Logic, Language, and Conventional Norms

A look at the English lexicon, and that of other languages, quickly disarms the idea of a unidimensional criminality. Discrete and distinct concepts of criminal behavior can be distinguished: violence, where one human being harms another, and theft, where one human being takes the belongings of another. Within these categories reside a large number of individual and idiosyncratic behaviors, which are easily and consistently categorized. “Crime” on the other hand, combines a larger and more disparate number of behaviors that hold in common the fact that they are against the local, contemporary criminal law. It is clear that the naming of a behavior as a “crime” has more to do with the public attitude toward the behavior than the nature of the behavior itself, in contrast with the naming of acts of “violence” and “theft” which describe the nature of these behaviors.

There are distinct differences in crime types and the social consequences of each. For example, homicide and the other types of violent crime are consistently rated as “more serious” than theft crime by the FBI and other authorities (e.g., Rossi, Waite, Bose, & Berk, 1974). Property crime is seen as less serious than violent crime by the public as well (Rossi & Berk, 1997). Modern cultures worldwide abhor murder, rape, and very serious assaults and robberies (though they differ much more widely on how they feel about theft, alcohol and drug use, and juvenile misconduct). The estimated cost of violence—including hospital bills, medical insurance, pain, psychological suffering, and loss of income—is higher than that of property crime. When people are surveyed, they are much more concerned about violent crime than theft and other forms of nonviolent crime. Lay people do not think of violent offenders the same way they think of property offenders; neither do we.

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