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Victimless Crimes

Updated on October 28, 2012
The United States promotes itself as the land of the free, but is it?
The United States promotes itself as the land of the free, but is it? | Source

Why Everyone in the U.S. Should Care About Victimless Crimes

I grew up believing that I'd been born in a land of opportunity often called the "home of the free, land of the brave" as heard in the U.S. national anthem by Francis Scott Key and shown in this image. In fact, the idea was so ingrained in me that I signed on to serve my country, as my father and brother had done before me. However, I've since come to question just how much freedom we really have.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. Nearly one in every hundred adults are in jail or prison. About one of every 32 American adults is incarcerated, on probation, or on parole at any given time, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Every inmate costs taxpayers between $23,000 and $32,000 per year.

Although states differ in exactly how much it costs to keep someone in jail or prison, the VERA Institute of Justice reports that in 2010, taxpayers footed $39 billion worth of costs to operate the nation's prisons. (These figures don't include secondary costs like assistance programs for families whose primary breadwinner is now absent.)

Our tax system isn't based on equal contributions from taxpayers. If it was, this would mean every American adult who wasn't in prison would have been responsible for paying around $6,000 a year. Instead, taxpayers contribute a portion through state and federal taxes, and corporations pay a portion of the costs, which are ultimately passed on to their end users, of course.

Imagine writing a check each year to pay to keep inmates in prison. Would you willingly sign your name to that check or would you insist on finding ways to lower that cost? What if someone came along and informed you that half of that check was being spent to keep someone in prison for a victimless crime? Would you want to find out what that meant?

Would you be willing to reclassify some laws if it saved you a few thousand dollars a year?

See results

John Stossel's Examination of Victimless Crime

This video is an in-depth look at how thousands of vague laws can place almost any American at risk. It examines the ideas behind legislating morality, and considers the effects of decriminalizing prostitution and drug use in places where these acts are no longer criminal.

"Everything is Illegal!" -Felonies YOU Can Be Charged With?

As a general rule, do you believe morality should be legislated?

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Definition of Victimless Crimes

Identifying exactly what constitutes a victimless crime is a difficult task.

First, there are two arms of the law that affect U.S. citizens. One is criminal law. Breaking criminal laws can land a person in jail or prison. Then there's civil law. People who don't abide by civil laws could go to jail, but are most likely going to face financial penalties for their disobedience. For instance, driving a car without a valid driver's license wouldn't result in an arrest the first time, but could eventually put someone in jail if they continued to ignore the law.

There are four primary types of victimless crimes (along with a few examples of each type):

  • Crimes in which a person causes harm to themselves (suicide, drug possession, reckless driving, driving while intoxicated)
  • Crimes in which more than one person consent to engage in an illegal activity that does not harm others directly (prostitution, sales of illegal drugs)
  • Crimes that have a cost to society or an abstract group of people that cannot be identified specifically as individuals (tax evasion, Medicare fraud)
  • Crimes against non-persons, like a corporation or government entity (embezzlement, animal cruelty)

These categories can be controversial. Some people would argue that someone who commits an act in any of these categories belongs in prison. Others would claim that none of these acts should be addressed by the prison system. And many would fall between the two extremes and try to isolate which categories or specific acts should be criminal and which should not.

Legal studies would reveal yet more issues. For instance, if a person attempts to commit a crime but fails, it can still be prosecuted. "Attempted theft" is an example where a person can get arrested even though no actual harm resulted.

Here in the U.S., our culture reinforces the idea that we should impose restrictions on things that are unpopular or could cause harm. The vast majority of people would agree that there are too many restrictions in place these days, but almost no two individuals can agree on exactly which restrictions should be lifted.

The table below gives just a handful of examples of things that can result in fines or arrest. Some of these crimes would be punished only in certain states but not others. Most of them are illegal in every state.

Incomplete List of Victimless Crimes

Harm to Self
Consensual Acts
Harm to Society
Harm to Non-Persons
Suicide / Attempted Suicide
Public Nudity
Animal Cruelty
Driving Under the Influence (DUI/DWI)
Other "Bedroom" Acts
Obscenities Laws
Drug Possession
Purchase/Sale of Drugs
Tax Evasion
Speeding / Reckless Driving
Assisted Suicide
Pyramid/Ponzi Schemes
Seatbelt Laws
Unlicensed Prize Fights
Driving Without Insurance
Copyright/Trademark Infringement*
Helmet Laws
Poker / Gambling
Public Intoxication
Gun Control Laws
Statutory Rape
Automobile Registration/Licensing
Immigration Offenses
Open Container Laws
Selling One's Body Organs
Public Gatherings Without a Permit
Not Carrying/Showing ID
Sexting (Explicit Text Messages)
Refusal to Answer Police Questions
Spitting on a Sidewalk
Dropping Out of School
Gang Membership
Misleading Advertising
Possessing Certain Plants, Feathers
Offering Unlicensed Goods/Services (haircut, food from your garden, puppies)
Price Gouging
Substandard Property Appearance
Dodging the Draft
Having Inoperable Cars in a Driveway
Holding a Bible Study in a Home
Listening to Music too Loudly

*Items denoted here may or may not have actual identifiable victims.

Have you committed any of these acts?

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Controversy Surrounds the Concept of Victimless Crime

Some people believe there is no such thing as a victimless crime. The most common arguments to support their claims usually boils down to the idea that an act should be criminalized if it leads toward secondary problems:

  • "Adultery harms the family."
  • "Drug abuse can lead to other types of crimes."
  • "Drug abuse can harm the user's children."
  • "Drunk driving can lead to accidents that clearly do have victims."
  • "Prostitution can spread STDs. Plus, prostitutes are uneducated and come from bad backgrounds, so they're being victimized by opportunists."
  • "Public intoxication can result in others feeling harassed."

Others believe that the secondary problem should be addressed as a crime, or that a crime only becomes criminal when it results in victimization:

  • "Drug abuse shouldn't be a crime, but child neglect should be addressed firmly."
  • "Drug abuse shouldn't be criminalized, but theft and violence should be harshly penalized."
  • "Drunk driving isn't a crime, but fault for an accident should be equal to the amount of damage done."
  • "Prostitution can spread STDs, but so can legal, consensual sex. And being uneducated or having a dysfunctional background doesn't mean a person has to make choices that let opportunists take advantage of them."
  • "Gambling can hurt a family's financial well-being, but so can a trip to the shopping mall. Monitoring a person's decisions violates the concepts of the U.S. Constitution."

American Asks "Who's in Charge Here?" and Says "Get Involved!"

Be Informed About These Issues. They Affect Your Life

American Holocaust: The Price of Victimless Crime Laws
American Holocaust: The Price of Victimless Crime Laws
This book argues that victimless crimes victimize American citizens in the name of trying to govern morality.

Victimless Crime Statistics and Impact on America

Nearly 30% of all inmates are incarcerated for a crime that falls under the victimless crimes charges described above, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics'' 2010 report. Other estimates claim as many as 86% of inmates are imprisoned for victimless crimes*. One problem with interpreting the data is that law enforcement will often layer charges in order to increase their odds of getting a conviction. Their evidence might not hold up for one crime, but satisfy the court's conditions for a different one, so they'll charge the accused with both to "see what'll stick."

Remember the information presented in the introduction to this article? If each American adult was equally taxed, the direct tax expense for keeping people in the justice system for victimless crimes amounts to about $2,000 per taxpayer per year.

That's the direct financial impact. These statistics don't account for indirect costs:

  • Loss of the prisoners' tax contributions.
  • Inmates families who rely on social programs that are funded by taxpayers.
  • Bitter, angry people who get released back into society after learning tips and tricks from other inmates, and who now have trouble finding jobs because of their convictions. During their incarceration, they were unable to build skills or receive meaningful education in most instances, and fall behind their peers when competing in the labor force. These individuals often can no longer support their families well and must rely on social programs or return to criminal activity.
  • The losses of freedom that are forced upon law-abiding citizens in the name of protecting them from themselves. Some of these freedoms that are lost are basic ones granted in the U.S. Constitution, such as a right to privacy, which may be invaded in order to discover a victimless crime. This is most common with "sting" operations for prostitution or gambling.
  • Lost tax revenues that could be raised from activities currently deemed illegal, such as if drug sales and online gambling were legalized.

*Because estimates vary, I recommend using the BJS data. Its methods of categorizing crimes correlates most closely with the idea of victimless crimes vs. crimes with an identifiable victim. As a former corrections officer in a maximum security prison, I had access to inmate identification cards that showed the convictions for which the inmates were serving time. Based on my recollection of reviewing those cards, I would estimate that about 20% of the inmates I guarded were serving time for victimless crimes.


American taxpayers carry a heavy financial burden when it punishes crimes that could feasibly be handled without resorting to the justice system.

What other ways can you think of for addressing these problems? What are your reasons for not wanting to see changes? Do you support some changes but not others? Voice your opinions and let the debate begin!

Speak Your Mind

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  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from USA

    You raise terrific points in this debate, Nik! Thank you!

    Personally, I'd love to see our laws simplified to: "Be reasonably responsible and expect consequences when you don't." Of course, that's a lot easier said than done!

  • profile image


    5 years ago

    Great article.

    Like others, I have a difficult time coping with DUI/DWI bundled in with the rest. I've been digging introspectively to figure out why that is, and I think fundamentally it's because I'm afraid of drunk drivers, specifically afraid of the pain I'd feel if one of my children were killed by one. I think fear of legal consequences keeps a lot of people from doing it - people who otherwise would drive drunk frequently. As a military member, I've traveled a lot and met lots of people from myriad places, and unfortunately the idea that driving drunk isn't a big deal is far-reaching.

    So I see the criminalization as a deterrent to be somewhat effective and necessary. I agree with you that prison is useless for DUI/DWI when the driving was otherwise non-problematic; I also agree that the discrepancies between how it is enforced is a problem (I've been in places where basically any level of alcohol at all could get you a charge of some sort, which is simply absurd).

    I'm not sure what the answer is to that, but I do see that a strong deterrent is needed. Perhaps if DUI/DWI was not criminal in and of itself, but instead raised the stakes on other infractions - a multiplier, of sorts. The act of otherwise minor or petty driving infractions could be treated criminally when combined with DUI/DWI.

    I would like to see most of the speeding laws & reckless driving laws go away. To be clear, I'm referring only to reckless driving by speed alone, when speed is used as the sole basis without regard for conditions, and not combined with overtly dangerous acts like running stops signs, lights, swerving, weaving, tailgating, etc.

    In Virginia you can get a misdemeanor for going as little as 11mph over (81 in a 70). That's because anything over 80mph is automatically a reckless driving charge. Yeah... because laws like that serve the people. Well no, they don't. Going 81 in a 70 actually puts absolutely no one in danger. But the law brings in an estimated $65M annually to Virginia, and creates big business for a select few law firms close enough to the court houses to effectively represent clients there... and it benefits the politicians who get campaign contributions by those firms.

    So when you look at it like that, there really is a victim: the people, victimized by the law, in good Sheriff and Abbot style (if you're a fan of Robin Hood). If we ask ourselves who stands to gain, it's pretty sickening. Yet the people are complacent and do nothing about all this.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from USA

    While I recognize and mostly agree with the points you make, please allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. (And for the record, I'm a former corrections officer in a max security men's prison, with a mother who worked for the police dept., a father who didn't quite earn his degree in crim. justice before he himself went to prison, and a brother who's been a cop for about 25 years now.)

    The controversy I see involves a couple of different aspects. First, there's a conflict between groups, such as religious morals versus specialized knowledge like you have. Ultimately, the laws that pass tend to be those that have the loudest, most passionate and well-funded activists. How much credibility should any given viewpoint have?

    The second controversy surrounds definitions. We've all heard that shoplifting victimizes the public by causing products to have higher prices, so I'll use this as an example. If Joe Teen steals a car from his local dealership, the police won't allow Jane Citizen press charges if it did not have a direct impact upon her. Similarly, I can witness a drug deal take place on the corner but if I tried to file a lawsuit asking for civil damages, it wouldn't fly because the courts wouldn't recognize me as a victim.

    While I agree with you that white collar crime *is* far more injurious to society than street crime, it's also fair to say that many non-criminal activities are equally injurious. Lost shipments, accidents on the job, absenteeism... they all do significant damage to our cost of living, quality of life, etc. Too complex to get into here, of course, but it all boils down to a common point that controversy exists precisely because there are many opinions, many definitions, and no all-powerful governing body to eradicate those differences.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Among experts who devote their careers to studying crime and criminals, it's not particularly controversial. In criminology, there exists a consensus that non-human entities are bona fide victims; thus, only the first two categories can be legitimately termed "victimless." Offenses such as tax evasion, fraud, and embezzlement are real crimes with real victims. In fact, many criminologists believe that white-collar crime is more injurious to society than street crime. Regardless, haggling over the definition of a "victim" doesn't diminish the truth that non-violent offenders generally don't belong in prison. Incarcerating these individuals does no one any good, and we can't afford it.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from USA

    Thank you for stopping by, TXSasquatch! Yes, these definitions can be controversial, which is partly why we can't seem to get a good handle on "crime" and have higher-than-ever incarceration rates. I've wondered if it is even possible to get a majority agreement on where to draw a line!

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    I disagree with your third and fourth categories; they have clear and bona fide victims. Otherwise, this is a spot-on hub, and I strongly concur. Certainly prison as a sanction is far too costly for those convicted of victimless and non-violent offenses. Dope-smokers and check-kiters don't belong in prison; alternative sanctions are fine for such "criminals." We should reserve prison for violent and repeat offenders--period.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from USA

    Wilderness, thank you for reading and commenting.

    Many people believe as you do, that if there is a high possibility that something will result in victimizing someone, it should be legislated. I would personally rather see things like that get addressed through an improved civil court system where people who hurt others are punished for their failure to control themselves instead of for the acts that by themselves, don't cause harm.

    For instance, in DUI, drinking and driving doesn't hurt others UNLESS an accident occurs. A person with a .03 BAC can get into an accident just like a person with a .10 can, or like a person who has not had an alcoholic drink. If a person who didn't drink kills another person in an accident, they may be held liable anyway because they failed to do something they should have done, like yielding the right of way.

    If we are held accountable for our actions even where legislation doesn't exist, I believe it would curb things like DUI much more effectively. People would *know* that they could be punished just for being a dumbass, and would be more likely to think twice.

  • wilderness profile image

    Dan Harmon 

    7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

    I would not consider crime as corporations or even government as "victimless" - it would seem that the victim is the owner(s) of the business or the citizens of the government that must repair or cover the damage. Even recognizing that animals are considered to be property I still would have a problem of declaring that an animal cannot be a victim.

    Other than that, though, I would agree with most of the definitions with the exception of DUI - the probability of there being another person as a victim is too high and too severe to consider it victimless.

    And I very definitely feel that we need to stop legislating morality - the current "criminal" is not the gay/lesbian; they are the victims instead.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from USA

    It can be very confusing at times! Of course, now you have my curiosity up about what you learned... Grin!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    8 years ago

    I just served as a juror and I heard some of this talk in court that day, especially the difference between civil and criminal law. I learned that day and from this hub as well. Interesting.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from USA

    Thanks for such kind words, Ecal!

    Richard, I'm saddened by the conditions in some elderly homes too, and the way we treat the homeless and veterans. I personally believe that if just a few of the victimless crimes were decriminalized (drug and alcohol charges that don't involve minors) there would be a lot more funding (about $10 billion a year or so) that could be put to better uses like the ones you describe.

  • livewithrichard profile image

    Richard Bivins 

    8 years ago from Charleston, SC

    While I might agree that some of the "crimes" on your "victimless crime" list would not warrant prison time, I do not agree that they are victimless nor are they crimes in all locations. What I do find most offensive is that here in the US we treat our prisoners better than we treat seniors in senior citizen homes and even better than the homeless and unemployed. Prisoners get 3 meals a day, hot showers, fitness centers, educational opportunities, free healthcare, etc... and this is why it costs Joe Taxpayer so much.

  • EuroCafeAuLait profile image

    Anastasia Kingsley 

    8 years ago from Croatia, Europe

    Interesting. I found myself in the public gatherings in the home, a consensual crime. I never knew the staggering ratio of inmates to citizens. Loved the graphic in the beginning, too - 1777-1917. Great job.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from USA

    Thanks for checking it out, Karen and Natasha!

    Big sentencing discrepancies are part of the problem. I tend to be critical of prisons and jails as a method for dealing with drunk drivers only because they don't get adequate treatment, but because they don't have as much access to alcohol they're convinced they're fine when they get turned back out into the streets. Some prisons do have AA, which inmates will attend simply to get out of their cells for a while, and some of them will make "hooch," a nasty form of homemade alcohol, while they're in. It's one of the things I believe makes them more dangerous when they get out.

  • Natashalh profile image


    8 years ago from Hawaii

    The only thing I disagree with is driving under the influence. I think that some states have some silly laws about it (such as requiring an Intoxalock in vehicles because they make you breath into them while driving nad have cords that reach all the way to the back seat!), but I know several people who have died as a result of drink drivers. I also know several people who have been convicted of DUI, and the punishments between states are so incredible it is amazing. I'm not sure prolongued incarceration is necessary, though. I know someone who was sentenced to a year, but had most of it suspended. He still spent 10 days in jail, though, in a cell with about three times the number of people it was designed to hold. But I digress! In general, I totally agree with you. I think many of these crimes are an attempt to legislate morality, which I don't believe is appropriate. Thanks for all the great information! Hopefully this hub will at least get someone thinking.

  • KarenCreftor profile image

    Karen Creftor 

    8 years ago from Kent, UK

    I love this hub!

    I also totally agree with Billybuc that we (I include the UK as we have a similar problem here, with the most overcrowded prisons in Europe) need to address why these acts are being done in the first place!

    Many are the result of a poor education system, a body overloaded with mind altering toxins & pharmaceutical drugs and frustration at the absurd levels of control of the government and big corporations.

    I feel the prison system is totally outdated and clearly doesn't work~ you are more likely to learn how to commit worse crimes in jail than 'recover'~ it's just a very expensive and tired system.

    Of course if someone is a danger to society (including animal abuse) they should be kept away from public, but there needs to be changes as to how other crimes (and some of the ones you listed above should not even be called that!!) should be dealt with.

    Very thought provoking and interesting hub! Thank you.

    Shared and voted up and awesome :)

    ~Kaz x

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from USA

    Billy, I missed it. Care to post a link I can take a look at? I just looked at your profile and see a bunch that it *could* be in!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    8 years ago from Olympia, WA

    I mentioned the prison system in one of my hubs recently; it is unbelievable the amount of money spent imprisoning people in this country. Do we try to fix the social issues that lead to these crimes? No, we just keep putting people in prison. It is lunacy and we are the only nation in the world with this problem.

    Great hub!


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