What does it mean to say that crime is relative? Give an example.

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I have eliminated your second question because only one question at a time can be posted.  The second question is a good one, too, and I encourage you to post it. 

Assuming, which I think we must, that every society is going to have some crime, what crime there is can be viewed as relative from several different perspectives, depending on the community.  In the United States, most crime is a matter of state law, and the relativity of various kinds of crimes is sometimes reflected in the kinds of sentences that are handed out for them.  On an international level, the same relativity can apply as well, for example, some kinds of crimes being punished more or less severely in some countries than in others.  There was a recent incident in which a thief in either an African or Middle Eastern country got his hand cut off, showing that in that particular society, this is a relatively heinous crime, while in the United States, in any state, the thievery might result in 30 days in jail, or perhaps a fine. 

As each society ranks criminal behavior, there are a few variables to keep in mind.  First is the ranking of crimes against persons as opposed to crimes against property.  Generally, in American society today, the former is considered relatively worse than the latter.  However, historically, when a man's horse or his cow was all that stood between him and death, that sort of property crime was probably relatively worse, for example, than beating one's wife.   Second, no matter whether property crimes are more or less highly ranked than crimes against persons, there is sometimes a hierarchy such that the monetary value of the property dictates its relative place in the scheme of things.  The higher the value of the property, the more severe the sentence might be in such a society.  There are, I think, societies in which there is no principle of relativity applied at all, with equal punishment for the theft of a loaf of bread or several thousands of dollars.  

Having said all that, there is another perspective on the study of crime, called the "broken windows" theory.  This posits that we should not think of criminal behavior as relative at all, coming down hard on the trivial crimes such as the breaking of windows, graffiti, and even littering because allowing such "small" crimes to occur sets the stage for more serious crimes.  There are instances in which this approach has been effective, for example in New York City.