Decriminalization is a change in the law that lifts criminal penalties associated with a given activity. That activity is no longer viewed as criminal although it may still be subject to regulation of some form. It is also possible to go one step further into legalization, in which acts are not only decriminalized, but made entirely legal. Both decriminalization and legalization reflect changes in society that lead people to view activities in a different way.
Numerous activities have been criminalized at various points in history, including miscegenation, abortion, recreational drugs, drinking, homosexuality, and public nudity. When a law is repealed or reversed to decriminalize an activity, the criminal activities such as jail time that were once linked with it are removed. However, there is still a potential to be fined for an activity or to be obliged to file for a permit in order to engage in it. For example, public nudity subjects people to fines in many areas of the world unless they are in a location designated for nude sunbathing and similar activities; the nudity itself is not criminal, but is also not permitted in any and all locations.
Activities are usually decriminalized because society believes that they are no longer harmful. In some cases, society may argue that keeping outdated laws in place acts to abridge civil rights. For example, antimiscegenation laws were struck down in the United States in response to agitation for equal rights for people of all races. Shifting attitudes and morals in society lead to changes in the law that will accommodate the change in thinking.
Pushes for decriminalization may be led by citizens who file petitions and other documents to ask their elected officials to change the law. Members of legislative bodies can also lead a push to decriminalize something, sometimes under the direction of a head of state. This usually requires repealing a law, amending a law, or writing a new law to address the activity in question.
Activities like sex work or use of recreational drugs that are often criminalized are sometimes referred to as “victimless crimes” in campaigns to push for decriminalization. These issues are a bit more complex. In fact, sex work can involve significant exploitation whether or not it is criminalized, and trade in recreational drugs can also lead to situations that create victims. Advocates for decriminalization who do not view these activities as wholly victimless argue that decriminalizing such activities will create an opportunity for regulation and control to address such issues while allowing people who are not causing harm to engage in these activities without fear of reprisal.