Decriminalization or decriminalisation is the lessening of criminal penalties in relation to certain acts, perhaps retroactively, though perhaps regulated permits or fines might still apply (for contrast, see: legalization). The term was coined by anthropologist Jenifer James to express sex workers’ movements’ ‘goals of removing laws used to target prostitutes’. The reverse process is criminalization.
Decriminalization reflects changing social and moral views. A society may come to the view that an act is not harmful, should no longer be criminalized, or is otherwise not a matter to be addressed by the criminal justice system. Examples of subject matter which have been the subject of changing views on criminality over time in various societies and countries include:
In a federal country, acts may be decriminalized by one level of government while still subject to penalties levied by another; for example, possession of a decriminalized drug may still be subject to criminal charges by one level of government, but another may yet impose a monetary fine. This should be contrasted with legalization, which removes all or most legal detriments from a previously illegal act. It has also been noted that while some acts have been decriminalised, such as homosexuality and adultery, others have increased in their criminalization, such as familial sexual activities, or incest.