In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Order Crimes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources

Criminology Public Order Crimes
Timbre Wulf, Robert Meier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 December 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0019


Public order crimes are sometimes called “victimless” or “complaintless” crimes. Who is the victim of an illegal drug transaction? Who is likely to call the police when a prostitute makes a transaction with a client or when a homeless person is sleeping in a public park? Such acts are considered crimes not because there is a discernable offender and victim, but because the larger community, or at least a vocal and powerful segment of it, is offended and therefore victimized by such acts. The legal status of public order crimes varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Because there is often no complainant in such offenses, they are detected only as a result of proactive police operations that specifically target them. The following sections will address several important public order crimes. Specifically, various aspects of sex work, illegal drug use, vagrancy, public drunkenness, and gambling are discussed.

General Overviews

There are few works that contain material on each of the public order crimes considered here. One work that does contain this material is Meier and Geis 2006, which considers each of the topics of this chapter as well as additional issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Perhaps because of the diversity of public order criminality, most work has addressed each public order crime without regard to others. It is even difficult to find a term that encompasses all public order crimes. Junker 1972 reviews a number of phrases but cannot hit upon a sufficient umbrella term. Even when there appears to be some consensus about public order crimes, the question arises about whether the law is an appropriate tool to deal with these crimes, as shown in Kadish 1967. If such crimes are simply the expression of personal morality, perhaps alternative systems of control, or no control at all, should be tried, as Feinberg 1987, Feinberg 1988, Feinberg 1989, and Feinberg 1990 suggest.

  • Feinberg, Joel. 1987. Harm to others: The moral limits of the criminal law. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195046641.001.0001

    Feinberg examines the “harm to others” principle as a possible guiding line to help legislate against criminal behavior. He presents a definition and analysis of the harm principle as it applies to a variety of acts to illustrate how the principle must be interpreted if it is to guide legislation.

  • Feinberg, Joel. 1988. Offense to others: The moral limits of the criminal law. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195052153.001.0001

    In this second volume, Feinberg examines the “offense principle,” which maintains that laws should be enacted to prevent others from being shocked or revolted by a particular act. He also separates “offense” from “harm” and shows that there are some instances where morality must be connected to the legal status of a particular kind of behavior.

  • Feinberg, Joel. 1989. Harm to self: The moral limits of the criminal law. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195059239.001.0001

    This third volume centers on possible answers to the following question: What behavior can the government make illegal without violating the moral autonomy of individual citizens? The issues are complex, but no defense of criminal law’s “reach” can ignore the answers to such questions, including the extent to which the state can intervene in self-destructive behavior.

  • Feinberg, Joel. 1990. Harmless wrong-doing: The moral limits of the criminal law. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195064704.001.0001

    Like the other volumes in this series, this book examines generally the philosophical reasoning behind “crimes without victims,” including consensual sexual relations, ticket scalping, and exploitation of others even with their consent.

  • Junker, John. 1972. Criminalization and criminogenesis. UCLA Law Review 19:694–714.

    The failure to agree on a common term for public order crimes suggests not only that public order offenses are extremely varied but also that each crime generates different degrees of moral condemnation.

  • Kadish, Sanford. 1967. The crisis of overcriminalization. Annals 374:158–169.

    More than one observer has commented that the law not only fails to prevent public order crimes but can also make things worse.

  • Meier, Robert F., and Gilbert Geis. 2006. Criminal justice and moral issues. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

    An examination of sex work, drugs, homosexuality, abortion, pornography, and gambling from the perspective of what the law can and cannot accomplish. Although not directly related to various dimensions of these crimes, this book goes a long way in exploring public order crimes.

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