Glossary: Decriminalization

Sentencing Proj

The general concept behind decriminalization is simply to make a previously illegal act, legal. However, the actual practice of decriminalization is much more complex and involved. The term is often thrown around within the discourse of social control within our criminal justice system. Referencing the debate that outlawing vices is an outdated means of dictating “norms,” decriminalization is often looked at as an action that needs to be taken in order to properly reflect an evolving society.


Though the “war on drugs” is no longer a key topic during presidential speeches, this drug “war” is interwoven in our society. People of color are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses. Black and Latino men “face highly disproportionate sentencing outcomes for drug offense.”The racial implications of this are blatant and perpetuate social inequalities, as communities of color are most affected by seemingly arbitrary drug enforcement and sentencing. It is unsustainable to use imprisonment as a tactic to handle drug law enforcement – especially when there is obvious inconsistency in prosecutions.

Activists seek the decriminalization of drugs as an answer to the misrepresentation of people of color in our justice system. In contrast to legalizing drugs (which would render it completely legal), decriminalization would still leave room for penalties for certain drug offenses. What is being sought out by decriminalizing drugs is an end to the “war on drugs,” an end to mass incarceration, an end to “tough on crime” tactics that hurt specific racial and ethnic groups more than others, and ultimately a change in the policies that encourage structural inequality. As activists see it, decriminalization would minimize the ill effects burdening vulnerable communities by lessening the disenfranchisement that challenges individuals.

Social Justice advocates are well aware of the potential in decriminalizing recreational drug use if we want to promote a more equal society – and when a recent report by the Independent Budget Office stated that New York City spends $167,731 a year on a single inmate, the financial advantages from not locking someone up for a minor drug crime isn’t so bad, either.

By Angie Carpio

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1 Comment

  1. Shari

     /  February 10, 2015

    Decriminalizing a certain level of recreational drug offenses are beginning to take affect in certain areas, especially for marijuana use. In Denver you see a complete structured legalization of it and an up tick in their economy. This is potential to start the slow movement towards changing the social perception of low level drugs and offenses. Despite changing the laws there needs to be a change in how differences in sentencing is handled. There needs to be unbiased approaches to handling offenses in order for real change to the system.

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