To consider whether a crime can actually be victimless, the concept of “victim” and “crime” must first be defined. In fact, throughout time, the notion of what is a crime, and how crimes are defined has changed dramatically within human culture. For example, adultery was once considered a crime, while today it is not punishable and some people even practice open marriages. With this in mind, when a society defines a crime, it creates criminals, and additionally, victims. However, there are several schools of thought as to how a victim becomes a victim. One view is that a victim must acknowledge they have had a crime committed against them, while the other asserts that knowledge of victimization is not necessary, such as when the State acts as a prosecutor against an accused. While there are many ways to define a crime as well as a victim, there are no truly victimless crimes, as there will always be someone affected by a crime in some way, even if it is only the criminals themselves.
Drug use is a good example of what some may see as a victimless crime, as on face value, the abuser of the drug seems to be causing only self-harm. However, from the documentary on methamphetamine use in the U.S. over the past twenty years, it becomes clear that drug abuse is tremendously harmful to many more than simply the abuser. According to The Meth Epidemic, half of all children in foster care (at the time of the film) were there due to their parents’ methamphetamine cooking or abuse (Byker, 2006). Children involved with parents who abuse or create meth are at high risk of child abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and other threatening environments that can critically affect their ability to function as a healthy adult (Byker, 2006). The children of meth abusers become victims of their parent’s habits and suffer over their entire lifetime. To them, victimization is not learned, it is forced.
Children are only one way that drug abusers create victims other than themselves. They also place a burden on friends, family, drug courts, and neighborhoods as they are the highest demographic involved in property crimes and theft to support their habit (Byker, 2006). The damage inflicted by meth abusers to others is legitimate, even to those who are unaware. This stands in conflict with Botellier (2002), who discussed that according to one criminal justice framework, a victim must be identified and made to believe that they are a victim in order for victimization to exist (p. 58). So, prior to becoming aware that a person is a victim of a crime, that person is not a victim. However, this cannot be true of “victimless” drug abusers, who create property damage and theft that someone must fix, replace, or repurchase. Even if these people are unaware and do not know to label themselves as a victim, they are still being victimized.
The irony of considering drug abuse as a victimless crime is that it forgets that the abuser is also a criminal and a victim; which can be a far more complicated issue to solve. The reason a person becomes an addict is often due to them being a victim of some other social problem, such as poverty. In addition, Botellier (2002) demonstrates that criminal behavior comes with social stigmatization, which a criminal will likely be victimized by even if they seek help and turn their lives around (p. 56). In this case, a criminal and a victim can be the same person. Even without the distinct victim aside from the criminal, it is likely that a criminal is also a victim in some way.
While it may be debatable that victimless crimes exist, this is often a matter of the definition of a crime and a victim. For meth abusers, many times the victims of their victimless crimes are their children, family, friends, and even strangers. Ironically, often the drug abusers themselves are victims; of poverty, of a family cycle of neglect, etc. In this way, there cannot be victimless crimes, unless the definition ignores the relationship of a criminal to society.
Boutellier, H. (2002). Morality and Victims. Crime and morality: the significance of criminal justice in post-modern culture (pp. 41-62). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.
Byker, C. (2006). The meth epidemic [Television series episode]. In Frontline. Arlington: Public broadcast service.