What is a Crimes Act?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 January 2020
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A crimes act is a piece of legislation that codifies crimes against the state or lays out guidelines for the management of criminal trials, rights, and penalties. There are many different pieces of legislation worldwide that are referred to as crimes acts, including several sections of Title 18 of the United States Code, as well as Australia and New Zealand's criminal codes. Since criminal classification often changes with the times, a crimes act may go through many modifications and amendments throughout its lifespan.

Though the criminal classification section of the US code may be referred to as the Crimes Act in full, the term is more specifically applied to certain sections of the document. One particular section that often is referred to simply as the crimes act is more accurately titled the War Crimes Act of 1996. This section of the US Code defines and lays out potential penalties for acts that are considered war crimes, such as the use of torture, experimentation, or inhumane treatment of any person protected by the Geneva Convention and similar treaties to which the United States is a signatory. The War Crimes Act applies to both victims of war criminal actions, and perpetrators of criminal actions, for both US civilians and military personnel.


Another piece of US legislation that may go by a shortened title is the Major Crimes Act of 1885. This section of the criminal code gave the federal government jurisdiction over certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, and assault, even if they occurred in tribal land controlled by Native Americans. Historians and legal scholars point to this legislation as a move on the part of the US government to reduce the power held by tribal leaders. Moreover, as was argued in a 20th century challenge to the law, the classification of these crimes as federal rather than state or tribal crimes often brought the imposition of stiffer penalties and harsher sentences. The Constitutionality of the Major Crimes Act was upheld in 1977, with the controlling opinion of the Supreme Court holding that the act did not violate equal protection clauses.

The Crimes Act of 1914 is a significant piece of Australian federal law to this day, serving as the major document describing the level and limits of federal involvement in criminal and justice proceedings throughout the country. Similarly, the New Zealand Crimes Act of 1961 continues to serve as the guiding document for federal criminal procedures, though it has undergone several controversial amendments since its inception. In 1986, a heated debate preceded the repealing of a section that forbid homosexual activity between consenting adults. In 2007, another fiercely debated alteration led to the removal of a protection that, according to proponents of the change, permitted the acquittal of child abusers by allowing that “reasonable force” could be used on children.


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