Criminalization is the social and political process by which society determines which and whose actions or behaviors will be punished by the state. At the most basic level, criminalization involves the passage and enforcement of criminal laws. While framed as neutral, decisions about what kinds of conduct to punish, how, and how much are very much a choice, guided by existing structures of economic and social inequality based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, and poverty, among others.
The practice of criminalization extends beyond laws and policies to more symbolic and entrenched processes by which people are deemed categorically “criminal.” This process is fueled by widespread and commonly accepted stereotypes, which are highly racialized and gendered. - Interrupting Criminalization: Research in Action