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Crime is a complex and evolving concept Essay

Crime is a complex and evolving concept. To what extent can it be explored by focussing on social harm? This essay aims to explore and critically evaluate some of the ways ‘crime’, in both its lawful definition and commonly interpreted definition can be broadened, from context-specific behaviours and explore how social harm may be a useful concept in understanding ‘beyond the border’ of crime (Open University, 2010). Social harm is a ‘disciplinary approach organised around the concept of harm’ (Open University, 2010). This approach encompasses ‘physical harms’ inclusive of ‘premature death’ or ‘ serious injury’, ‘financial and economic harm’, ‘emotional and psychological harm’, ‘ sexual harm’ and ‘cultural safety’ (Open University, 2010). The primary ideology of social harm is to show that the standard notion of harm does not fully include the harms that organisations cause globally. The social harm concept is trying to understand the harms that occur within society. It examines the harm that occurs in society and also attempts to understand the sorts of behaviours that cause the greatest level of harm. The way that those harms are both perpetrated, how these harms are viewed from different levels of society both locally and globally (Open University, 2010).

‘Crime’ is thought of as destructive or violent personal acts or behaviours such as drug offences, knife crimes and sexual assaults. In western societies, a typical definition of ‘crime’ is ‘doing something forbidden by law’ (home office, 2007). The limitation of this definition is reliance on the knowledge a crime has been or is being committed and being able to obtain substantial enough evidence to hold a person accountable for their actions. ‘Invisible crimes’ such as ‘abuse, slavery and trafficking’ are overlooked as a focus on ‘street crime’ such as the ‘war on drugs’ is spotlighted (Open University, 2010). It is this stereotypical ‘street crime’ that carries the brunt of attention in both a historical criminological perspective and a general public view on criminality (Open University, 2010). When exploring the legal construction of ‘crime’ Paul Tappan (1947 PG 100) defined ‘crime’ as, ‘An international act in violation of criminal law (statutory and case law), committed without defence or excuse and penalised by the state as a felony or misdemeanour’ (Open University, 2010). With this ‘argument taken to its logical conclusion’, there are conditions that have to be fulfilled before any act can be legally defined as a crime (Open University, 2010).

The ‘Act must legally be prohibited at the time it is committed’, the ‘mens rea’ and ‘actus reus’ must be present in the mind of the perpetrator and there must be a pre ‘prescribed punishment for the committal of the act’ (Open University, 2010). Criminal law ‘tends to individualise crime’ although as no crime can be given a punishment unless it has already been deemed a crime it shows considerable ambiguities within the construction of crime itself (Open University, 2010). The powerful and elite both ‘define and evade’ the law locally and globally. It can be argued that ‘crime’ is a social construction created by the powerful for the benefit of the powerful and exploring this in relation to social harm highlighted further imbalances within this framework (Open University, 2010). Acts and behaviours may be more damaging and have far wider consequences although these do not fall under the criminal spotlight.

Eco crime is a crucial example in highlighting the imbalances within the notions of criminology. There is ‘Mounting evidence regarding the perils facing earth’s sustainable development and the causes and consequences of environment threatening events’ (Open University, 2010). All forms of pollutants are ‘key cause of death and disease. Air pollution causes around ‘800.00 (1.2% of total) premature deaths (Cohen et al., 2005). Global warming is referred to as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ by the IPCC (IPCC,. 2007). As the amount of deaths caused by Eco Crimes is growing, the number of environmental laws are ‘expandng’ (Open University, 2010). ‘Collectivly there are more treaties, protocols, directives and statutes that address environmental issues than any other area of law’ (Open University, 2010). This although is still not sufficient for solving the issues that arise with eco-crime, as cross-cultural regulations and laws lead to ‘major problems’ when trying to reduce ‘cultural harm’ and damage to the environment. The large corporate oil company British Petroleum (BP) has been involved in numerous cases of crimes against the environment.

According to a newspaper article, published by The Guardian in December 2007, over ‘200,000 gallons of crude oil’ were released into the ‘wilderness’ in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (Open University, 2010). This although an act of pollution covered by regulation and law never led to any criminal convictions or personal accountability. BP were only held responsible for their action in a lawsuit filed by Alaskan officials (Open University, 2010). This highlights a large inconstancy with what we perceive Justice for a criminal act, this, in the western notion of crime usually involves individuals taking responsibility for the actions committed and receiving a punishment in the form of a custodial sentence.

Further in the article it details the confirmation of plans that BP had finalised to begin mining oil in ‘Tar Sands’ (Open University, 2010). It is described as ‘the greatest climate crime’ by Green Peace as ‘100m tonnes of greenhouse gasses’ will be admitted into the atmosphere annually and it is said to ‘kill off 147,000 sq km of forest’. Bp accepted responsibility and did not deny the enormous carbon footprint that they would be leaving in the environment, they argued the fact that oil is an amenity that is a crucial part of modern day life and ‘new supplies’ are needed to ‘meet increasing demand for oil products’ (Open University, 2010).

This again is an incident of BP severely harming the environment although oil is of high importance within society and it could be argued that ‘provided it is extracted legally’ and safely the side effects and damage to the environment will usually be put down to ‘unavoidable side-effects’ rather than a criminal offence (Open University, 2010). Large corporate companies have been involved in many environmental issues but this is overshadowed by their position of power, in the case of BP it is supply and demand, as the majority of the population in western communities rely on the oil mined for by BP the damage can be overlooked as long as BP are operating in a legal framework for trade. In some cases it has been known that corporate power play a large role in ‘lobbying governments’ in an attempt to challenge regulations and laws that they view are ‘limiting their activity’ (Open University, 2010). Corporations work hard in an attempt to ‘pre-empt’ regulatory routines to ‘avoid legal restriction (Open University, 2010). The ability to apply ‘crimininal law’ to damaging Moreover, harmful activities are problematic.

‘It is difficult, if not impossible to quantify the scale of corporate harm’ although there also lies a problem with pinpointing the source of harm as air pollution can have a global effect. Unless someone is killed as a direct result of contamination that can be traced back to a source there, is no way of defining or controlling boundaries of responsibility. When looking at this from the perspective of social harm it is clear to see that the level of harm inflicted on people and the environment although wholly unmeasurable is a product of power that affects people on a global level. The concept of crime does not ‘take into account a wider range of conduct’ that defines a behaviour as ‘criminal or not’. A social harm perspective will allow exploration of harms and damage that look beyond the short term benefit to society and take into account the long standing effects that may occur if these acts and behaviours are allowed to be committed (Open University, 2010).

In conclusion, I feel that exploring crime focussing on social harm highlights the ‘space between and within the laws’ in both local and global legal systems. Taking on more of the concepts of social harm will allow for a deeper insight into what effect the corporate power has over the governments and the shaping of laws and regulations. I do not feel that the social harm theory is able to replace the notions of criminology but will aid in exploring the full extent that actions and behaviours have, even if they are committed within an entirely legal framework, on everyone involved and make a fairer and more balanced legal system.

OPEN UNIVERSITY DD301/BOOK 1, MUNCIE, J., TALBOT, D. and WALTERS, R., 2010. Crime: local and global. Chapter 5: Crime, harm and corporate power. Cullompton: Willan Publishing, in association with The Open University.

OPEN UNIVERSITY DD301/BOOK 1, MUNCIE, J., TALBOT, D. and WALTERS, R., 2010. Crime: local and global. Chapter 6: Eco Crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing, in association with The Open University.

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