What is the Definition of Criminal

The word “criminal” can be defined on three levels: (1) a person who commits a crime, (2) a person who has been convicted of a criminal offense, and (3) a person considered as a lawbreaker under subjective notions of “criminal behavior.” The first two are intuitively obvious, but the third, as we shall discuss, is a far less clear. Defining the term “criminal” also hinges on the definition of what “crime” is. Black’s Law Dictionary defines crime as “any act done in violation of those duties which an individual owes to the community, and for the breach of which the law has provided that the offender shall make satisfaction to the public.”

Through the process of socialization, each of us learns what “duties” we owe the community. In a free society, the basic exercise of those duties is simply to respect the personal and property rights of others and, among other things, to behave in a way that does not endanger the health, welfare, or safety of those around us. So the person who commits a crime is the person who behaves in an essentially antisocial way, and the penalty is usually prescribed in our code of criminal law. A person who is convicted of a crime, then, becomes a “criminal” in the legal sense of the word. People in prison are criminals and the record of their crime and punishment is not only permanent, but also carries with it further penalties and social stigma even after the offender makes “satisfaction to the public.” (In some states, for example, ex-felons lose their right to vote.)

The third category of “criminal” – the person who chooses to break a religious or political code or an unjust law – is the where the semantics of meaning and societal values come into play. Yesterday’s criminal can eventually turn out to be today’s role model. For example, Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned in South Africa and India for resistance to racial and British colonial laws. One of Martin Luther King’s most famous treatises on civil disobedience was written from inside the Birmingham, Alabama, jail.

Blurring the line between the antisocial lawbreaker and the political dissenter who runs afoul of the law are those who commit violent crimes in furtherance of a cause. From the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord, who killed the King’s soldiers, to young radicals of the Weather Underground, who declared war on conventional society in the late 1960’s, the definition of “criminal” would depend on one’s point of view. Had things turned out differently, the signers of the Declaration of Independence could have been hung for treason. Had the Union lost the Civil War, William T. Sherman could have been tried as a war criminal for his devastation of Georgia.

Most agree on the conventional definition of “criminal” as a law breaker who violates the Golden Rule and the “social contract” requiring good behavior and consideration of the rights of others. History teaches us, however, that one society’s criminal might be regarded another’s freedom fighter. Also, yesterday’s “criminal activity” could turn out to be everyday and common behavior. Just as winners of wars tend to write the history we learn in school, prominent members of our society – judges, police, the clergy – also get to write our laws. Laws, in turn, reflect the values of our society and define who are law abiding and who are criminals.