Define: Instrumental Crime

Instrumental Crime
Instrumental Crime
Quick Summary of Instrumental Crime

Instrumental crime refers to engaging in actions that are illegal and subject to punishment. Examples of instrumental crime include theft, physical harm to others, and violation of safety regulations. It is crucial to abide by the law and refrain from activities that may cause harm to individuals or the community.

What is the dictionary definition of Instrumental Crime?
Dictionary Definition of Instrumental Crime

Instrumental crime refers to a type of crime that is carried out with a specific goal in mind and is punishable by law as a breach of legal duty. Examples of instrumental crime include robbery, embezzlement, counterfeiting, forgery, prostitution, illegal gambling, and extortion. These crimes are committed with the intention of gaining something, such as money or power. For instance, robbery is committed with the aim of stealing money or valuables, while prostitution is carried out to make money through sexual acts. Instrumental crime differs from crimes of passion, which are committed impulsively without premeditation, and victimless crimes, which do not have a direct victim, such as drug use or gambling. Overall, instrumental crime is a serious offence with severe consequences, and it is important to understand the different types of crime and their consequences in order to prevent them from occurring.

Full Definition Of Instrumental Crime

Instrumental crime, a concept central to criminological studies, refers to offences committed with the primary objective of achieving a specific, often material, gain. This gain could be financial, social, or even psychological. Understanding the motivations, mechanisms, and implications of instrumental crime is crucial for developing effective strategies for prevention and control. This overview delves into the definitions, types, motivations, theories, and societal impacts of instrumental crime, offering a comprehensive exploration of the topic.

Definitions and Characteristics

Instrumental crimes are distinguished by their utilitarian nature. Unlike expressive crimes, which are driven by emotions such as anger or jealousy, instrumental crimes are calculated actions performed with a clear goal in mind. The primary characteristic of instrumental crime is its purposefulness—the offender engages in illegal activities to gain something tangible.

Key Characteristics:

  1. Purposefulness: The crime is committed with a specific objective, such as financial gain.
  2. Planning: Instrumental crimes often involve a significant degree of planning and foresight.
  3. Rationality: Offenders weigh the costs and benefits before engaging in criminal activities.
  4. Opportunity: These crimes are often opportunistic, depending on the availability of targets or resources.

Types of Instrumental Crime

Instrumental crimes cover a wide range of illegal activities, from petty theft to complex financial fraud. Some of the most common types include:

  1. Theft and Burglary: These are perhaps the most straightforward examples of instrumental crime, where the primary motive is the acquisition of valuables.
  2. Robbery: Involves the use of force or threat to obtain money or valuables, combining elements of both instrumental and expressive crime due to the potential for violence.
  3. Fraud: Encompasses a variety of deceitful practices aimed at gaining financial advantage, such as credit card fraud, identity theft, and insurance scams.
  4. Drug Trafficking: This illegal trade is driven by the enormous profits to be made from the sale of prohibited substances.
  5. White-Collar Crime: Includes embezzlement, insider trading, and other financial crimes typically committed by individuals in positions of trust or authority.

Motivations Behind Instrumental Crime

The motivations for instrumental crime are varied and can be influenced by individual, social, and economic factors. Key motivations include:

  1. Financial gain is the most common motive, and individuals commit crimes to improve their economic situation.
  2. Social Status: In some cases, crimes are committed to gain prestige or status within a particular group or community.
  3. Power and Control: Some offenders seek to exert power or control over others, which can be a significant motivator in crimes like extortion.
  4. Psychological Gratification: The thrill or excitement of committing a crime can be a motivating factor, especially in cases of repeated offences.

Theoretical Perspectives

Various criminological theories offer insights into the causes and mechanisms of instrumental crime. Some of the prominent theories include:

  1. Rational Choice Theory: This theory posits that individuals commit crimes after a rational decision-making process, weighing the potential benefits against the risks and costs.
  2. Strain Theory: Suggests that societal pressures and the inability to achieve socially approved goals through legitimate means can lead individuals to engage in instrumental crime.
  3. Social Learning Theory: Proposes that criminal behaviour is learned through interaction with others, where individuals adopt the techniques and motivations for crime from their environment.
  4. Opportunity Theory: Focuses on the availability of opportunities for crime, suggesting that the presence of suitable targets and the absence of capable guardians increase the likelihood of offending.

Societal Impact

Instrumental crime has far-reaching implications for society, affecting economic stability, public safety, and social cohesion. Some of the key impacts include:

  1. Economic Losses: Instrumental crimes like theft, fraud, and embezzlement can lead to significant financial losses for individuals, businesses, and governments.
  2. Fear and Insecurity: The prevalence of instrumental crime can create a climate of fear and insecurity, impacting the quality of life and leading to increased spending on security measures.
  3. Social Disintegration: High levels of instrumental crime can undermine trust within communities, weaken social bonds and contribute to social disintegration.
  4. Resource Allocation: Governments and law enforcement agencies must allocate substantial resources to prevent, detect, and prosecute instrumental crimes, which can strain public budgets.

Preventive Measures and Control Strategies

Effective strategies to combat instrumental crime require a multifaceted approach, addressing both the root causes and the immediate opportunities for crime. Key strategies include:

  1. Economic Policies: Improving economic opportunities and reducing poverty can help address some of the underlying motivations for instrumental crime.
  2. Education and Awareness: Raising awareness about the consequences of crime and providing education and vocational training can divert individuals from criminal activities.
  3. Law Enforcement: Enhancing the capacity of law enforcement agencies to detect and prosecute instrumental crimes through better training, technology, and resources.
  4. Community Engagement: Building strong, cohesive communities with active participation in crime prevention can help reduce opportunities for crime.
  5. Regulatory Frameworks: Implementing and enforcing robust regulatory frameworks to prevent white-collar crimes and financial fraud.

Case Studies

To illustrate the dynamics of instrumental crime, several case studies can be examined:

  1. The Enron Scandal: One of the most infamous cases of corporate fraud, where top executives engaged in extensive accounting fraud to hide the company’s financial losses, leading to its eventual collapse.
  2. The Great Train Robbery: A famous case in the UK where a gang of robbers hijacked a Royal Mail train, making off with millions in cash. The meticulous planning and execution highlight the instrumental nature of the crime.
  3. Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme: A large-scale financial fraud where Madoff used a Ponzi scheme to defraud investors of billions of dollars, showcasing the complexities of white-collar crime.

Future Directions

The landscape of instrumental crime is continually evolving, with advancements in technology creating new opportunities for offence. Cybercrime, for example, has become a significant concern, with criminals exploiting the internet to commit a range of instrumental crimes, from identity theft to large-scale financial fraud. Future efforts to combat instrumental crime must adapt to these changes, incorporating new technologies and methodologies to stay ahead of offenders.

Key Areas for Future Focus:

  1. Cybersecurity: Enhancing cybersecurity measures to protect against digital forms of instrumental crime.
  2. International Cooperation: Strengthening international cooperation to address transnational crimes, such as human trafficking and drug smuggling.
  3. Research and Development: investing in research to better understand the motivations and methods of instrumental criminals leads to more effective prevention strategies.
  4. Public-Private Partnerships: Encouraging collaboration between public institutions and private entities to share information and resources in the fight against crime.


Instrumental crime, driven by the pursuit of tangible gains, poses significant challenges to society. Understanding its motivations, mechanisms, and impacts is crucial for developing effective prevention and control strategies. By addressing the economic, social, and environmental factors that contribute to instrumental crime and by enhancing law enforcement capabilities, societies can mitigate the risks and consequences of these offences. As technology and globalisation continue to evolve, so too must our approaches to combating instrumental crime, ensuring a safer and more secure future for all.

Instrumental Crime FAQ'S

An instrumental crime refers to a criminal act committed with the intention of achieving a specific goal or objective, such as financial gain or personal revenge.

Examples of instrumental crimes include theft, fraud, embezzlement, blackmail, and cybercrime.

While instrumental crimes are premeditated and committed for a specific purpose, crimes of passion are impulsive acts driven by intense emotions, such as anger or jealousy.

The penalties for instrumental crimes vary depending on the jurisdiction and the severity of the offence. They can range from fines and probation to imprisonment, restitution, or a combination of these.

Yes, individuals who aid, abet, or conspire with others to commit an instrumental crime can be held legally responsible, even if they did not directly participate in the act itself.

The burden of proof in instrumental crime cases lies with the prosecution, which must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime with the required intent or purpose.

In some cases, individuals may argue that they committed an instrumental crime out of necessity or self-defence. Whether such justifications are accepted depends on the specific circumstances and the applicable laws.

Expungement eligibility varies by jurisdiction, but in general, instrumental crimes are less likely to be eligible for expungement due to their intentional nature and potential harm caused.

Yes, instrumental crimes can be prosecuted as federal offences if they involve violations of federal laws, such as identity theft, money laundering, or interstate fraud.

Yes, corporations and organisations can be held criminally liable for instrumental crimes if their actions or policies contribute to the commission of the offence. This is often referred to as corporate or organisational criminal liability.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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