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1.1: Definition of Crime

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    Let’s begin by defining a crime. Black’s Law Dictionary defines a crime as “a positive or negative act in violation of penal law.” Crime, Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed. 1990). Alaska law is more explicit. It defines a crime as “an offense for which a sentence of imprisonment is authorized; a crime is either a felony or a misdemeanor.” See AS 11.81.900(b)(11). We will explore this definition in more depth shortly, but for now remember that a crime is a formal announcement of a wrong against society, punishable by the government.

    You will learn about criminal acts and omissions to act in Chapter 4 “The Elements of a Crime.” For now, it is important to understand that a voluntary act (or failure to act) and criminal intent (culpable mental state) are elements or parts of every crime. Generally speaking, criminal law may only be enforced by the sovereign. The government must enact a criminal law specifying a crime and its elements before it can punish an individual for criminal behavior. Criminal laws are the primary focus of this book. As you slowly start to build your knowledge and understanding of criminal law, you will notice some unique characteristics of the United States’ legal system. For example, private citizens do not have the authority to criminally enforce a state’s criminal laws. See generally Cooper v. District Court, 133 P.3d 692, 697-700 (Alaska App. 2006). Also, criminal laws are built on the assumption that a reasonable person makes a rational decision about the consequences of their criminal behavior prior to violating it. For this reason, criminal laws must provide notice about what is prohibited before the law is enforceable. There are no “secret” criminal laws.

    Laws differ significantly from state to state. Throughout the United States, each state and the federal government criminalize different behaviors. Although this plethora of laws makes understanding America’s legal systems more complicated, it is a bedrock principle of federalism. The United States is made up of fifty individual states, the federal government, and hundreds of tribal governments, each of which is free to define crimes as it sees fit (within constitutional boundaries). A state’s criminal code often reflects its unique history, cultural makeup, and geography. Alaska is no exception. Alaska’s criminal code reflects the relative youth of the state, its vast geographical footprint, and its dependence on resource extraction. For example, you will see that Alaskans have borrowed heavily from other jurisdictions and enacted distinct laws that reflect a series of unique value judgments about Alaska.

    Although scholars disagree, generally speaking, Indian Tribes derive their police power from Congress and is limited to “Indian Country,” a specific term that has been the subject to extensive litigation. Alaska has 256 federally recognized Indian Tribes, more than any other state. But Alaska Native Tribes do not reside on Indian Country, with one notable exception, the Metlakatla Indian Community. Tribal sovereignty, and a tribe’s police powers, are complicated subjects and beyond the scope of this book.

    Also, remember that laws are not static. As society changes, so do the laws that govern behavior. Evolving value systems naturally lead to modifying or deleting laws and regulations to support changing beliefs. Although a certain stability is essential to the enforcement of rules, occasionally the rules must change. Take for example Alaska’s decision to implement criminal justice reform in 2016. With the passage of Senate Bill 91 (SB91), Alaska radically changed its criminal code. SB91 greatly reduced the use of cash bail, reduced jail sentences for most criminal offenses, and forced executive branch agencies to rely on alternatives to incarceration. See 2016 Alaska Sess. Laws ch. 36; seealso Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, Annual Report 2020. SB91 remained in effect for two years before the public demanded tougher enforcement of criminal laws. The Alaska Legislature largely repealed the criminal justice reform embodied in SB91 in 2019. See 2019 Alaska Sess. Laws ch. 4. The reasons for SB91 and its repeal are beyond the scope of this text, but it serves as a good reminder of how criminal laws can, and frequently do, change depending on public perception.

    Try to maintain an open mind when reviewing the different and often contradictory laws outlined in this book. Law is not exact like science or math. Also try to become comfortable with the gray area, rather than viewing situations as black or white.

    This page titled 1.1: Definition of Crime is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Rob Henderson via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.