By theorising on this causation, it is possible for criminologists to ultimately play a major part in directing attention towards over coming, limiting, or containing perceived social problems through suggestions for the criminal sanctions and reforms of the criminal justice system. Government policy makers can then use these findings and ideologies to base their policies on, and in turn begin combating crime. In short, criminology can be seen as the study and method with which to diffuse crime; but to do this, a clear understanding of ‘crime’ as a phenomena must first be developed.
"The legal concept of crime has it’s historical roots based in religion and morals" which dwells around the concept that crime is behaviour that is amoral or sinful. Though in today’s environment, it is more accurately depicted as the actions of individuals that break from preordained norms, based on morals and values belonging to their society, which in turn adversely affect other’s rights and ‘ideal’ states.
In determining what actions constitute crime, it is important that two major characteristics are identified. The first is known as the ‘actus reus’ and simply refers to the physical element of crime. If it can not be proven that a particular action took place (or non action depending on particular circumstances such as a duty of care and resulted in a negligent action) has taken place, then no crime has been committed. The second characteristic is known as ‘mens rea’, literally meaning the mental element of a guilty mind that intended to cause harm to others through deprivation of some fundamental right (Though this intent to deprive or break the law is a necessary element, certain instances such as accidents or a lack of knowledge of the laws, that had no intent to harm may still be considered as a criminal action for failing to act, but the penalties are not as severe.).
Another fundamentally important factor to acknowledge when attempting to discern the meaning of crime, is that it never remains static and is forever changing (as well being geographical in that what is considered criminal in one country may not be in another), through developments in such areas as technology (continuously advancing and creating new avenues to be exploited - such as computer crime), social refining of outdated morals and values, as well as changes within the legal and political systems in effect (such as changes that took place in the Tasmanian legal structure during the 1988 concerning homosexuality and it’s standing in society). It should also be noted that crime is very much time based, in that "what was once criminal may not be today, and what wasn’t criminal yesterday, maybe today." For this reason, even though many serious crimes are recorded in acts and law reports (in Victoria offenses are set out in the ‘Crimes Act of 1958’), this is not an extremely accurate way at defining crime for so many exist which are not held in these records, and so many are yet to be created. With these factors in mind, it is understandable why criminologists find it difficult to analyses if the crime rate is on the increase, decrease or staying at the same level, especially since not all crimes are reported.
The study of criminology began to develop during the 18th century. Prior to this period legal and judicial institutions were characterised by trials of torture, secret accusations, presumptions of guilt before trial and arbitrary court procedures which were barbaric to say the least. Furthermore, judges possessed virtually unrestrained discretion in setting horrific penalties such as death by burning. It wasn’t until the mid 18th century that the school of classical criminology (represented prominently by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham) was developed with the intention to reform the criminal justice system of it’s previously misguided ways, in order to protect and guide society. It set up clearly and unambiguously to define rights and obligations of individuals, as well as specify the exact nature and extent of punishment.
During the years following it’s introduction, the school’s theories were met with much success, and this could be attributed to their more human ideals on laws that stated:
Later, the 19th century saw the emergence of a different train of thought regarding criminology, and is known today as the ‘School of Positivism’. "Prior to this new line of thought, science rather than reason alone had become the dominant means of understanding the world". It became the task of such people as Lambroso, Garofalo and Ferri to extend the assumptions and methology of science to the problem of criminal behaviour. It was their belief that certain individuals were naturally born with criminal tendencies and for this reason their solution to crime was the scientific treatment of offenders.
In seeking answers to the underlying factors leading to criminal activity, the positivists came to three general conclusions:
Throughout the last 200 years, these two prominent schools of criminology, even though "based on distant sets of underlying ideological assumptions, deferring in rationales for punishment, and having unique social policies" in dealing with crime (frequently in conflict with one another) have managed to create today’s criminal justice system. The classical school developed consistency in punishment and deterrence, while the positivists further advanced these foundations to create rehabilitation, probation, parole, reform, juvenile justice and suitable sentencing. Both acted with the welfare in mind of the state and it’s citizen’s by removing unjust restrictions and punishments on individuals and their liberty. Today the study of criminology continuous to advance, and with it comes a promise for the future of not only new, but more effective methods in combating crime, protection of individuals and their rights, as well as the fair treatment of criminals based on more effective methods of research, technology and humanity. Changes in legislation, and the criminal justice system are just a few of the modifications that will continue to develop with criminology. Outdate methods (such as the debated use of juries in trials) will be removed, and replaced by newer, more accurate systems. Without the persistent study of criminology, our society and its ways would become stagnant, ineffective in dealing with situations that would otherwise detract from our over all well being. And society’s well being is the essential purpose of the entire legal system.
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