Legalization vs. Decriminalization

For the first time ever, Anbumani Ramadoss is talking sense (albeit in a very restricted manner, since his only concern is HIV-AIDS) when he says “Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises men who have sex with men, must go”. But the article is wrong when it says “the Union Health Ministry on Friday favoured legalising homosexuality.”

There is a big difference between legalizing something and decriminalizing it. And the difference lies in the way these words relate to “rights”. Homosexuality, prostitution, discrimination by private parties, hate speech, use and sale of drugs and weapons, practice of a particular religion, non payment of compulsory levies etc are decriminalized. Murder, rape, theft, fraud etc are legalized. The first category of “offenses” don’t violate the rights of others. Those in the second category do. That is the essential difference.

Laws are meant to protect the “rights” of people, not restrict them based on the personal likes and dislikes of a whole bunch of others.

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  • Abhishek  On August 9, 2008 at 3:07 am

    Typically, the way these words are used in the US, is somewhat different from what you seem to suggest.

    When something is decriminalized, it is no longer a criminal offence to do it, but it can still be a civil offence. In other words, you can still be fined for doing it, but not jailed.

    When something is legalized, it is no longer an offence at all.

    For example, posession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use has long been decriminalized (but not legalized) in California.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 9, 2008 at 5:56 am

    That may very well be the case when we separate offenses into criminal and civil ones. But simply consider the words legalize and de-criminalize (to make something legal, the COED says).

    Invariably, the lack of a negative prefix to the first word makes it look as if a particular criminal action has now become legal, whereas the second word suggests that a particular action which had earlier been declared to be against the law has now become normal. The effect changes with the word.

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