Like insanity, criminality is a legal term, not a medical or psychiatric diagnosis, illness, or syndrome. In Webster’s Dictionary, it is defined as “the quality or state of being a criminal; criminal activity.” Criminal is defined as “relating to, involving, or being a crime; relating to crime or to the prosecution of suspects in a crime; guilty of crime; also: of or befitting a criminal; disgraceful.” In other words, criminality refers to a pattern of human behavior or a specific act violating a law.
Typically, criminality involves intent to commit a wrong or serious negligence. Accordingly, individuals who lack criminal intent or negligence (eg, infants) usually are not convicted of crimes. Although this exoneration appears unfair at first blush, the goals of law are to deter and punish criminal behavior, neither of which would be accomplished by punishing those without criminal intent or serious negligence.
Further complicating matters is mental illness, which may be associated with criminality. Rarely, mental illness may be a viable defense against criminality (eg, the insanity defense). Again, society would not benefit from punishing individuals who are not responsible for their behavior (though an exception exists for certain instances of serious negligence, such as manslaughter resulting from an individual’s driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs).
Different societies have different customs, philosophies, and behavioral standards, all of which impact their laws and criminal justice systems. Thus, a given individual might be treated as a criminal in one society but not in another. To complicate matters further, police, courts, and governments have some degree of flexibility in applying and enforcing laws, which determines who should be prosecuted as a criminal. For example, some societies are so intolerant of diversity that they treat political dissidents as criminals.
Because criminality is a legal issue that is relative to a particular society, it cannot be treated by means of any surgical, medical, or psychiatric interventions. However, mental illness can result in symptoms associated with criminal behavior and activity. Because those symptoms may be treatable, there is a limited sense in which some criminality could be treatable as well.
Nearly any psychiatric symptom can be associated with criminality, because such symptoms can impair judgment and violate societal norms. For example, an individual with insomnia due to major depression may fall asleep while driving and kill a pedestrian, subsequently being subjected to a manslaughter conviction.