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Criminal Law Scholarship: Three Illusions


Paul H. Robinson


University of Pennsylvania Law School


Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 2, p. 287

Abstract:     
The paper criticizes criminal law scholarship for helping to construct and failing to expose analytic structures that falsely claim a higher level of rationality and coherence than current criminal law theory deserves. It offers illustrations of three such illusions of rationality. First, it is common in criminal law discourse for scholars and judges to cite any of the standard litany of "the purposes of punishment" - just deserts, deterrence, incapacitation of the dangerous, rehabilitation, and sometimes other purposes - as a justification for one or another liability rule or sentencing practice. The cited "purpose" gives the rules an aura of rationality, but one that is, in large part, illusory. Without a principle defining the interrelation of the "purposes," nearly any rule can be justified by some "purpose of punishment." Thus, a decision maker can switch among distributive principles as needed to provide an apparent rationale for whichever rule the person prefers, even if that preference is not based on rational criteria. A second example is found in a central mechanism for determining an offender's blameworthiness: the use of an individualized objective standard. The widely used mechanism avoids the problems acknowledged to attend a strictly objective standard. A person's situation and capacities are central to an assessment of whether a person can be fairly blamed for a violation, and the individualized objective standard allows the decision maker to take these into account. At the same time, the mechanism avoids reversion to a completely subjective standard, which might exempt many blameworthy cases from liability. In reality, however, the mechanism only shifts the form of the problem. Codes that use the individualized objective standard fail to provide a principle by which one can determine those characteristics of an offender with which the objective standard ought to be individualized and those with which it ought not. Without a governing principle, the issue again is left to the discretion of decision makers, with no guidance as to how that discretion is to be exercised. A final illusion obscures whether the criminal justice system is, in fact, in the business of "doing justice." The "criminal justice" system imposes "punishment" and encourages moral condemnation of those found "guilty" of "crimes." But while the system cultivates its doing-justice image, it increasingly shifts to a system of essentially preventive detention, where a violator's sanction is derived more from what is needed to incapacitate him from committing future offenses than to punish him for a past offense. There are great advantages to the deception, but also serious costs and inefficiencies. The paper discusses why some illusions are more objectionable than others and what the existence of such illusions says about modern criminal law scholarship.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 36

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Date posted: January 14, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H., Criminal Law Scholarship: Three Illusions. Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 2, p. 287. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=183278 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.183278

Contact Information

Paul H. Robinson (Contact Author)
University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )
3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
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