Crime: Definition and Meaning

Crime, usually, is interpreted as the harm and violence, for example, harm to individuals, destruction of property, or the denial of respect to people and institutions. "Crime," in its strict sense, is an act, which is forbidden by the law and authority and which is regarded as serious enough to warrant punishment by issuing penalties for its execution. Earlier in 1940s, criminologists focused largely on crime to criminals and their correlation in social context. However, by the year 1960, criminologists started studying on the point related to the victims and their social context.

What is the Meaning of Crime?

The word ‘crime’ is derived from the Latin word "crimean," which means “charge” or “offense.” The term crime defines the idea of a public wrong as opposed to a private wrong, with an agency representing the community as a whole intervening between the criminal and the injured party. Crime is thus an intentional commission of an act deemed socially harmful; or dangerous, and the reason for making any given act a crime is the public injury that would result from its frequent participation. The the law and order (Police) and judiciary, therefore, keep trying to prevent crime by prescribing specific punishments for each crime.

Different jurists define crime differently, such as −

Element of Crime

The following are the constituents of crime −

Actus Rea (Guilty Intention)

Actus Reus means an act that is prohibited by law (actus-act; reus-prohibited). An act is not "reus" until and unless the law prohibits it. For example, homicide (i.e., the killing of a human being by another human being) is prohibited by law. But this is not an absolute rule. Even though he commits homicide, an executioner (a "hangman") who executes people convicted of death sentences is not culpable because his act is not prohibited by law; rather, he is legitimately required to carry out those death sentences. Actus reus is defined by the event rather than the activity that caused it. An act may result in the destruction of property or the death of a person, but it is not a crime unless it is prohibited by law.

Mens Rea (Guilty Mind)

The general rule of law is that there can be no crime without a guilty mind. This has been duly summed up by the often-quoted legal maxim "Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea." It means, an intent and an act both concur to constitute a crime. This principle developed because of another proposition that is "Actus me invito factus non est mens actus." This maxim means, an act done by me against my will is not my act.

The literal meaning of mens rea is guilty mind (mens-mind; rea-prohibited). It is for the prosecution to prove that there was "mens" on the part of the accused, which was "rea," meaning thereby that the person has intentionally done the prohibited act. However, the burden of proof has been discharged to an extent by the legal presumption that a man is presumed to know the natural and probable consequences of his or her act. It means, the mental element may be either an intention to do something wrong.

Stages of Crime

There are four stages of crime −

Intention (Mental Contemplation)

Mental contemplation or intention is the primary requirement, which is characterized as the direction of one's intended behavior toward the object of one's choice. Interestingly, the mental stage is not a crime and hence not punishable because it is not possible to prove it by any means.


After intention, preparation is the second stage, where the concerned person actually started doing something. Preparation is a planned means and measures that essentially required for the commission of a crime. Usually, this stage is not punishable because it is impossible to prove that the preparation was directed towards a wrongful end or was done with an evil intent or mind. But this is not an absolute rule because in certain circumstances, where it is clear that the preparation is directly related to a crime, then the accused can be arrested and prosecuted.


Attempt is the third stage after intent and preparation towards the commission of a criminal act. The term "attempt" defines the direct action towards the commission of a planned crime after the necessary preparations. Acts remotely related that lead to the offense may not considered as an attempt, but acts immediately connected with the crime is characterized as an attempt.


Accomplishment is the final stage of a crime and it means crime is done. All such crime, once proved is punishable. However, the quantum of punishment is determined by the type and degree of crime.

Theories of Crime

The following are the theories of crime 

Neo-Classical Theory

A modification of classical theory in which it was conceded that certain factors, such as insanity, might inhibit the exercise of free will. It introduced the concept of premeditation as a measure of the degree of free will. Neo-classists take a subjective approach to the criminal aspect of behavior and concentrate on the conditions that led individuals to commit the crime.

Positivist Theory

This theory proposes that the individual who commits the crime is low in intelligence and social acceptance, and thus they can’t morally comprehend their wrongful actions as compared to individuals of average intelligence or who are socially accepted.

  • Criminals are born, not made.

  • This is an example of nature, not nurture.

  • Focused on biological and psychological factors to explain criminal behavior.

Biological Theories

Biological theories of crime causation (biological positivism) are based on the belief that criminals are physiologically different from non-criminals. The cause of crime is biological inferiority. The three major positivists who emphasized the physiological incapacity of an individual or the hereditary makeup of criminal demeanor were Lombroso, Ferri, and Garofalo. The theory of evolutionary atavism (also called the theory of physical criminal type or the theory of born criminals) was propounded by Lombroso, an Italian physician and professor of clinical psychiatry and criminal anthropology He stated that −

  • Criminals have a specific "born type."

  • Certain physical anomalies, such as an asymmetrical face, large ears, excessively long arms, a flattened nose, a retreating forehead, tufted and crispy hair, insensibility to pain, eye defects, and other distinctive physical attributes, form the identifying features of the criminal.

  • The stigmata are not the causes of crime, but instead the symptoms of atavism (reversion to a more primitive type) or degeneracy. Hence, atavism and degeneracy are the basic underlying reasons for the crime.

  • A person with a criminal temperament cannot stop committing crimes unless he is immersed in ideal circumstances.

  • Criminals differ from non-criminals not only in physical attributes but also in the type of crime they commit.

Psychological Theories

There are many theories regarding the psychological causes of crime, including −

  • Intelligence and Crime − The idea that crime is the product primarily of people of low intelligence has been popular occasionally in the United States. 

  • Psychoanalytic theories − Psychoanalytic theories of crime causation are associated with the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that people who had unresolved deep-seated problems were psychopaths.

Sociological Theories

Most sociological theories of crime causation assume that a criminal’s behavior is determined by his or her social environment and reject the notion of a "born criminal."

Social Control Theories

Hirschi argued that delinquency should be expected if a juvenile is not properly socialized by establishing a strong bond to society, consisting of −

  • Attachment to others

  • commitment to conventional lines of action

  • involvement in conventional activities

  • Belief in the moral order and law

Labeling Theory

The criminalization process, rather than the positivist concern with the peculiarities of the criminal, is the focus of labeling theory.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is concerned with the social conflict between rich and poor, management and labor, whites and minorities.

Radical Theory

These theories argue that capitalism requires people to compete against each other in the pursuit of material wealth. The more unevenly wealth is distributed, the more likely people are to find others weaker than themselves that they can take advantage of in their pursuit of wealth.


The field of criminology systematically studies the causes of crime. The explanations for crime are not simple; we live in a complex society, and the causes of crime are as complex as the society itself. This module studies and attempts to explore the conditions leading to criminal behavior. It also explores a wide variety of theories regarding crime. These theoretical explanations contribute to the understanding of criminal behavior, the classification of different types of crime, aspects of criminal behavior, and also provide an important framework for the treatment efforts established to deal with the crime problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What are the five reasons for crime?

Ans. Crime has many complicated causes. People who breach the law often do so because of poverty, parental neglect, low self-esteem, and misuse of alcohol and other drugs.

Q2. What is the root of crime?

Ans. The most significant contributor to crime is self-hatred, which is fostered in childhood by parents who are so overcome with it that they show their children animosity rather than affection. Nobody can truly understand what it means to appreciate someone else if they have never experienced it themselves.

Q3. Why is it important to prevent crime?

Ans. Crime prevention can minimize the long-term costs of the criminal justice system and the costs of crime, both economically and socially, and can produce a considerable return on investment in terms of savings in justice, welfare, health care, and the preservation of social and human capital.

Q4. What is the crime prevention system?

Ans. "Crime prevention" refers to techniques and tactics aimed at lowering the likelihood that crimes will be committed, as well as their potentially damaging consequences on people and society, including the fear of crime, by acting to affect their many causes.

Updated on: 10-Mar-2023


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