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As a starting point, crime may be defined as an act or omission prohibited or punished by law. A ‘criminal offence’ includes any infringement of the criminal law, from murder to riding a bicycle without lights. This is quite separate from the ‘civil law.’ In the civil law proceedings are begun by persons, companies, or organizations claiming to have suffered a breach. Prosecutions in the criminal law are begun by an agency of the State.
What is classified as a crime is supposed to reflect the values of society and to reinforce those values. If an act is regarded as harmful to society or its citizens, it is often, but not always (take smoking and drinking for example), classified as a criminal offence.
People rely on government to classify what acts are criminal and what the penalties for these criminal offences are; the idea being that those most harmful to us carry the harshest penalties. In other words, crime is what the government says it is. Of course, what this means is that what is a crime one year might not be a crime the next, and that penalties for crime can also change a great deal.
Most of us get our information about crime from the popular media: television and radio news, and the newspapers. Three quarters of people get information about the criminal justice system from television or radio news, and about one half said that they get information from television documentaries, local and tabloid newspapers, but only 6 % of people think that their main source of news about the criminal justice system is inaccurate. This means that the vast majority of us trust our news sources, so what these sources say is very important. The fact is that sensational stories attract the most people. The most sensational stories involve the most shocking crimes (murder, rape, and any crime against children), or the most prolific or exceptional offenders. But these are only a small minority of crimes. And the amount of time and space covering crime issues continues to rise and so does our fear of crime.
Social exclusion is often related to crime. Many offenders have experienced poverty or lack of family support, and we know that many prisoners have poor education, housing problems, little job experience, and may have alcohol, drugs and mental health problems. Statistics show that both offenders and victims of crimes often suffer from one or more aspects of social exclusion. It is possible to see how combined factors such as family change, drug misuse, or mental health problems could make a person more susceptible to criminal activities.
Drugs and alcohol are major factors in crime. It is believed that over 40% of offences are committed under the influence of alcohol. Drunkenness is associated with a majority of murders, manslaughters and stabbings and half of domestic assaults.
You’re walking along the street, minding your own business, and suddenly a crime takes place. You are a witness and have information which will be important at the court case. If you witness a crime you may be asked to go to a police station to give a statement and perhaps to attend an identification parade. Even if you are not needed as a witness at court, the police should keep you informed about hearing dates and the outcome of the case.
For most of us, the police are the visible face of the criminal justice system. The police patrol our streets, arrest the suspects, collect the evidence, and without them there would be no criminal justice system.
Locking people away for certain behaviours may be a controversial idea to some, while others may believe it to be an effective way to protect the public from “dangerous” individuals. In theory, imprisonment acts to take away freedom; punishing them while also taking away their ability to commit more crimes. Of course, the length of a custodial sentence depends on the type and seriousness of the offence, possible risk to the public and maximum penalty by law.