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In the continuing debate over the proper scope of the criminal law, it has frequently been suggested that certain crimes are in reality ‘‘victimless’’ and that all statutes defining such offenses should be repealed or at least substantially restricted (Schur; Packer; Morris and Hawkins). Although all authors do not use the term in the same way, the following offenses have been included in the victimless crime category: public drunkenness; vagrancy; various sexual acts usually involving consenting adults (fornication, adultery, bigamy, incest, sodomy, homosexuality, and prostitution); obscenity; pornography; drug offenses; abortion; gambling; and juvenile status offenses (offenses that would not be criminal if the actor were an adult).
The arguments for the repeal of laws against victimless crimes fall into two categories. Some proponents of the victimless crime concept argue that, as a matter of principle, society may not legitimately prohibit conduct that harms only the actor or actors (Morris and Hawkins). However, most proponents of the criterion go on to argue that even if it might be legitimate to punish victimless crimes, there are certain practical reasons why it is unwise to do so (Schur and Bedau). The practical arguments against victimless crimes appear to derive from three attributes of these offenses: (1) most involve no complaining parties other than police officers; (2) many involve the exchange of prohibited goods or services that are strongly desired by the participants; and (3) all seek to prevent individual or social harms that are widely believed to be less serious and/or less likely to occur than the harms involved in crimes with victims.
Victimless crimes tend to have no complaining parties other than the police because the immediate participants in these crimes do not see themselves as victims, have no desire to complain to the police, and would fear criminal liability if they did complain. Moreover, since such illegal acts usually take place in private and do not directly victimize any third party, other citizens are unlikely to observe the acts or to have sufficient incentive to complain to the police. As a result, it is argued, victimless crimes are harder to detect and prosecute than crimes with victims, and the police are therefore forced to engage in a number of practices that are subject to serious abuse. These include surveillance and entrapment by undercover agents; the use of unreliable informants from the criminal milieu; various forms of intrusive electronic and physical surveillance (wiretapping, bugging, peering through holes in the ceilings of public washrooms, and the like); and widespread searches of the person, motor vehicles, houses, and other nonpublic places for contraband and evidence. Such techniques tend to bring law enforcement into disrepute, causing lowered public respect for the law and for criminal penalties in general.
The fact that victimless crimes frequently take place without being observed by other citizens also means that certain forms of official misconduct are much more likely to occur: discriminatory enforcement of the law against unpopular groups or individuals; attempts to bribe law enforcement officers; and attempts by law enforcement officers to extort money or other favors from suspects in return for nonenforcement. Such misbehavior further reduces public respect for, and cooperation with, the institutions of criminal justice, particularly among social groups already alienated from society—the poor, ethnic minorities, and the young (Schur and Bedau).
Many victimless crimes involve goods and services that are in great demand, the most extreme example being the drugs craved by addicts. Criminal penalties thus tend to limit the supply more than the demand, driving up the black-market price and creating monopoly profits for those criminals who remain in business. This ‘‘crime tariff’’ reduces consumption possibilities for legal goods and encourages the growth of sophisticated and well-organized criminal groups. Organized crime in turn tends to diversify into other areas of crime. Large profits provide ample funds for bribery of public officials, as well as capital for diversification. Although higher prices tend to discourage some would-be participants in victimless crimes, the fact that these goods and services are greatly desired (and are not seen as truly immoral) ensures a strong demand that, combined with a restricted supply, maintains both high prices and high crime rates. In extreme cases, such as heroin or cocaine addiction, high prices force participants to commit other crimes, for example, drug sales and theft, to pay for the illegal goods. Finally, because of the strong demand, a large number of otherwise law-abiding citizens are driven into association with the criminal elements who supply these goods and services. There is a danger that such citizens will come to view themselves as criminals, since society has labeled them as such; they will thus cooperate less with law enforcement generally, and are more likely to be drawn into other forms of crime.
Victimless crimes are also seen as being measurably less serious than most offenses with victims—the prohibited behavior causes individual or social harms that are either less serious, less likely to occur, or the result of prohibition itself (for example, the adverse health effects caused by ingestion of impure or unexpectedly potent drugs). It is argued that the lack of complaining witnesses to some of these crimes (e.g., illegal gambling) is, in part, a reflection of a societal consensus that the behavior is less serious. The high demand for many of these illegal goods and services, noted above, is further evidence of widespread tolerance of the behavior. Under such conditions, prohibition only serves to reduce respect for law on the part of citizens who believe that their prohibited acts are not wrong. Moreover, the prosecution of these less serious offenses is seen as a waste of scarce criminal justice resources and an unjustifiable burden on the criminal justice system. The amount of police effort required to detect these hard-to-enforce laws might be better spent on more serious offenses, which are easier to detect. It is also argued that the courts are so overburdened with trivial offenses that there are insufficient resources to process more serious offenses adequately. In addition, the enforcement of victimless crime puts great stress on overcrowded pretrial detention and correctional facilities, and increases the cost of replacement facilities.
Although often agreeing that specific crimes should be repealed, critics of the victimless crime criterion have pointed out that the concept lacks a clear definition, fails to cover some of the offenses to which it has been applied, and applies equally well to other offenses that have not been proposed for repeal. Thus, critics argue, the term is only a cover for subjective value judgments about the wisdom of specific criminal statutes, and fails to provide an objective criminalization standard that could be easily applied and would be deserving of broad acceptance.
Beginning with the term itself, it has been argued that there is no such thing as a victimless crime, because most so-called victimless crimes have victims, or at least potential victims, such as the taxpayers who must eventually pay the cost of rehabilitating the drug addict and supporting his dependents (Oaks). It has also been argued that prostitution and antifemale pornography harm all women, and that ‘‘hate speech’’ harms all members of the target group, by increasing the risk of future violence, causing fear and anxiety of such harms, and reinforcing entrenched social inequalities (Roach). If it is conceded that the criminal law may properly prohibit conduct that involves a risk of harm to the protected interests of others, one is faced with a continuum—a range of behaviors involving varying degrees of actual or potential victimization—with no clear answers about where to draw the line between criminal and noncriminal behavior (Dripps; Packer).
In response to the problems noted above, it might be argued that victimless crimes should be defined as those that lack direct, identifiable victims. However, there are several problems with this formulation. First, some of the offenses on the list of victimless crimes do have direct victims, such as citizens offended or harassed by public drunks or disorderly persons; the spouse of the adulterer, bigamist, or prostitution client; or the spouse, parent, or child of a drug addict. Refusal to recognize the latter forms of victimization requires problematic distinction (for instance, between mere mental distress and physical harm) (Wertheimer). Moreover, in many cases it is quite reasonable to argue that one or more of the participants in a victimless crime is, or will in the future become, a victim of serious harm, such as the sporadic heroin user who becomes addicted (Schur and Bedau), or the young person who becomes a prostitute; moreover, the victims of these harms, who are often members of socially disadvantaged groups, may not freely ‘‘consent’’ to either the prohibited acts or the ensuing harms. Finally, a ‘‘no direct victim’’ definition might include many offenses not proposed to be repealed—for example, inchoate offenses such as possession of burglary tools, drunk driving, and counterfeiting.
It has also been argued that victimless crimes ‘‘lack victims in the sense of complainants asking for the protection of the criminal law’’ (Morris and Hawkins, p. 6). Of course, people can be victimized, or at least put at risk of harm, without knowing it, and much of the absence of complainants is due to the secretive nature of these crimes (Wertheimer). Moreover, the ‘‘complaintless’’ criterion excludes some supposedly victimless crimes, such as pornography, and includes many offenses never proposed for repeal. For example, in bribery, receiving stolen property, possession of unregistered weapons, most traffic law violations, and innumerable health, safety, environmental, and regulatory offenses, the complainant is generally a police officer or paid informant, not a crime victim seeking protection. To argue that the latter offenses are significantly different from the victimless (or complaintless) crimes which should be repealed is to admit that the proposed criterion does not, by itself, make the crucial distinction between what should be criminal and what should not.
Victimless crimes have also been defined as those involving ‘‘the willing exchange, among adults, of strongly demanded but legally proscribed goods and services’’ (Schur, p. 169). The consensual nature of such transactions, and the fact that they are strongly desired, create many of the problems of detection and enforcement previously noted (Schur and Bedau). This definition is still inadequate, however, because it clearly does not apply to some victimless crimes, such as public drunkenness, and applies in only the broadest sense to others, such as incest. On the other hand, it does include weapons and stolen property offenses, which are not usually proposed for repeal.
Finally, proponents of the victimless crime criterion argue that even if this concept is not a definitive test of what should be criminal, it is still useful because it identifies a group of statutes most of which should be repealed because ‘‘they produce more social harm than good’’ (Schur and Bedau, p. 112). This sort of cost-benefit approach does provide a useful set of objective criteria for defining the scope of the criminal law. However, such an approach is inevitably very complex, and the victimless crime criterion contributes little to the resolution of these complexities. For example, offenses involving the possession or carrying of weapons are victimless in almost every sense in which drug offenses are, and impose very similar costs of enforcement (Wertheimer; Kessler), yet most proponents of the victimless crime criterion do not apply the criterion to current and proposed gun laws. In addition, the victimless crime concept says very little about the difficult choices between alternatives to current criminal laws: partial decriminalization, regulation by various civil or administrative processes, or total deregulation.
Ultimately, the victimless crime criterion—or any other simple formula—is mostly rhetoric that obscures, rather than contributes to, analysis. The relative victimlessness of an offense is closely related to several important practical issues in the criminalization decision, but labeling a crime as victimless only begins what is, in most cases, a very difficult process of assessing complex empirical facts and fundamental value choices.
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