Why criminology matters
By: Dr. Haezreena Begum Abdul Hamid
Criminology is a study of crime that encompass the possible reasons for committing crimes, the behaviour of offenders and victims, sentencing, punishment, how offenders are rehabilitated or supervised, as well as other variables that permeate the commission of a crime.
Criminology is not law or jurisprudence which is primarily concerned with what the law is and what it ought to be but an interdisciplinary science which involves gathering and analysing data of various aspects of crime, criminals, deviance and anti-social behaviour.
The fascination towards criminology often stems from the portrayal of media on the lives and acts of serial killers, and investigation conducted by the Behavioural Science Unit in western countries. However, such depiction does not reflect the discipline of criminology in its entirety. In contrast, criminology is largely premised on discovering the causes, variables and theories that have led to the commission of the crime and anti-social behaviour.
In this regard, the delineation between offender and victim sometimes overlap and is rather blurry at times. This is because a victim may have the propensity to engage in anti-social behaviour and become a perpetrator, and an offender can also be victimised or have experienced victimisation. This is in contrast with how law defines crime which strictly focuses on the guilty act (‘actus reus’) and intention (‘mens rea’) with the exception of some strict liability cases which only requires guilty act without the need to establish intention. For instance, offences of statutory rape or possession of materials related to terrorist organisation.
While the definition of criminology largely encompasses people’s behaviour, the definition of crime is construed as acts that violate the law of the land. From a legal point of view, crime is defined as ‘an intentional act in violation of the criminal law committed without defence or excuse and penalized by the state’. This definition denotes the State as the sole authority who has control over crime and has the power to define what amounts to a criminal act. Therefore, what amounts to crime would only be confined to provisions in the statutes while any acts beyond these are not considered unlawful.
Although one might argue that the law-making process often vests on the sentiments and interest of the public, the fact remains that the State has the sole power to enact, redact and erase laws. It is also the State who initiates, organise and facilitate the law-making process. This is illuminated through the introduction or changing of laws which can ultimately change the nature of crime. Therefore, one can conclude that any act of crime can easily be introduced and erased by enacting or abolishing a law.
In other words, the criminality of an act will immediately cease upon the decriminalisation of such acts, or to acts which are considered legal but are later criminalised. This can be illustrated through the recent abolishment of attempted suicide under s.309 of the Penal Code (which is no longer a crime in Malaysia) or marital rape which was not considered a crime but is now unlawful under s.375A of the Penal Code or Domestic Violence Act 1994.
Given the fluidity of how crime can be configured and erased, criminologists often argue that crime, criminals, victims, and laws are socially constructed. This means that whether an act is criminal or not is determined by social processes.
Social processes in this term would refer to how society perceives an act and whether an act can be accepted or tolerated by the larger society. Also, if such acts are harmful, offensive or incite disgust or hate among the community. Societal response heavily vests on several factors which includes culture, religion, social norms, economy, well-being and others.
While the West has been actively including criminologists in developing their policies and laws, Malaysia is still confused about what is criminology and how criminologists can contribute to the development of policies and build a more coherent and progressive nation.
Therefore, in gearing towards a cohesive nation and promoting the Malaysia MADANI narrative, it is imperative to include criminological and sociological views in all aspects of laws and policies in Malaysia. This can promote better understanding, greater tolerance and diversity among all Malaysians.
The author is a criminologist and Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya. She can be reached at [email protected]