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Is Decriminalizing Disorderly Behavior Good for Society?


By Vincent Giordano, program director, criminal justice at American Public University

In the past decade there has been a growing argument made within the criminal justice community that society should move toward decriminalizing so-called “victimless crimes.” Wilson and Kelling (as cited in Cole & Gertz, 2012) argue that the move to decriminalize behavior that is often viewed as not harming anyone would actually be greatly detrimental to a community. The decriminalization of crimes like vagrancy, public drunkenness, and drug use could result in the destruction of neighborhoods because the total decriminalization of such behavior would in fact sanction such behavior. The end result of the decriminalization of disorderly behavior would appear to move counter to the principle of order maintenance.

The Role of Rehabilitation
Certainly, the move toward order maintenance, especially in terms of attempting to end disreputable behavior, can be linked to the rehabilitative ideal. Jeremy Bentham stated that through punishment the offender will find rehabilitation. So it can be assumed that through enforcing disruptive behavior via order maintenance, not only does the community benefit from getting the offender off the street, it also benefits from the offender getting treatment for their delinquent behavior.

Allen (as cited in Cole & Gertz, 2012) further holds that the rehabilitative ideal seeks to affect change in the behavior of the individual in the interest of both the individual and the community. Because of this, it could be assumed that order maintenance not only benefits the community by initially removing the offender from the community, but it also benefits the community and the individual in the long run through treating the offender in a manner so the offender will learn to not reoffend.

Rehabilitative vs. Incarceration Approaches
However, Allen asserts that the rehabilitative ideal really leads to more punishment than traditional methods of incarceration. Under the guise of rehabilitation, some offenders are placed in treatment environments where they are held against their will for a longer period of time than they might otherwise suffer if they were placed in prison. In some cases, the offender’s stay in treatment can be extended because they failed to follow basic rules or because the staff feels that the client is better off staying in treatment for a longer duration.

As an example, Allen cites one case where an 80-year-old man had killed his wife while drunk, 30 years before. This individual was deemed insane and was remanded to treatment until he could be deemed to not kill again. Unfortunately, the hospital administrator would never discharge this elderly man despite the fact that he was elderly because he felt he could not be positive that the man might not ever murder again. Allen’s concerns seem to point toward the fact that he would not agree with the enforcement of disreputable behavior under the guise of rehabilitation. This is because rehabilitation is often used a tool of extending punishment against individuals who commit minor offenses.

The Importance of Enforcing Minor Crimes
In my view, it is important that minor criminal behaviors such as vagrancy and public drunkenness are enforced. I agree with Wilson and Kelling’s position that the decriminalization of minor disorderly behavior will only create an atmosphere that is supportive of crime and social breakdown. Working with individuals in disorganized communities, I have personally observed the impact that social disorganization has on a community. There appears to be a general malaise within communities that have an abundance of disorder-based crimes. In these communities, individuals live either in fear or care very little for their community, which results in the community being crime-ridden. It is only after the community and the police begin to work together and enforce both major and minor behavior that the community begins to turn itself around.

Think of it as the community getting back to the gym. Once the community begins to make changes toward the positive it will begin to feel better about it and look good. Because of this, the enforcement of disorderly conduct crimes is extremely beneficial to creating an atmosphere that people are invested in their neighborhoods.

Do you agree?

Vincent GiordanoAbout the Author: Dr. Vinnie Giordano Ph.D. obtained a Bachelor’s of Arts degree from Long Island University/ C.W. Post in Liberal Arts with a specialization in political science, his Masters of Science degree from Florida Metropolitan University in Criminal Justice, and another Masters of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Giordano also obtained his Ph.D. in Human Services with a specialization in Criminal Justice from Capella University. Before coming to APUS as a full time employee Dr. Giordano had worked in the field of substance abuse/ behavioral health for 13 years where he worked as a substance abuse counselor in a Department of Corrections funded youthful offender program, a counselor and supervisor for a 28-day residential and aftercare program, and as the Administrator of Juvenile Services at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center. Currently, Dr. Giordano serves as the Program Director of the Criminal Justice Department which is under the School of Public Service and Health.


Cole, G. & M. Gertz (2012). The criminal justice system: Politics and policies, 10th ed. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.



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