Crime can be described as a wrong to society involving the breach of a legal or statute rule which has criminal consequences attached to it. This however begs the question of intent, if an individual is ignorant of the laws he/she has breached can or indeed should they still be looked upon as having committed a crime? Laws, in particular statute laws brought about by parliament are subject to review and subsequently change.
An individual could quite conceivably commit a crime under statute law in complete ignorance if such a review had been recent and the judiciary had declared the offence to be one of strict liability as opposed to one requiring proof of 'mens rea'. Another salient point being the law generally only punishes individuals for positive conduct and not for inaction. An example of this would be no criminal proceedings would be brought against a person for failing to save a life, however, the most severe of sentences would surely be passed against an individual who took anothers' life.
As with so many areas of this subject there are exceptions – state sponsored executions and in defence of a nation are prime examples of such. This, it should be remembered is very much a generalisation and the law does, on occasion penalize for inaction aswell, for example, failure to submit accounts of a plc and the duty to report road accidents to the police. Duty may also arise out of a persons' job or out of public office, a Police Officer may have a duty to prevent an assault, the duty may also arise out of the obligation to care for a dependent.
This brings us full circle to the prospect of no charges being brought against an individual for failing to save a life, would this be the case if the life was that of a dependent? To return to the subject of 'mens rea', today there are many thousands of offences created by statute, more often than not as strict liability offences where guilt depends on a persons' responsibility with no regard for state of mind. A person can be found guilty regardless of what they intended or believed.
In these instances ignorance is therefore no defence. Common examples of these offences would be those relating to traffic offences, public hygiene and health and safety at work. Persons convicted of these offences are not generally considered criminals by the consensus, this term is usually reserved for thieves, rapists and murderers, crimes against the judiciary that bring moral condemnation, why is this so when regulatory offences can in some circumstances cause society massive harm?
In recent years and on more than one occasion the failure to correctly maintain air conditioning units in public buildings has lead to several deaths from legionnaires' disease. The consensus have remained ill informed as to the identity of those directly responsible, even so would those responsible be labelled as criminals even though lives have been lost? It has also been said that a crime is only created when society or powerful groups within society make rules whose infraction constitutes crime.
The need for such rules is born out of societies' desire for stability, order, predictability and its' morality although these desires have always and will continue to evolve with time and differ greatly throughout our various cultures and religions. We cannot assume that all acts deemed as crimes are a consensus of public opinion which is why no one person could explain to another (who has different values) why some activities are deemed criminal whilst others are not. Sellin wrote that crime should include violations of moral and social codes, violation of human rights and the right to a decent standard of living.
To expand briefly on the first of these viewpoints, bigamy in this Country is seen as a crime whereas in certain tribal cultures the higher a male members' social standing the more wives he will have. Concubines or secondary wives are readily accepted amongst these polygamous people. There are certain offences whose sole purpose is the enforcement of morality with which some would ask if the criminal law should really be concerned at all. There are occasions where the prohibited conduct does no harm to society or the participants.
In declaring certain 'immoral' conduct criminal in reality society is causing crime and therefore affecting the number of people labelled criminal, this in turn has a significant affect on statistics. The criminal offences I refer to are those relating to alcohol, gambling, pornography, bigamy and blasphemy and if these laws are essential to our society then why are there no criminal laws against adultery and fornication? None of our laws is absolute and legislation to withdraw or alter certain laws can happen as a result of public demand.
One of the best examples is the Wolfenden Committee report (1957) which lead to Parliament passing the Sexual Offences Act (1967) which declared that homosexual acts between consenting adult males (then over the age of 21and altered to 18 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) in private were no longer a crime. Should we really intervene if there is no harm to an individual? Where would this leave us when considering tax evasion, which could cause serious harm to society? It could also give rise to the question of the definition of harm, would it include harm to an individual who has been offended?
For example, if a woman were faced with a flasher or should we only be concerned with direct physical harm? Should the criminal law only protect individuals from harm caused by others or should it extend to protecting individuals from harming themselves? Example – protection from dangerous substances, i. e. drugs and alcohol? To move on to violations of human rights, there are extreme examples or gross violations such as genocide which has been illegal since the Nuremberg Judgements and the 1948 UN convention against genocide belongs to the same conceptual family as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Genocide, terrorism, disappearances and torture or murder, espionage, kidnapping and assault to put them in criminological terms when considered in their former description come under the umbrella of violations of human rights. The human rights movement has become a major international force evolving from the United Nations Charter and later UNESCO and the Council of Europe. It now encompasses pressure groups such as Amnesty International who enlist famous faces in order to gain media attention and public support.
In extreme cases shock tactics are also used, an actual AI advertisement in 1991 read "Brazil has solved the problem of how to keep kids off the street – kill them" A less extreme example is civil liberties groups who defend pornography on the grounds of freedom of speech are often attacked by women's movement groups who call pornography an assault on the human rights of women. Some extreme human rights activists are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize whilst others are jailed, tortured or simply disappear. Whether these individuals' views and beliefs are held sacred or ignored could be a question of morality.