decriminalization | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Decriminalization refers to the process of reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for a particular activity or behavior.

Decriminalization is the act of lessening or removing criminal penalties tied to a particular behavior or activity. It’s an important concept in law and policy, representing a significant shift in how a society views and handles certain actions. However, it’s crucial to understand that decriminalization doesn’t equate to legalization. When an action is decriminalized, it remains technically illegal, but the penalties associated with it are diminished or removed altogether.

For instance, if a city decriminalizes littering, it doesn’t mean that littering becomes a lawful act. Rather, individuals caught littering may not face criminal charges or severe penalties but might instead be given a warning or required to pay a small fine. This distinction underscores how decriminalization works to ease the severity of penalties without completely legalizing the action.

The Purpose of Decriminalization

The primary purpose of decriminalization is to reduce the harm associated with criminalizing certain behaviors and to lessen the load on the criminal justice system. By removing or reducing penalties, governments aim to decrease the negative impacts of certain nonviolent and often victimless crimes.

For example, one common area where decriminalization is frequently discussed is drug use and possession. Some argue that criminal penalties for drug use can cause more harm to individuals and society than the drug use itself, leading to calls for decriminalization. Critics of criminalization argue that it often results in prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, contributing to overpopulation in prisons and potentially disrupting lives over actions that some see as personal choices.

Decriminalization versus Legalization

While decriminalization and legalization both involve changes to laws and regulations, they represent different levels of acceptance of an activity. Legalization fully permits and regulates an activity, while decriminalization simply reduces or eliminates the criminal penalties associated with it.

Consider the example of marijuana use. In a state where marijuana use is decriminalized, possessing a small amount might result in a fine rather than jail time. However, selling or growing marijuana could still be a criminal offense. On the other hand, in a state where marijuana use is legalized, regulated businesses can legally sell marijuana, and individuals can use it without any penalty.

Decriminalization versus Criminalization

The concept of decriminalization is often contrasted with criminalization, which involves creating or strengthening criminal penalties for certain behaviors. While decriminalization seeks to lessen the penalties for an activity, criminalization does the opposite – it attaches new penalties or increases existing ones.

Criminalization is often used as a tool by societies to deter behaviors deemed harmful. However, it’s a contentious issue, with critics arguing that criminalizing certain activities may lead to unintended negative consequences, such as stigmatizing certain populations or exacerbating social inequalities.

The Impact

Decriminalization has significant implications for society. It can reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system and ease the associated financial burdens. Additionally, decriminalization can help address societal inequalities, as criminal charges and convictions disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

Moreover, decriminalization can lead to broader discussions about societal norms and values. It provides an opportunity to reevaluate which behaviors society deems acceptable and which it chooses to punish.


In summary, decriminalization refers to the process of reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for a specific activity. This approach is distinct from legalization and is often used to reduce the harm associated with criminalizing certain behaviors and to ease the burden on the criminal justice system. Decriminalization represents a significant shift in societal and legal perspectives, prompting us to question and reassess our attitudes toward different behaviors and actions.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/15/2023

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