‘Crime does not exist. Only acts exist, acts often given different meanings within various social frameworks.’ (Christie 2004: 3)  Nils Christie makes an instructive distinction between crimes and ‘deplorable acts’.  Some deplorable acts (and of course there will be disagreements among people about which acts are deplorable) are made into crimes, while others are not.  Are all crimes deplorable acts? (Probably not). Are all deplorable acts crimes? (Definitely not). Is making a deplorable act into a crime the best way of reducing its incidence? (Not always, for sure.) Does making an act a crime have undesirable consequences? (Sometimes yes – for example, drug enforcement strategies may the effect of steering users into the company of pushers who will exploit them and involve them in more crimes.) There are many other unhappy consequences besides.

The implications of this critical distinction have been insufficiently appreciated in criminal justice. Where some type of behaviour is giving rise to concern, there are often demands for its criminalisation or, if it is a crime already, for greater punishment. This certainly turns people into criminals, with all the destructive consequences that so often ensue. Whether it leads to fewer such ‘deplorable acts’ is altogether uncertain. Making something a crime is rarely the only, seldom the best and sometimes not even a remotely plausible way of reducing its incidence.

Christie again:

“Some acts are seen as terrible … Terrible acts, however, can be met in various ways. In certain situations they are given the meaning of crime, and action seen as crime control is initiated. In other situations the same unwanted acts are again seen as terrible, but suited to sanctions such as social distance, expulsion, ridicule or demands for compensation. One of the challenges for criminology is to analyse the social conditions giving unwanted acts that particular meaning. In this activity, criminology might be able to give advice on how to find, preserve and nurture those social conditions which work against recent trends of seeing so many unwanted acts as crime in need of penal action. Instead we could open the way for alternative forms of perception and alternative ways of control. Doing this, criminology might come to play an important role in the defence of civil society.” (Quotation from ‘Roots of a Perspective’ in Thinking about Criminology edited by Simon Holdaway and Paul Rock (1998): 130)


A Suitable Amount of Crime (Nils Christie)

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