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Crime is an act which violates the law and is punishable by law. A crime can be the action of violating or breaking the law, having the intention of doing so or helping others in the process. Crimes are viewed as offenses against society, and as such are punished by the state. The definition of a crime generally reflects the current attitudes prevalent in a society. For example, posession of drugs was not always a crime, while the Prohibition Era made alcohol illegal.

The first civilizations had codes of law, though these codes were not always recorded. The first known written code is the Code of Hammurabi, which originated in ancient Mesopotamia and reflected society's belief that law was derived from the will of the gods. The current American legal system derives from English common-law, usually case law rather than statutory law, in all states except Louisiana, which follows a French system.

Crimes are divided into major categories of definition, under which fall many specific crimes. For example, the category of homicide includes murder, manslaughter, and in some states, self-abortion or abortion without consent of the female. Each state has its own penal law, which is frequently based on the Model Penal Code. There are also federal statutes, though the defining of federal crimes only became popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

Crimes are generally classified into different degrees of severity, including violations, misdemeanors, and felonies. Violations are punishable by a fine, misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in a state penitentiary and/ or a fine, and felonies are punishable by a year or more in a state prison and/ or a fine.

Natural law theory of crime

An alternative view of crime is derived from the theory of natural law. In this view, crime is the violation of individual rights. Since rights are considered as natural, rather than man-made, what constitutes a crime is also natural, in contrast to laws, which are man-made. Adam Smith illustrates this view, saying a smuggler would be an excellent citizen, "had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."

Natural law theory thus distinguishes between criminality and illegality, the former being derived from human nature, the latter being derived from the interests of those in power. This view leads to a seeming paradox, that an act can be illegal that is no crime, while a criminal act could be perfectly legal.

Many enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and the American Founding Fathers subscribed to this view to some extent, and it remains influential among so-called classical liberals and libertarians.

see also hate crime, criminal law, civil law, social policy, Supreme Court, criminology, victimology, criminal justice, case law, statutory law, strict liability crimes, insanity defense, defense of justification, mala in se, mala prohibida, mens rea, actus reus, inchoate crimes.