A ‘victimless’ crime is said to be an act that people voluntarily indulge in, but is in fact illegal under statutory laws. It is known as a consensual crime or a public order crime. Peter McWilliams’ states that, “As an adult, you should be allowed to do with your person and property whatever you choose, as long as you don’t physically harm the person or property of another.”1 This is the essence of Common Law and yet ‘victimless crime’ remains illegal whether it be for a sociological good or due to moral issues such as arguments with abortion.
Taking abortion as an example, in some countries it remains illegal, and in some religions it is considered impermissible and doing so ensures that one is rejected from the faith. However in the United Kingdom it only becomes a crime to have an abortion after 24 weeks and up to 28 weeks if the circumstances are exceptional2. From this we can see that different sectors of society have opposing views as to who the victim of a crime is and if there is a victim at all. In abortion, the UK evidently believe that there is no victim, but when the foetus becomes viable, that is, at 28 weeks, then there is an ethical and moral dilemma involved and an abortion is not allowed to be carried out. Yet others believe that the unborn child is a victim to this ‘victimless’ crime and therefore it can be argued that there can be no such thing as a victimless crime as all illegal acts can indirectly harm someone or something.
In criminology ‘public order crime’ is defined by Siegel (2004) as “…crime which involves acts that interfere with the operations of society and the ability of people to function efficiently”3. This could be the act of prostitution or any other behaviour that strikes against public norms and social values. Once again, the legality of prostitution varies within different countries, indicating that some believe there is no victim involved and some believe there are. Sieberg states in her book that a “principle reason that prostitution is a difficult issue to address in an analysis of crime is that the identity of the victim is not clear.”
4 There are those that do not believe that there is a victim unless the prostitute them self if either attacked, assaulted or robbed, which is a crime within itself and therefore still renders prostitution as a victimless crime. And then there are those that believe that the victims’ of prostitution is society at large. That the potential spread of disease and the possibility of family break-ups will be due to prostitution, and therefore asserts the fact that no crime is victimless. However it is not the purpose of legislation to enforce marital infidelity and moral codes, and therefore the victim is more likely to be society as a whole.5
If the government were to make certain acts that many take part in legal, such as prostitution or drug taking, than this would bring down the price of these services and will stop the customers having to resort to petty crime to pay for these exploits. Many drug users believe that there are no victims to their crime, as they do not consider themselves as a victim, yet if there are addicted to a drug, than there is an issue of genuine consent.
If one is addicted then surely they cannot make the same decisions as a normal reasonable minded person, in which case they are in fact a victim of the drug. An addict is more like to steal to gain money to buy the drugs they so desperately crave and therefore ensure that the victims of drugs are not only themselves but also those that they commit crimes against in order to satisfy their addiction. Also, we have the secondary victims when it comes to drugs, such as family and friends who go through many strains within their own life to live with or unintentionally support drug addicts or alcoholics which makes them a victim in their own sense.
Some acts which are legal can be deemed illegal if they exceed acceptable limits and the people who have consented to those legal acts will then be considered as a victim even though they do not believe that they are. For example, in the case of R v Brown (1994) where a group of sado-masochists engaged in consensual acts of violence against each other for sexual gratification were convicted under the Defences Against the Person Act 18616. Considering violence is acceptable within sporting activities, dangerous exhibitions, surgery and body art, it is classed as unacceptable within a sexual act between consenting adults. This contrasts with the argument outlined in the drug issue that states that if one genuinely consents then there can be no victim. That an addict can’t consent but a drug user who is not an addict can consent, still does not make it a victimless crime, as there are still secondary victims such as society as a whole like the taxpayers who must eventually pay the cost of rehabilitating the drug addict and supporting his dependents.
The Government’s introduction of the smoking ban that came into force on the 1st July 2007 is an indication that legal consensual acts still have victims. One can still smoke in the privacy of their own home, yet they can not smoke in public places where they will put others at risk with their secondary smoke. Yet in a lot of cases, people are not entitled to do a lot of things in the privacy of their own homes, such as drugs and violence, this could possibly go against their freedom of rights, people should have the right to engage in self-harming activities if they wish. Laws that ensure safety seatbelts are worn in cars and motorcycle helmets are put on appear to many as unnecessary, as people who wish to protect themselves are entitled to do so, but if someone chooses not to, should they really be penalised by the law? If there is an accident it is only them that suffers through not wearing these safety features. In this case it would appear to be a ‘victimless crime’, however one could consider that the insurance company may have to pay out more because a seatbelt wasn’t worn and then insurance premiums could go up the following year because of this, then one can say that the whole of society is a ‘victim’.
One of the major issues with ‘victimless’ crimes is that ‘victims’ are obviously not going to report the crimes that they partake in. This means that victimless crime laws threaten the privacy of individuals as the measure that are taken to investigate these crimes to ensure that the laws are imposed will mean that official will engage in extensive monitoring and surveillance of suspects.7 This could be a problem for a society that is overly suspicious of the police and the relationships between the citizen and the police is strained at the best of times. If someone believed that were doing something they enjoyed but was in fact illegal, and were told they are not allowed to participate in the act anymore, they would not expect to be told they were not allowed to do it in private, and they would certainly not expect to receive a conviction for their deeds.
However laws change, cannabis went down to a class C drug, giving the wrong impression that drugs are victimless, and homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, and only then one could only do it indoors with certain restrictions on age8. Homosexuality is seen as a victimless crime yet it was still illegal for many years, this can be because it was not a social norm and went against the morals of those in charge. Yet if the state is starting to realise that people will commit ‘victimless’ crimes then the only way to prevent resources being devoured by these seemingly harmless crimes is to decriminalise them and make them legal. This will then unburden the court system and relieve the jails, as well as produce other benefits.
Those who commit ‘victimless’ crimes such as drug abuse, really believe that they are victimless, and the general disrespect for the law means that people will violate and rebel against them just because they can as there will be no victim that will complain or report the actions. It is possible that making many of the offences legal would mean that a vast majority of crime will stop according to this theory, and legalisation what stop underground business’ and with the issue of prostitution would stop all the worries about abuse and aids as they will all be monitored securely.9 However, it could also backfire if certain acts were made legal, some problems may disappear, but new problems could surface, and I believe that once an act is legalised it would be impossible to criminalise it once again.
In conclusion, I do not believe that there can be no such thing as a victimless crime, especially as there are so many varying perspectives on acts such as abortion and homosexuality that conjure up a victim and therefore the act is seen as a crime. However in criminal law there does not need to be a victim for someone to be convicted. Therefore a crime is a crime regardless of whether there is a victim or not it just makes it a lot harder to convict someone when either no one reports it or there are no witnesses to the crime. I do believe however that the government can justify almost any law by stating that it is for the good of the people, such as the wearing of a seatbelt, it seems to be a means to generate more money for the government. Yet real crimes such as drugs and prostitution do have a hidden victim, and although some people can’t see it, it does not mean that the victim is not there.
Herring, Jonathan, (2006) Criminal Law: Text, Cases, and Materials. 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press.
Katri K. Sieberg (2001) Criminal Dilemmas: Understanding and Preventing Crime. Springer
Maguire, Brenan & Radosh, Polly F. (1999). Introduction to Criminology. Belmont, CA: West Wadsworth.
McWilliams, Peter (1996) Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society. Mary Books
Privacy and Government, Victimless Crimes (online) available at: http://www.privacilla.org/government/victimlesscrimes.html accessed on 14th February 2008
Public Order Crime (online) available at: http://tripatlas.com/Public_order_crime accessed on 14th February 2008.
Rossi, Peter H, Waite, Emily, Bose, Christine E, Berk Richard E. (1974)
“The Seriousness of Crimes: Normative Structure and Individual Differences” American Sociological Review. 39 (2) 224-237
Schur, Edwin M. (1965) Crimes Without Victims: Deviant Behavior and Public Policy: Abortion, Homosexuality, Drug Addiction. Prentice Hall.
Tatchell, Peter (1997) Still Criminal After 30 Years. (online) available at: http://www.petertatchell.net/criminalisation%20of%20gays/still%20criminal.htm accessed on 14th February 2008
Voigt L, Thornton W.E, Barrile L, Seaman J.M. (1995)
“Criminology and Justice” Journal of Criminal Justice. 23 (3), 297-298
1 McWilliams, Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do- pg 249
2 The Abortion Act 1967
4 Sieberg, Katri, Criminal Dilemmas: Understanding and Preventing Crime- pg 47
5 Sieberg, Katri, Criminal Dilemmas: Understanding and Preventing Crime- pg 47
6 Herring, Jonathan, Criminal Law: Text, Cases, and Materials- pg 168
9 Schur, Edwin M, Crimes Without Victims: Deviant Behavior and Public Policy: Abortion, Homosexuality, Drug Addiction