Is there a way to punish a criminal before he actually commits the crime he is planning?
In some circumstances a “crime” can be punished before it occurs. Many jurisdictions have either a general “attempt” crime or individual statutes that make attempted murder or attempted robbery, or the like, a crime. The purpose of these statutes is to punish an individual who has shown himself or herself to be dangerously inclined to commit a crime without waiting until the criminal act is actually completed. In order to convict a person for an attempted crime, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person had the intent to commit an act or bring about certain consequences that would amount to a crime, and that he or she took some step beyond mere preparation toward that goal.
Whether the offender has the intent necessary to be convicted of attempt depends on the mental state required by the underlying crime. If a person’s actual intention at the time he or she attacked the victim was to cause bodily harm, he or she cannot be convicted of attempted murder if the victim does not die. (However, he could be convicted of the actual crime of murder if the victim died, even if his intention was only to cause bodily harm.) Likewise, a person whose plan to steal fails can be convicted of attempted theft, which requires the intention to deprive another of his or her property permanently, only if he or she had the same intention at the time the crime was attempted.
Like most crimes, attempt requires a “bad act” as well as a bad intention. Therefore, the government must prove the offender engaged in conduct that moved toward committing the crime. The exact nature of the act needed to meet this “preparation” requirement varies from case to case, depending on individual facts. For example, a person who checked in at the ticket counter of an airport and sat in the waiting area with a gun in his pocket could be convicted of the crime of attempting to board an airplane with a gun. A person who planned to rob a bank messenger and drove around looking for him on his regular route, but did not find him, and did nothing else would not necessarily be guilty of attempted robbery.
The punishment for the crime of attempt can be the same as the punishment for the completed crime. However, most jurisdictions make some distinction and provide for a lesser punishment for attempt. For instance, some states provide that the punishment for attempted first-degree theft will be the same as the crime of second-degree theft. The Model Penal Code, which is a source of many states’ criminal statutes, generally requires the same punishment for attempt as the punishment for the underlying crime on the rationale that a person who attempts a crime has shown himself to be just as much in need of corrective sanctions as the one who actually completes a crime.