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act, punishment, society, crimes and offender

CRIME, a word signifying in its legal ac ceptation any act to which the law attaches a penalty or punishment, without any reference to its moral turpitude. The common-law division of crimes was into treason (q.v.), felony (q.v.) and misdemeanor (q.v.). At present treason is usually classed as a felony and the distinction between felonies and misdemeanors hinges upon the degree of punishment prescribed for the crime, a felony being punishable by loss of life or by incarceration in a State prison for at least a year and by the deprivation of civil rights, and a misdemeanor being punishable by a fine or by imprisonment in a workhouse or by both. To constitute a crime, there must first be an act, since a mere opinion or intention, however wrong from a moral or religious point of view, if not carried into an act, cannot be treated as a crime, although the criminality of the act when done, may be partially or entirely dependent upon the intention of the actor. The true and only reason for making any given act a crime is the public injury that would result from its frequent perpetration. Each individual instance constituting an individual injury, fre quent repetition would make it a social injury. Society accordingly takes the most efficient measures for its prevention, by appealing to the fears of mankind. The crime is first accurately defined and the requisite punishment attached to it and then government itself becomes a party to the prosecution of the offender, in or der to ensure the carrying into effect of the pen alty; for the certainty of punishment is even more effectual in preventing crimes than any degree of severity with a probability of escape.

But while the only legitimate object of punish ment is to protect society against a repetition of crimes, humanity dictates that the reforma tion of the offender should also, if possible, be effected. But as government 'has no concern with men, except as members of society, it is obvious that their moral improvement can never be made the primary object of punishment. Self-protection is at once the foundation and the end of the power exercised by society in punishing its members. In preventing the repe tition of crimes, punishment is designed to op erate both upon the individual offender and upon the community at large. Upon the of fender himself it operates by physically dis abling him from repeating the offense, or by dissuading him from it through the recollection of past suffering, or by both of these means together. Upon the community at large, it op erates only by the terror of example. Conse quently it follows that the mode and measure ment of punishment are to be determined, not so much by the abstract nature of the offense as by its liability to frequent repetition, and also that no act should be punished at all, the repe tition of which does not injuriously affect the temporal welfare of society. Insanity, infancy, coercion or duress may excuse an act otherwise criminal in the degree that they destroy the vol untary nature of the act, which is therefore performed by the agent without specific crim inal intent See CRIMINOLOGY; FINGER PRINTS.