Defining state crime

Sociologists have put forward several ways of defining state crime:

Domestic law Chambliss defines state crime as acts defined by the law as criminal and committed by state officials in pursuit of their jobs as state representatives.

Social harms and zemiology Michalowski define state crime as including both illegal acts and legally permissible acts whose consequences are similar to those of illegal acts in the harm they cause. This definition prevents states from ruling themselves out of court by making laws that allow them to misbehave.

Labelling theory argues that whether an act is a crime depends on whether the audience for that act defines it as a crime. This recognises that state crime is socially constructed, and so what people regard as a crime can ery over time and between groups.

International law Rothe and Mullins define a state crime as any action by or on behalf of the state that violates international law and states own domestic law. This has the advantage of using globally agreed definitions of state crime and of being intentionally designed to deal with state crime.

Human rights

Critical criminologists Herman and Schwendinger argue that we should define crime in terms of the violation of basic human rights, rathe than the breaking of legal rules. In their view, states that practice imperialism, racism or sexism are committing crimes. Like the harms approach, their view is an example of transgressive criminology. Since it foes beyond the traditional boundaries of criminology. However, Cohen argues that while gross violations of human rights are clearly crimes, other acts, such as economic exploitation, are not self-evidently criminal.

The culture of denial Cohen argues that the state conceals and legitimate their human rights crimes.

  • Dictatorships simply deny committing human rights abuses
  • Democratic states have to legitimate their actions, often following a three step stage ‘spiral of state denial’
  • Neutralisation theory Cohen examines the ways in which states and their official neutralise their crimes. Therese include denial of victim, denial of injury, denial of responsibility.