What is Decriminalization?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
A beach that allows nude sunbathing is an example of decriminalization.
A beach that allows nude sunbathing is an example of decriminalization.

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.

Activities such as sex work, which some consider to be a victimless crime, have been decriminalized in some areas.
Activities such as sex work, which some consider to be a victimless crime, have been decriminalized in some areas.

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 When a law is repealed or reversed to decriminalize an activity, the criminal activities such as jail time that were once linked with it are removed.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 In some cases, society may argue that keeping outdated laws in place acts to abridge civil rights.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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Fa5t3r

@bythewell - That could lead to an increase in violence though, as it would mean that the sex worker would have the power to harm their customer and the customer might want to ensure that didn't happen.

I think decriminalization is the way to go. I think it's the way to go with marijuana and other relatively harmless drugs as well.

The amount of money that goes into policing these kinds of crimes is ridiculous. I would much rather it was spent on reducing violence and theft.

bythewell

@Ana1234 - Another option is to make it criminal to pay for sex but not to be paid for sex. I mean, I don't personally see the moral issue with prostitution, except in cases where people are being harmed or exploited. But if it has to be criminal, I'd much rather that the people who aren't being exploited were punished, rather than those who might simply be victims.

Ana1234

I think the opportunity for regulation is the main point in favor of decriminalizing sex work. As it stands at the moment, anyone who gets into trouble while charging for sex has no real options to improve their situation. They can be raped, beaten, possibly even killed and at no point can they feel safe to go to the police or other authorities.

Not to mention the rampant spread of disease and drug use in that industry. If it were regulated, prostitutes would be subject to the same kinds of workplace safety requirements as any other job.

I mean, I don't know if anyone wants to argue the merits of decriminialization vs legalization in this case, since I, personally, don't think they have to completely legalize it. It can be made legal only in registered brothels, for example.

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    • A beach that allows nude sunbathing is an example of decriminalization.
      A beach that allows nude sunbathing is an example of decriminalization.
    • Activities such as sex work, which some consider to be a victimless crime, have been decriminalized in some areas.
      Activities such as sex work, which some consider to be a victimless crime, have been decriminalized in some areas.