What is Culpability?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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Culpability is a legal term which is used to describe someone's level of responsibility for a crime. When someone is culpable, it means that he or she can be blamed and held responsible for behavior which is criminal in nature. Determinations of culpability can be an important part of legal investigations and decisions about sentencing, except in strict liability crimes where the accused is always held responsible, regardless of culpability.

Culpability can take a number of forms. When someone commits a crime purposefully, it is often regarded as the most serious form of blameworthiness. An example might be someone who fires a gun at someone with the intent to kill that person. In this case, the accused acted with free will, undertaking an action with a criminal purpose. If the accused is also determined to have full moral agency, the ability to make moral and ethical decisions, he or she will be considered culpable for the crime.


People may also engage in activities with the knowledge that they could lead to criminal situations, or engage in activity which is widely known to be dangerous, in which case there is an expectation that they should know and act accordingly. Negligence is an example of this type of culpability. To borrow the gun example again, someone who fails to secure a gun in a gun safe or with a gun lock would be considered negligent if someone else picked up the gun and fired it. The person is considered negligent because he or she allowed circumstances which could result in a criminal act to occur, and should have known that an unsecured gun would present a danger.

People may also be considered reckless, in which case they disregard risks and choose to act in a way which could result in a crime. Firing a gun out a sunroof for amusement, for example, could result in injury or death to bystanders. If such an event were to occur, the person who fired the gun would be considered culpable because she or he was behaving recklessly, choosing to fire the gun despite being aware of the dangers.

In certain types of cases, mental state is an important factor. Someone may commit a crime but not be in a mental state to fully understand the nature of the crime or the consequences of his or her actions. In this cases, the standard for culpability may not be met, which would change the approach to prosecution and sentencing.


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Post 5

@Mammmood - The only problem with all of the artful finessing that lawyers and courts do over moral culpability is that it doesn’t change the outcome of a crime.

If a person is killed, nothing will bring them back. That’s why many times the victim’s friends and relatives demand ultimate justice, regardless of the state of the mind of the accused.

No, ultimate justice won’t bring the victim back, but anything less will seem like a perversion of justice and a complete travesty in my opinion.

I tend not to be too lenient in these matters myself. I am glad I’ve never served on a criminal jury where the insanity defense has been advanced and accepted by the other jurors. With me in the mix, I’m afraid we’d have a hung jury.

Post 4

@everetra - Many people wonder, why is criminal culpability difficult to determine?

If you take apart what culpability means, line by line, you’ll see that each one of the variables could skew the outcome of the courts in determining culpability.

The law defines knowingly, willingly and recklessly as being some of those variables. I am pretty sure that a lawyer could argue persuasively that one or more those conditions were not met when defending his client.

It’s a game, in my opinion, open to a lot of parsing and even sophistry. Some people have become jaded about the whole insanity defense, where someone who is otherwise of sound mind and body is suddenly deemed to be in a no culpable mental state when he carries out a crime.

Seriously, do people “suddenly” become insane? I don’t think so.

Post 3

@everetra - To answer your question, the age for juvenile culpability varies from state to state; it can be as low as ten years of age or as high as eighteen. It’s a delicate matter because it’s a moral issue.

When do we really become accountable for our actions? Under Jewish law, when a child reached a certain age, like 14 or so (commensurate with his Bar Mitzvah) he reached the age of accountability. He is said to have developed moral conscience at this point, able to discern right from wrong.

I think our laws have somewhat borrowed from this tradition. In either case, I always shudder when I hear the case of a really young child killing his parents.

Something is really wrong. I always wonder if the child is simply acting out something they saw on television, and if by extension, our entire media culture is somewhat culpable.

Post 2

I think that culpability can be a subjective assessment, influenced not just by context but age as well.

For example, what is the age of culpability? At what point does a youth become legally accountable under the law for having committed a crime?

I’ve heard of cases in the news where really young kids have done atrocious things like kill their parents, and the courts have been faced with the decision of how to treat the defendant.

Typically if found guilty the judge would put the child in juvenile detention until he or she reaches a certain age, usually around 21. The idea of juvenile detention is that hopefully the child can be rehabilitated and released back into society.

Post 1

Almost every night in my city, it seems,there is a news item about reckless driving along with driving under the influence. Sitting at a bar getting drunk is not a crime. But once a person, who is drunk, gets into a car and drives away in a reckless manner (speeding or driving in a way that is dangerous to others), he/she is intentionally exposing others to danger.

He knows his behavior puts others in danger, even if no injuries happens.That person is culpable for the crime of recklessness and driving drunk.

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