Sociology

What is a Criminal



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"What is a Criminal"
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A criminal is someone who has been found guilty of a crime. That much seems plain. Different states differ in their ideas of what crime is though. Actual prosecutions will vary along with the laws of different societies, at different times. Therefore, a country's laws may sometimes be broken in obedience to a higher law, and to do so is no real crime.

All this is easy to see. There are people who have been found guilty who are not really criminals. Martin Luther King is an example, and so is Gandhi. Yet there are also people who have not been caught, but who are indeed criminals. So the more difficult question has to do with personality. What personal traits lead someone to behave as a criminal?

In general, a criminal is someone with a short time horizon. Countless complicated caper movies to the contrary, a criminal is someone with an immediate problem, which he or she means to solve immediately. An embezzler may steal from a company for years, it's true, but each time with the idea that he or she is meeting a temporary need and will soon put the money back. That is not looking ahead. By the numbers, most crimes are of the nature of smash-and-grab.

In general, criminals are not smart. Some law-breakers are intelligent, as recent financial news demonstrates, and capable of elaborate schemes. However, most are people who have taken up a career in which the income is intermittent, and the retirement plan is the Graybar Hotel. This proves their lack of true intelligence.

Many criminals are unrealistic. The idea that anyone can escape the scene of a liquor store hold-up by driving fast in a world that holds helicopters and radios is silly. Yet criminals try it every day.

Another common criminal trait is violence. Some thugs are so violent, even when violence seems pointless or counterproductive, that the people who deal with them suspect brain damage or some inherited disorder. Some criminals overreact to the smallest perceived slight. Therefore, there are theories of crime that postulate that certain groups of criminals have organic brain disorders. There are certainly enough criminal families to lend at least some support to the idea of an inherited tendency to violent crime.

Criminals often appear to lack a sense of guilt. For example, someone who broke his wife's nose will say, "I warned her." He will say this trenchantly, with a clear sense of his own wrongs. "She just kept yakking."

They seem to lack empathy too. Consider a young woman who scams a family member for $25. She hears him say that this is his food money, and she swears on her daughter to pay him back on payday, but she is not good for it. She just cannot feel his pain.

Criminals, in general, cannot be trusted. Their rigid dedication to what they perceive as their own self-interest is a consistent trait. Their birth families, their spouses, and their children are eventually forced to give up on them, or to suffer years of deception and dishonesty. Unfortunately, many criminals know that the easiest and safest victims to rob are the people who love them. So criminals don't just break the law, they break hearts.

These are personality traits, and none of them is set in stone. People do change. It is also possible to imagine circumstances in which an upright person will choose crime, to feed a family or in the press of circumstance. So as well as blaming personality, it also makes sense to blame circumstance for creating some criminals.

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More about this author: Janet Grischy

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