There are several definitions for criminal, but the one that comes readily to mind is simply someone who breaks the law. Yet, when looked at, the definition of criminal is more than that. An action may be criminal as well, for instance a behavior that is "unacceptable" (Encarta, 2009, p. 2) or against the morals of society. Regardless of whether the term defines a person's actions or the persons themselves, society has set the parameters that define criminal.
To further complicate defining criminal, location may play a part. What may be criminal in one geographical area may not be criminal in another. For example, counties that restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages (dry counties) that border on counties that can sell alcoholic beverages (wet counties). The action may be criminal in one area, but not in another, as one may violate the law in one area and not the other.
Changes in society can also shift what may be labeled as criminal. Smoking was initially accepted in society, but over time the views surrounding it have changed thus laws are developed that make once accepted behavior now criminal. Some formal or informal code has to be established to make one or ones actions criminal.
The age behavior becomes criminal is also set in those parameters set by society. Each state has laws regarding at what age someone can be charged in criminal courts. A two year old would not be held criminally accountable for taking candy from a store, where someone who is 10 may be. Some laws are age specific as well, such as curfew violations, alcohol and tobacco age limits and pornography laws. The person's behavior may be viewed as criminal based upon their age as well as their behavior.
At which stage of the legal procedure does the label of criminal get attached can be a factor in defining criminal. Is it during initial contact with law enforcement? After charges have been filed? Or does the label of criminal come after a conviction in criminal court?
Personal beliefs can also influence what is or who is defined as criminal. Groups of kids may be seen as criminals by older subjects, or even law enforcement, depending on the situation, time of day and location. Bias can influence whether or not a person or an action is labeled as criminal.
Society sets the criteria for who is called a criminal and what actions or behaviors are unacceptable, so criminal can apply to either the person that violates that criteria or the behavior that is deemed illegal through the law.