Crime and Criminal Behavior


Edited by: William J. Chambliss

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    Introduction: The Complexity of Crime and Criminal Behavior

    Pick up any major daily city newspaper, or search its Website, and peruse the different sections looking for crime stories. You may be surprised at the vast array of behaviors that are incorporated under the category of crime. Of course there will be assaults, robberies, and occasionally murders and rapes reported in the main sections of the paper. But if you look further into the other sections, you will discover that a rock star has been arrested for assaulting his partner, a movie star for drunken driving or shoplifting, a businesswoman for fraud, or a student for using a fake I.D. What this exercise should alert you to are the vast array of behaviors that are defined as criminal, and are therefore incorporated into the study of crime and criminal behavior.

    In this volume, authors address a variety of topics under the wide umbrella of crime and criminal behavior. The authors examine the historical contexts of each topic and present pervasive arguments for and against the ways in which legislators and courts have defined and responded to behaviors defined as criminal. While some issues seem to have very clear policy and legal responses, many of the authors are quick to point to arguments that make policy decisions much more difficult. There are noteworthy sociological characteristics connecting the wide range of topics.

    Crimes with sensitive subjects, such as crimes against women, children, and minorities, have a complexity that warrants significant study. Articles dealing with sensitive subjects range from Jennifer Grimes's article on hate crimes to Wendelin Hume's analysis of child abuse to Erica Fields and Alisha Kirchoff's article on date rape. Definitions of these types of crimes vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and from one time period to another. Proponents for statutory rape laws and child abuse laws cite the fact that minors are in desperate need of protection from predators due to their inability to successfully defend or care for themselves. On the other hand, criminal laws prohibiting child abuse, hate crimes, and domestic violence are often criticized due to their lack of standard legal definitions and for the negative effects these laws may have against structures like the family. Similarly, opponents of statutory rape laws believe that the law has not kept up with contemporary moral standards, where many teenagers engage in sexual relations under the legal age. In the case of hate crimes, opponents feel that these laws are redundant because they are punishing for already punishable offenses.

    Also important in this volume are crimes that are carried out by groups and larger organizations or states. These types of crimes are typified in the articles on terrorism, war crimes, civil disobedience, and corporate crime. The ways in which these crimes are dealt with, such as war crimes, can create precedents that affect the functioning of the international community. For example, the Nuremberg Trial after World War II established the International Criminal Courts. These courts are defended because they can prosecute crimes that domestic courts are unable to prosecute. On the other hand, war crimes are problematic because of the anonymity of the actors and the fact that what constitutes a “war crime” often depends on which side is victorious.

    Another theme present in this volume pertains to crimes that are difficult to prosecute. Internet crime, prescription drug abuse, and intellectual property crime are examples. While Internet crime leaves evidence that most Internet criminals cannot get rid of, victims of Internet crimes often do not realize that they have been subjected to criminal activity until much later, due to a lack of perceived likelihood that they will be victimized. The effort to fight prescription drug abuse has made strides in the creation of databases that help target offenders, but these databases are criticized for being potential breeches of confidentiality. Those who want to protect intellectual property are met with criticism that doing so violates free speech rights. The same problem of difficulty in enforcement applies to white collar and corporate crimes, which is why these offenses are often handled in civil rather than criminal courts.

    Finally, there are crimes where there is a general disagreement on whether or not the behavior is harmful to society or the individuals involved. The chapters on euthanasia and assisted suicide, gun control, vagrancy and the homeless, prostitution, gambling, and marijuana all provide examples of these types of crimes. Typically, those in favor of laws against these activities are met with opposition demanding not only that the laws be changed, but that these behaviors be decriminalized completely. For example, those in favor of legalized gambling and marijuana use argue that criminalizing products and services in high demand leads to organized crime groups and public corruption. Proponents of legalization also see benefits in the potential for raising taxes. With respect to gambling, there is also the argument that criminalizing some forms of gambling while the state engages in other forms (lotteries, for example) is the ultimate hypocrisy.

    Critics of legalizing gambling and marijuana argue, on the other hand, that legalizing these activities amounts to endorsing immorality and the social harms (e.g., gambling and drug addiction) they cause. Vagrancy laws are negatively seen as ignoring the root causes of homelessness, while offering safety to homeless individuals on the positive side. Either way, authors conclude that the current status of many of these laws leave a great deal to be discussed and potentially amended.

    Crime and criminal behavior certainly encompasses a wide variety of subjects, and these authors provide many topics worthy of extensive debate within this umbrella. When examining crime and criminal behavior, it is necessary to determine what the laws are protecting, and at what cost.

    William J.ChamblissGeneral Editor
  • About the General Editor

    William J. Chambliss is professor of sociology at The George Washington University. He has written and edited more than 25 books and numerous articles for professional journals in sociology, criminology, and law. His work integrating the study of crime with the creation and implementation of criminal law has been a central theme in his writings and research. His articles on the historical development of vagrancy laws, the legal process as it affects different social classes and racial groups, and his attempt to introduce the study of state-organized crimes into the mainstream of social science research have punctuated his career.

    He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors including a Doctorate of Laws Honoris Causa, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1999; the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, Sociology of Law, American Sociological Association; the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, Law and Society, Society for the Study of Social Problems; the 2001 Edwin H. Sutherland Award, American Society of Criminology; the 1995 Major Achievement Award, American Society of Criminology; the 1986. Distinguished Leadership in Criminal Justice, Bruce Smith, Sr. Award, Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences; and the 1985 Lifetime Achievement Award, Criminology, American Sociological Association.

    Professor Chambliss is a past president of the American Society of Criminology and past president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. His current research covers a range of lifetime interests in international drug-control policy, class, race, gender and criminal justice and the history of piracy on the high seas.

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