A crime is a wrong committed by a person against society. A crime is different from a tort, or civil wrong. In a crime, society punishes the wrongdoer by some combination of imprisonment, fine, probation, and, in some cases, death. In a tort, the injured person usually recovers for his or her injuries by suing the wrongdoer and receiving a money judgment from the court.
An act committed by a wrongdoer can give rise to both a crime and tort. For example, if person A shoots person B in the leg, person A could both get arrested by the police for attempted murder and get sued by person B to recover the medical bills for treatment to his injured leg. Crimes exist to make society safer and to discourage people from committing certain acts. Torts exist to make the injured party whole again for injuries caused by the wrongdoer.
Criminal law defines the activities that we as a society want to punish and discourage. They range from local crimes, such as speeding and running a stop sign; to traditional state crimes, such as rape, murder and arson; to federal crimes, such as treason; to international crimes, such as genocide.
Historically, criminal law in the U.S. was left primarily to the states, but a public outcry in the 1980s and 1990s for greater safety has resulted in a significant increase in federal criminal statutes. In this discussion, we're going to focus primarily on the local crimes and the traditional state crimes in Illinois, but we'll also address the growing area of federal crimes.
A crime is generally either a misdemeanor or a felony. Felonies are serious crimes, while misdemeanors are less serious crimes. Under the traditional definition, a crime is a felony if the maximum punishment that can be imposed is at least a year in prison. A crime is a misdemeanor if the maximum punishment is less than a year. Thus, a crime punishable by a possible prison sentence of six months to two years is a felony because the maximum sentence (two years) is at least one year.
Select any of the following areas of criminal law for a more in-depth discussion (for more information on business crimes, see