Crime, its causes, and how it is dealt with, are some of the biggest issues in Britain today. Politicians and political parties can win or lose power depending on how well we think they are doing on the issue of crime. Not a day passes without some criminal justice story featuring in the news. This page is intended to give you some foundation in this important area.

What is Crime?

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.

  • In England, criminal cases are cited as The Crown verses Mr. X (and are written as R. v. Mr. X, the R. standing for Regina, the Queen).

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.

The United Kingdom relies on Parliament 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.

For example:

  • In 1966 sex between two twenty-one year old men was illegal. In 1967, after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, it was legal.
  • In 2017 you could be sent to jail for simple possession of marijuana, now you cannot.
  • In 1919 you were free to possess and consume opium (of which heroin is a derivative), but in 1920 it became illegal without a doctor’s prescription.