The Modern Irrationalities of American Criminal Codes: An Empirical Study of Offense Grading

57 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2010 Last revised: 19 Feb 2011

Paul H. Robinson

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Thomas Gaeta

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct

Matthew Majarian

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct

Megan Schultz

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct

Douglas M. Weck

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct

Date Written: February 16, 2011

Abstract

The Model Penal Code made great advances in clarity and legality, moving most of the states from a mix of common law and ad hoc statutes to the modern American form of a comprehensive, succinct code that has served as a model around the world.

Yet the decades since the wave of Model Code-based codifications have seen a steady degradation of American codes brought on by a relentless and accelerating rate of criminal law amendments that ignore the style, format, and content of the existing codes. The most damaging aspect of this trend is the exponentially increasing number of offense grading irrationalities found in most modern American codes.

This Article documents the practical and prudential importance of getting offense grading right – that is, having the grade of each offense or suboffense reflect its relative seriousness in relation to all other offenses – then illustrates just how wrong things have gone, using a case study of offense grading in Pennsylvania, one of the better modern American codes.

The critique of Pennsylvania, and its conclusions, does not rely upon the value judgments of the authors but rather upon an empirical study of the judgments of Pennsylvania residents regarding the relative seriousness of more than a hundred existing Pennsylvania offenses. The results suggest a startling conflict between the law's grading judgments and those of the community it governs, as well as a variety of kinds of logical irrationalities and internal inconsistencies.

The process by which these grading irrationalities have been and continue to be created is examined, and solutions for fixing and, perhaps, avoiding these problems in the future, are explored.

Keywords: offense grading, mandatory minimum sentences, moral credibility, criminal code reform, Pennsylvania criminal law, proportional punishment, criminal law politics, legislation, drafting, grading offenses, inconsistent statutory language, limiting judicial discretion

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H. and Gaeta, Thomas and Majarian, Matthew and Schultz, Megan and Weck, Douglas M., The Modern Irrationalities of American Criminal Codes: An Empirical Study of Offense Grading (February 16, 2011). Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 100, Pg. 709, 2010; U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 10-04. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1539083

Paul H. Robinson (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Thomas Gaeta

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States

Matthew Majarian

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States

Megan Schultz

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States

Douglas M. Weck

University of Pennsylvania Law School - Student/Alumni/Adjunct ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States

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