AN ARGUMENT AGAINST THE DECRIMINALIZATION OF VICTIMLESS CRIMES
Disreputable behavior that “harms no one,” such as loitering or vagrancy should not decriminalized because to do so would increase the feelings of anxiety and fear in the neighborhoods where these crimes most often exist.
Wilson and Kelling (1982) reported on a Newark study into the effects of foot patrol. This study showed that, although crime rate did not go down, the public who lived in the areas where foot patrols had been implemented perceived that they were safer. This feeling of greater safety (less fear) was related to the police “enforcement” of formal laws and informal neighborhood rules of order. “What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent they could, the level of public order in these neighborhoods” (Wilson and Kelling 1982, p. 97 in Cole et al). What is the importance of public order? As Wilson and Kelling relate, the people of Newark “assign a high value to public order, and feel relieved and reassured when the police help them maintain that order” (p. 98 in Cole et al.).
Activities like loitering, vagrancy, public intoxication (with no disturbance involved) and panhandling appear to be the part of the so-called “victimless” crimes. No one is harmed from someone loitering in the area or by a panhandler asking for money, the argument goes. Certainly it is true that no one is made “victim” in the traditional sense of the word. A person hanging around a street corner or sitting on a bus stop bench in a stupor do not create harm in the way that a strong-arm robbery or vandalism does. But that is not to say it does no harm. Wilson and Kelling (1982) posit that the harm is in the creation of continuum that ultimately leads to a sense of dread, even fear, in the community and the decay of the neighborhood. For example, being approached by a panhandler, particularly an aggressive one, increases apprehension in some people, particularly the elderly, that they are about to become a victim of crime. In much the same way, people loitering, intoxicated people, and vagrants all work to increase a person’s apprehension that, if not at this immediate time then at some time, that he or she will become a victim, in the traditional sense, of these loiterers, drunks, druggies, or vagrants. This apprehension that harm is inevitable forces people inside, in some cases even to the extent of retreating to a virtual fortress for protection. The streets are then left open to those who would seek to enter an area to engage in more victim-oriented crimes. According to Wilson and Kelling (1982) this is because the absence of “reputable” citizens on the streets alerts the truly disreputable that this is a neighborhood that is uncared for.
Activities such as loitering, vagrancy, public intoxication and panhandling do indeed bring harm – first, to an individual’s sense of apprehension or fear of being victim to a crime, and second, to the community as whole. This harm is as real as that of robbery (Wilson and Kelling 1982). In some ways, one might argue, they are of a greater harm because they have such a long-term devastating effect on most, if not all, of the individuals in a community. In fact, the cumulative effects of such activities, and their effect on individuals, are much greater because it works to destroy the community.
Because so-called “victimless” crimes like loitering, vagrancy, public intoxication (with no disturbance involved) and panhandling do bring harm upon individuals and the community as a whole, these crimes should not be decriminalized. Instead, as suggested in Wilson and Kelling, the police should work more to enforce the criminal laws and ordinances that proscribe such conduct. By doing so the police will reduce the level of fear in a community and make the community stronger, even if they cannot actually decrease the level of serious criminal activity in the neighborhood