli. Whether these differences can be attributed to the cumulative effects of prior experiences acting on a universal human nature, or instead require a different sort of theory of individual differences, is not always apparent. Psychiatrists have identified a personality type that is disproportionately responsible for crime, especially violent crime: the "antisocial personality." Risk factors associated with the development and maintenance of antisocial personality include poverty, maleness, early maturity, poor school performance, parental criminal history, and psychopathology, implying that antisocial personality is in large part a facultative developmental response to experiential indicators of the lesser utility of developing a more "prosocial" personality. However, there is also evidence from twin and adoption studies that antisocial personality is substantially heritable, implying that individual differences in behavior are attributable to genetic differences.

Despite a large body of research on the genetics of crime, there has been relatively little consideration of this puzzle: why does genetic variability affecting phenomena such as criminal behavior exist? The reason for asking is because natural selection generally tends to eliminate genotypes with suboptimal phenotypic consequences, and one might expect that selection would have favored a panhuman phenotypic "design" with violence and other conflict behavior under appropriate contingent control. One possible answer to the puzzle is that heritable variation in antisocial behavior is a modern phenomenon and there has been insufficient time and/or fitness cost to eliminate the variability from human populations. A more interesting possibility is that antisocial personality types have social and material advantages in populations where they are rare and can exploit the trust and friendliness of the prosocial types.

Discussions of crime are often couched in the language of pathology. This is appropriate insofar as criminal acts reflect psychoses, delusions, and brain damage, but the language of pathology can mislead. Pathologies are failures of anatomical, physiological, and psychological adaptations, as a result of mishap, senescent decline, or subversion by biotic agents, such that the adaptations are no longer achieving the functions for which they evolved. The prototype of a pathology is a fracture: A broken bone can no longer perform its function. But crimes against people and property are not clearly pathological, and the term is certainly not applicable to violence in general. Violence is often well-regulated, self-interested behavior, and there are parts of the normally-functioning human brain that are dedicated to the production of controlled violence. The misconception that human violence is pathological has perhaps been reinforced by studies linking it to disadvantaged backgrounds and environments, but these associations are by no means universal. In nonstate societies, violence has been a prominent attribute of high-status men and a contributor to their social success. In modern state societies, the welfare of most people no longer depends on their own or their allies' violent capabilities, so violence is relatively rare and relatively likely to reflect psychological pathology. Nevertheless, disproportionate numbers of violent offenders are drawn from groups who lack access to the opportunities and protective state services available to more fortunate citizens, and who therefore find themselves in "self-help" circumstances much like those experienced by most people's ancestors.

Most crime is committed by men, and more specifically by young men. Criminologists and other social scientists have offered various hypotheses to explain these facts, but most of these hypotheses invoke local aspects of particular societies and thus provide no candidate explanation for the cross-cultural generality. Such consistently gendered behavior is better understood in terms of the different selection pressures confronting humanity's male versus female ancestors. There is morphological, physiological, developmental, and psychological evidence that humans evolved under chronic circumstances in which the variance in fitness was greater among males than among females: men had both a higher ceiling on their potential progeny and a higher chance of dying childless. In human beings, as in other animals, a higher variance in reproductive success has selected for a psyche that is more inclined to see life as a competitive contest with same-sex rivals, and is more willing to accept risks in the pursuit of material and social resources, including a willingness to embrace dangerous confrontations.

Criminal offenders have been characterized as lacking self-control and the capacity to delay gratification. In effect, criminal offenders tend to value the near future more highly, relative to more distant futures, than do law-abiding citizens. Discussion of these phenomena often presupposes that steep discounting of the future is dysfunctional, but an alternative view is that the human psyche has been designed by selection to adjust the discount rate ("patience") in relation to age, sex, and social and material circumstances. In this view, a short time horizon may be a rational response to information that indicates an uncertain or low probability of surviving to reap delayed benefits, and the sort of reckless, risk-accepting mindset that facilitates criminal acts may be aroused when the expected material or social profits from safer courses of action are negligible.

Variations in rates of crime are social phenomena, affected by sociological and demographic variables such as local cultural practices and the population's age structure. Elucidating exactly how and why these variables affect criminal acts by some and not other citizens is a project requiring interdisciplinary synthesis involving all social and biological sciences.


SEE ALSO Death Penalty;Monitoring and Surveillance;Police;Science, Technology, and Law.


Gibson, Mary. (2002). Born to Crime: Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Hare, Robert. (1993). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Pocket Books.

Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein. (1985). Crime and Human Nature. New York: Simon & Schuster.


views updated May 29 2018


In the popular imagination, the Great Depression is not seen as an era of violence or of criminality. Viewed through the lens of nostalgia, it is thought to be a simpler, calmer time. But nothing could be further from the truth. The early Depression saw a stunning increase in the homicide rate, and was one of the most violent periods to that point in American history. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, criminals also played an important role in American culture, with many Americans following their actions closely—and, one imagines, identifying with them on some level, despite the fear many people had of violence or of being a target of crime.

It is difficult to come by meaningful crime statistics for the period before the 1930s. The federal government only began to count crime statistics in 1930, and experts believe that crime was systematically underreported early in the century, so it is hard to make valid comparisons for property crimes, burglaries, robberies, rapes, and other criminal activity between the Great Depression and earlier periods. The significant exception is the murder rate. During the early part of the twentieth century the murder rate in the United States rose from 1.2 homicides per 100,000 people in 1900 to 6.8 in 1920. Between 1920 and 1930, it climbed again, reaching 8.8 in 1930—a higher murder rate than in the 1970s. In the early 1930s it reached a high point for the entire century, peaking at 9.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 1933, and declining afterwards for the rest of the decade.


Why was American society so violent in the 1920s and early 1930s? The most generally accepted explanation is that rampant violence was one of the unexpected consequences of prohibition, the ban on producing, distributing, or selling intoxicating beverages that began with the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 and the Volstead Act the next year. Bound by the fiscal conservatism of the times, the federal government quickly found that it was all but impossible to enforce prohibition. Alcohol intended for any variety of commercial or industrial purposes was re-distilled and sold as drinking liquor, produced in shops that employed sweated labor. People smuggling alcohol from other countries did a brisk business. In 1925 alone, prohibition agents shut down 172,000 illegal alcohol shops.

Most important, however, was the rise of a $2 billion illegal industry of producing and selling alcohol, run by organized crime. Paralleling the rise of the corporation, organized crime became big business during the prohibition years. Contracts between producers, distributors and salesmen could not be enforced through any courts, and the market was highly competitive. So the bootleggers sought to make their agreements stick and eliminate their competitors through shootings, beatings, threats, and other kinds of violence. Often, Italian and Irish immigrants ran these criminal organizations, and for many they represented one of the few chances working-class ethnics had to make phenomenal amounts of money and join the American elite. Despite the extreme violence of the gangs, for many working-class Americans—especially those who resented prohibition—the wealth and notoriety of the ethnic mobs became a point of identification and pride.

The Torrio-Capone gang in Chicago was the model for this new kind of organized crime. A few months after the passage of the Volstead Act, Frankie Yale of Brooklyn, New York, executed one of Chicago's preeminent mobsters, James "Big Jim" Colosimo. Legend has it that Johnny Torrio, one of Colosimo's henchmen, hired Yale to commit the murder so that Torrio could diversify the gang from brothels and illegal gaming into the purchase and sale of liquor. Torrio brought in a group of hired guns from Brooklyn, one of whom was Alphonse "Al" Capone. Capone was one of the most colorful characters in Chicago's underworld. A young man who listed his occupation on his business cards as "secondhand furniture dealer," he ran the Chicago gang's business to the tune of two hundred gang-related murders a year in Chicago in the mid-1920s. He was very open with reporters and the press—who covered him enthusiastically—about his role in murders, such as that of Dion O'Banion, a nemesis of the Torrio-Capone gang, in 1924. The rivalry between the Torrio-Capone gang and the O'Banions reached its peak with the St. Valentine's Day massacre of 1929, when members of the Capone gang dressed as police officers slaughtered seven unarmed O'Banions. When Capone finally was brought down for income tax evasion, federal investigators estimated that his organization's annual income from liquor, prostitution, loan-sharking, extortion, slot machines, and gambling was $70 million. He was truly the big businessman of the crime world, and his power seemed to mirror that of corporations during the 1920s.

With the stock market crash of 1929 came revelations of corporate malfeasance often not captured in crime statistics. The great crash may have made it appear to ordinary Americans that some kind of massive criminal operation was afoot—how else could all that money simply vanish? But while ordinary speculation and irresponsible lending decisions were primarily responsible for driving stock prices sky-high during the bubble, there were speculative "bull pools" and insider trading operations. There were also white-collar criminals like Ivar Kreuger, a Swedish mogul who ran the International Match Company, which sold $150 million worth of stock before being revealed as little more than Ponzi scheme in the crash.


The early 1930s saw a dramatic acceleration of violent crime—murders, robberies, and kidnappings alike. The late days of prohibition may have been one cause, and the social dislocation of the Depression another. The baby of aviation celebrity Charles A. Lindbergh was kidnapped and murdered. Businessmen were kidnapped and held for ransom. The Barker-Karpis Gang stole $240,000 from the Cloud County Bank at Condordia, Kansas.

But the imagination of the American public was especially captivated in the early 1930s by a pair of robbers who drove the back roads of Texas, holding up banks and stores: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The young duo met in 1930, as the Depression swept across the country. Parker, born to a poor family in West Dallas, had waited tables as a teenager in the late 1920s as her first marriage fell apart. Barrow had grown up in a desperately poor family outside of Dallas, and was involved in car theft and robbery as a teen in the late 1920s. They met, fell in love, and—though separated for two years by imprisonment—embarked in 1932 on a series of bank robberies and hold-ups at stores such as the Piggly Wiggly, which would lead to the deaths of twelve people and the wounding of several more.

Bonnie and Clyde were on the run for a year and a half, driving aimlessly through Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas (Barrow wrote a letter to Henry Ford, telling him that the Ford was the best car ever made), committing robberies and killing police officers and paying occasional visits to family members, to whom they were deeply attached. In May 1934, they were ambushed and shot in Louisiana. Bonnie was twenty-three years old at the time of her death, and Clyde was twenty-five. Quickly, they became legends. Before being killed, Bonnie had already started to contribute to the story of their nihilistic romance, writing "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde" and other poems in the country-ballad tradition celebrating her hopeless life on the road. After their deaths, crowds gathered around the ambush site to seek bits of the bullets that had killed them, and their funerals were mass public events.

Bonnie and Clyde were not the only violent criminals to gain a public following. There were other bank robbers and criminals who became almost like folk heroes in the early 1930s. Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd was the son of a tenant farmer, born in Georgia and raised in Arkansas. He stole from banks and acquired the status of a Robin Hood figure, with the desperation of a small farmer in the Great Depression. George "Machine Gun" Kelly gained his notoriety by kidnapping Charles F. Urschel, an Oklahoma City oil millionaire. John Dillinger, scion of a strict Indianapolis grocer, became a juvenile delinquent at an early age, leading a child gang known as the Dirty Dozen. The Dillinger Gang was one of the best known bank-robbing gangs of the early 1930s. It flaunted authority and mocked the F.B.I. and the police, and the gang members claimed legitimacy by presenting themselves as the people's thieves. As Henry Pierpont, one member of the gang, said, "I stole from the banks who stole from the people." F.B.I. agents shot Dillinger down in front of Chicago's Biograph Theater in the summer of 1934. He had had plastic surgery while on the run, however, and as befits a larger than life legend, there were many people who doubted that he had really died.

Although it is difficult to know why certain figures attract so much more cultural attention than others, it does seem that in the late 1920s and early 1930s, each historical era had the criminals best suited to it. For people in the business-crazed world of the late 1920s, there was little to separate legitimate business from crime. Figures like Al Capone dramatized the violent competition of the free market and represented the anarchic dimensions of market hysteria. In the early years of the Depression, the evaporation of possibility, the dire poverty of unemployment, and the absence of direction exemplified by the wandering rage of Bonnie and Clyde struck a deep chord in people across the country, for whom the young, desperate, and doomed pair seemed less violent murderers than star-crossed lovers, outmatched by the law. The violence of the early Depression began to decline later in the decade, as liquor became legal once again, mob activity declined, and political activism began to replace the fear and uncertainty of the early 1930s. But the spike in violence of the early 1930s should make people who rhapsodize about the calm and social cohesion of the past think twice, for the chaos and criminality of the era—both its famous criminals and its less well-known high crime rate—easily match the crime waves of the more recent past.



Allen, Everett S. The Black Ships: Rumrunners of Prohibition. 1979.

Bureau of the Census, U.S. Dept. of Commerce. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. 1975. Reprint, 1989.

Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods. Available at:

Helmer, William J., with Rick Mattix. Public Enemies:America's Criminal Past, 1919–1940. 1998.

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. 1971.

Milner, E. R. The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde. 1996.

Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1929–1941. 1992.

Toland, John. The Dillinger Days. 1963.

Treherne, John. The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde. 1984.

Wallis, Michael. Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of CharlesArthur Floyd. 1992.

Kim Phillips-Fein


views updated May 08 2018


Crime is often defined as "conduct in violation of the criminal laws of a state, of the federal government, or of a local jurisdiction, for which there is no legally acceptable justification or excuse" (Schmalleger 2001, p. 700). Not only is a crime the commission of an act, it can also be an omission of an act, such as the failure to assure that a child has clothing, food, or shelter. In 1999, law enforcement agencies in the United States made approximately fourteen million arrests, excluding traffic violations. The offenses most frequently committed were driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and drug abuse (approximately 1.5 million arrests for each). The second most frequently committed was simple assault (approximately 1.3 million arrests).

Fifty-five percent of all crimes in the United States are committed by people under the age of twenty-five. Individuals in this age group commit approximately 44 percent of all violent crimes and 58 percent of all property crimes. Seventy-eight percent of all people arrested are men.

Crime has many detrimental effects on society. Victims of crime can suffer fear, stress, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, personal financial costs, medical costs, and health problems. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that the cost of crime to victims is approximately $17.6 billion a year. This estimate does not include the direct cost to the criminal justice system to process and punish/rehabilitate offenders.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), approximately twenty-three million households in the United States are "touched" by crime annually. This represents approximately one-fourth of all homes, resulting in over thirty-one million victims of crime each year. Individuals who live in urban areas are two times more likely to be the victim of crime than are those who live in rural settings. Men are more likely to be the victims of a crime, and younger Americans are more likely than elderly Americans to be victimized.

Of those arrested for violent crimes and street crimes, including predatory crime, the number of African Americans arrested is roughly the same as, or higher than, the number of Caucasians. This is a major concern because African Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Approximately 30 percent of African American males aged twenty to twenty-nine are under the control or supervision of the criminal justice systemfour times as many as Caucasian men in the same age group.

Not only are African Americans overrepresented among criminal offenders, they are also overrepresented among victims of crime. While Caucasian Americans account for over 80 percent of the people living in the United States, they are the victims in less than 50 percent of the murders committed. According to the NCVS, African Americans are more likely than any other racial group to be victims of violent crimes. One out of every twenty-one African-American males is murdered.

In April 1990, President George Bush signed into law the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which requires that hate-crime data be collected and reported. Congress defines hate crimes as offenses "in which the defendant's conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation of another individual or group of individuals." In 1998 there were approximately 8,000 hate-crime incidents; and racial hatred was the motive in 58 percent of these acts. Most hate crimes are acts of intimidation, vandalism, simple assault, or aggravated assault.

The majority of crimes in the United States occur in poor urban areas, and the majority of crime victims are poor. The NCVS reported in 1998 that violent-crime rates were greater for individuals living in lower-income families than individuals from more affluent homes. This puts a large burden on the health and medical systems in high-crime areas and strains community resources.

The types of crimes that law-enforcement agencies deal with are changing. Crimes such as cybercrimes (computer crimes) and crimes against the elderly are growing. Domestic violence, although always a criminal act, is being reported more frequently, and there are strict laws dealing with such offenses. It has been estimated that in 2001 the United States will spend over eighty billion dollars to finance its criminal justice system.

Kathy Akpom

Tammy A. King

(see also: Domestic Violence: Fraud and Misrepresentation; Gun Control; Homicide; Prostitution; Violence )


Brownstein, H. H. (2000). The Social Reality of Violence and Violent Crime. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (2000). Uniform Crime Reports, 1999. Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice. Available at

Klaus, P. A. (1994). The Costs of Crime to Victims. Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief. Annapolis Junction, MD: BJS Clearinghouse.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (1998). National Crime Victimization Survey. Washington, DC: BJS.

Schmalleger, F. (2001). Criminal Justice Today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.