Definition of public order crime
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", i.e. it is behaviour that has been labelled criminal because it is contrary to shared norms, social values, and customs. Robertson (1989:123) maintains that a crime is nothing more than "...an act that contravenes a law." Generally speaking, deviancy is criminalized when it is too disruptive and has proved uncontrollable through informal sanctions.
Public order crime should be distinguished from political crime. In the former, although the identity of the "victim" may be indirect and sometimes diffuse, it is cumulatively the community that suffers, whereas in a political crime, the state perceives itself to be the victim and criminalizes the behaviour it considers threatening. Thus, public order crime includes consensual crime, victimless vice, and victimless crime. It asserts the need to use the law to maintain order both in the legal and moral sense. Public order crime is now the preferred term by proponents as against the use of the word "victimless" based on the idea that there are secondary victims (family, friends, acquaintances, and society at large) that can be identified.
For example, in cases where a criminal act subverts or undermines the commercial effectiveness of normative business practices, the negative consequences extend beyond those at whom the specific immediate harm was intended. Similarly, in environmental law, there are offences that do not have a direct, immediate and tangible victim, so crimes go largely unreported and unprosecuted because of the problem of lack of victim awareness. In short, there are no clear, unequivocal definitions of 'consensus', 'harm', 'injury', 'offender', and 'victim'. Such judgments are always informed by contestable, epistemological, moral, and political assumptions (de Haan, 1990: 154).
Decriminalization of public order crimes
Maguire and Radosh (1999: 146/7) accept that the public order crimes that cause the most controversy are directly related to the current perceptions of morality. To assert that the shades of behaviour represented by such "crimes" should be retained or decriminalized ignores the range of arguments that can be mustered on both sides, but the most fundamental question remains whether the government has the right to enforce laws prohibiting private behaviour.
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