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Deviance and Social Control

Defining Crime in Sociology

Crime and Punishment

Crime is deviant behavior that breaks a law and is punishable using legally codified sanctions.

Crime is a particular kind of deviant behavior that entails breaking laws. Some deviant behaviors are considered so harmful by a society that they are considered a crime. A crime is a behavior that breaks a law, a norm defined by a government that people are obligated to follow. Societies tend to criminalize behaviors that threaten the public and social order, although what behaviors are deemed threatening can vary. Most societies consider rape and murder to be crimes, but some societies consider certain kinds of rapes and murders noncriminal. In Florida, murders that are committed by people who feel threatened in any way can be considered noncriminal under the state's "stand your ground" law. In Pakistan, prior to 2016 laws allowed family members to pardon perpetrators of so-called honor killings, murders of family members perceived to have brought shame on the family. This created a legal pathway to murder under some circumstances.

Sociologists analyze the ways that social structure and stratification, the hierarchical ranking of groups within a society, contribute to a society's definition of crime. Whether or not a behavior is considered criminal sometimes has to do with who is most likely to engage in the behavior and who is most likely to be the target of the behavior. One example is the change to laws about marital rape that began in the 1970s.The social and legal acceptance of rape within marriage is linked to the social status of women. Until the 1970s, rape within the context of a marriage was legal in the United States. Men and husbands had considerable social power relative to women and wives in the 1970s. Laws permitting a husband to rape his wife reflected that imbalance, as well as a long history of female subjugation. Historically, women were viewed as the property of men. As the women's movement gained ground in the mid-20th century, it pushed for numerous social, cultural, and legal changes. Rape within a marriage was eventually criminalized in all 50 states.

In response to crime, the government imposes legally codified sanctions, punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment to execution. Like sanctions imposed by society, the sanctions applied to people who break the law function to provide social control. Researchers study the types and severity of punishments in a society, as well as how social identity impacts punishment. For example, a 2017 study found that in the United States black men receive prison sentences that are, on average, 20 percent longer than the sentences given to white men who commit the same crimes. Fines for crimes such as traffic and parking violations or late payment of taxes impact low-income people more than wealthier people, since a fine is a substantial expense for those with low incomes, while for wealthier people a fine does not significantly affect their budget. Some theorists argue using fines as punishment gives wealthier members of society a path to commit violations with no real consequences, essentially allowing them to pay for the privilege of ignoring laws.

Measuring Crime in the United States

The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) provide data about crime in the United States.
Crime within a society can be measured by analyzing information about the sort of crimes that are perpetrated, where crime is committed, and who commits crimes. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collects data from police departments on all crimes reported in the country, including violent and property crimes. These data are published each year in the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). Another source of data on crime in the United States is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is based on random sample interviews with households. These two sources of information paint slightly different pictures based on their different methodologies. The UCR is more likely to accurately reflect the crimes police know about whereas the NCVS reflects the crimes that often go unreported, such as sexual assault. One of the main goals of the UCR is to provide reliable data to law enforcement agencies. The NCVS aims to paint a more complete picture of crime in the United States. The UCR and the NCVS both use the same categories of crime, with largely similar definitions. One exception is rape: the UCR only measures rape as a crime committed against women, while the NCVS measures rape committed against both men and women. Sociologists use both of these data sets to analyze issues and trends related to crime, criminals, and victims of crime.

Types of Crimes

Sociologists use data to study different categories of crime, such as violent crime, property crime, street crime, and white-collar crime.
Sociologists study issues, attitudes, and trends related to different categories of crime, including violent crime, property crime, street crime, and white-collar crime. Violent crime involves assault, including sexual assault. Aggravated assault refers to the crime of physically attacking a person with a dangerous weapon, resulting in serious bodily injury. Aggravated assault is usually a felonious crime and can result in imprisonment. Property crime includes burglary, larceny, and robbery. Burglary means unlawful entry into public or private property with the intent to commit theft. This is an important caveat in the definition and points to specific behaviors associated with specific types of crimes. For many types of crimes, intent must be present. Larceny is a crime that refers to the theft of personal property. Robbery entails theft from a person or a place. Street crime is crime that occurs in a public space. Many street crimes are violent crimes, including assault, rape, and murder. However, violent crimes also occur in private. White-collar crime is nonviolent crime that is financially motivated and committed by a government worker or business professional. It includes crimes such as fraud, price-fixing, and corporate financial crimes. The notion of white-collar crime reflects social expectations and prejudices about which members of society are likely to commit crimes. White-collar crime, especially corporate crime, creates great harm in a society. Fraud and financial crimes can wipe out many people's savings or pensions. Corporate negligence can result in physical harm for workers. However, white-collar criminals are considered a separate class of criminals, essentially because they mostly come from more powerful social groups and hold a higher socioeconomic status.