One can view criminalization as a procedure deployed by society as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to anyone proposing to engage in the behavior causing harm. The State becomes involved because governing entities can become convinced that the costs of not criminalizing (through allowing the harms to continue unabated) outweigh the costs of criminalizing it (restricting individual liberty, for example, to minimize harm to others).
Criminalization may provide future harm-reduction at least to the outside population, assuming those shamed or incarcerated or otherwise restrained for committing crimes start out more prone to criminal behaviour. Likewise, one might assume that criminalize acts that in themselves do not harm other people ("victimless crimes") may prevent subsequent harmful acts (assuming that people "prone" to commit these acts may tend to commit harmful actions in general). Some see the criminalization of "victimless crimes" as a pretext for imposing personal, religious or moral convictions on otherwise productive citizens or taxpayers.
Some commentators may see criminalization as a way to make potential criminals pay or suffer for their prospective crimes. In this case, criminalization becomes a way to set the price that one must pay to society for certain actions considered detrimental to society as a whole. An extreme view might see criminalization as State-sanctioned revenge.
States control the process of criminalization because:
- Even if victims recognize their own role as victims, they may not have the resources to investigate and seek legal redress for the injuries suffered: the enforcers formally appointed by the State often have better access to expertise and resources.
- The victims may only want compensation for the injuries suffered, while remaining indifferent to a possible desire for deterrence.
- Fear of retaliation may deter victims or witnesses of crimes from taking any action. Even in policed societies, fear may inhibit from reporting incidents or from co-operating in a trial.
- Victims, on their own, may lack the economies of scale that could allow them to administer a penal system, let alone to collect any fines levied by a court. Garoupa & Klerman (2002) warn that a rent-seeking government has as its primary motivation to maximize revenue and so, if offenders have sufficient wealth, a rent-seeking government will act more aggressively than a social-welfare-maximizing government in enforcing laws against minor crimes (usually with a fixed penalty such as parking and routine traffic violations), but more laxly in enforcing laws against major crimes.
- As a result of the crime, victims may die or become incapacitated.
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