Crime is not an objective phenomenon. It does not exist independently of the social, political and legal processes that help to define and control it. Crime is not simply a quality of the act, but also a judgement. To say something is 'criminal' means it is legally wrong and suggests that the person who commits the act is somehow culpable. The most common definition of crime is that which links it to substantive criminal law. Michael and Adler in 1933 (Muncie, Maclaughlin, 2002) presented the earliest position on this issue, that something is not a crime unless outlawed by state legislation.
Tappan argued that 'Crime is an act in violation of the criminal law committed without defense or excuse and penalized by the state as felony or misdemeanour' (Muncie &Mclaughlin 2002). This black letter law definition of crime lacks ethical, moral and ideological element. It means it does not matter how immoral reprehensible and damaging an act is, unless provided for in the statues it is not a crime. The temporal and cultural relativity of 'crime' ensures that there is no behaviour which is always and everywhere criminal.
For example helping the Jews in Nazi Germany was a criminal act – yet a highly moral one. Societies past and present utilise the concepts of law and punishment to identify and regulate what is identified as 'bad' or 'offensive' behaviour – thereby making certain types of conduct more socially visible and labelling these as 'crime'. There is a very strong relationship between the criminal legal process and popular pressures on legislators and legal practitioners to conform to a variety of socio-cultural agendas.
Howard Becker (1963) and many other criminologists who supported the labelling theory believed the deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied. A particular society dictates the social norm according to the social values of the group which formulated it. Any violation of social norm or code of conduct of that society is classed as crime and the person who has violated the social norm is labelled as a criminal. Society determines whether laws are just or unjust, by arguing that just laws ought to be thought of as promises that everyone in society would realize is in their best interest to make to one another.
A few days ago Jacques Chirac the French president hinted strongly that France will soon introduce legislation banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to school, saying most French people saw "something aggressive" in the veil and that the secular state could not tolerate "ostentatious signs of religious proselytism" (Times on Line 11/12/2003). The prevention of terrorism act 2002 in the UK gives increased powers to police to keep foreign nationals in detention without charge and trial.
The point being made here is to emphasise that by bringing a change in criminal law some totally innocent acts can become crimes. Concepts of crime change through history with the emergences of modern laws (eg. Prohibition of alcohol in the US in the 1920s, legal use of opium in the 19th century). Social perception and public attitudes often affect the severity of punishment according to the status of a criminal. The label "crime" is applied primarily to the dangerous actions of the poor, while even greater dangers imposed on society by the wealthy are overlooked or justified in various ways.
White collar crimes despite the fact that they often involve large number of people usually bring shorter terms of imprisonments than an armed robbery or burglary. A bank president who has embezzled bank funds is not usually viewed as a common criminal. Although crime is a growth industry in all societies but it does not mean that social and cultural process play fair and just role in the evolution of the concept of crime. In developing a Marxist theory of crime and criminal law, Chambliss (Muncie, Maclaughlin 2002 p. 17) argues that acts are defined as criminal only when it is in the interest of the ruling class to define them so.
The crime has no universal or objective existence, but is relative to the subjective contingences of social and historical circumstance. An Italian criminologist, Raffaele Garofalo (1914) tried to ascertain whether there were any crimes which 'at all times and in all places' would be considered as 'punishable acts'. He found that their existence could not be proved (Stephen Jones 2003). History is full of examples of individuals, ranging from Aristotle to the suffragette, and more recently Nelson Mandela, who at some point were condemned as criminals but subsequently came to be considered as heroes.