Decriminalization Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Decriminalization, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Decriminalization?

n. Crimes which are no more subject to prosecution because the statues that made the act criminal were repealed or amended. Certain sexual practices between consenting adults, loitering, or outmoded racist laws against miscegenation have been decriminalized by many states. There is substantial movement towards decriminalizing the use of certain narcotics such as marijuana on the grounds that making drugs available through clinics and other legal sources would remove the profit from the drug trade.

History and Meaning of Decriminalization

Decriminalization, in simple terms, refers to the act of removing criminal penalties for certain conduct or behavior that was previously prohibited by law. The term originated during the mid-20th century in response to the growing public outcry against the harsh and unjust penalties imposed for minor offenses, particularly drug offenses. The idea behind decriminalization is to shift the focus toward treating the underlying issue rather than simply punishing the individual.

Over the years, decriminalization has been used in various contexts, from the legalization of certain drugs to the elimination of harsh penalties for prostitution, loitering, and other minor offenses. The approach has been particularly effective in reducing the number of individuals imprisoned for nonviolent crimes and reducing the overall burden on the criminal justice system.

Examples of Decriminalization

  1. Marijuana decriminalization - Many countries and states have decriminalized the use of marijuana, either by allowing medical use or by reducing the penalties for recreational use. For example, in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states in the U.S. to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

  2. Prostitution decriminalization - Several countries have decriminalized prostitution or implemented policies that shift focus away from punishing sex workers to prosecuting their clients and those who exploit them. For example, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003 and has since seen a significant reduction in harm and abuse associated with the sex trade.

  3. Decriminalization of Homelessness - Some cities have moved to decriminalize homelessness as well, recognizing that criminalizing those who have no place to go only compounds the problem. For example, in 2012, the city of Philadelphia decriminalized public urination, loitering, and other minor violations to prevent the homeless from being arrested and jailed for minor offenses.

Legal Terms Similar to Decriminalization

  1. Legalization - Legalization refers to the complete removal of criminal penalties for conduct or behavior that was previously prohibited by law. Unlike decriminalization, which reduces penalties, legalization allows the conduct to take place with no penalties at all.

  2. Depenalization - Depenalization is a more limited form of decriminalization, typically used to refer to the removal of penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine.

  3. Reclassification - Reclassification refers to the act of changing the classification of a drug or other prohibited substance from one category to another, often with the goal of reducing its criminal penalties.