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Structuring Criminal Codes to Perform Their Function

12 Pages Posted: 23 May 2003  

Paul H. Robinson

University of Pennsylvania Law School


This paper argues that criminal codes have two distinct functions. First, a code must ex ante announce the rules of conduct. Second, it must set out the principles of for adjudicating, ex post, violations of those rules. These two functions often are in tension with one another. Each calls for a different kind of code, addressed to a different audience, with different objectives: To be effective ex ante, the rules of conduct must be formulated in a way that they will be understood, remembered, and able to be applied in daily life by lay persons with a wide range of abilities and from a wide variety of backgrounds. Effectiveness in announcing the rules of conduct requires simple, clear, and preferably objective rules. In contrast, the goal of the principles of adjudication -to assess ex post the degree of liability and punishment, if any, due for a violation of the rules of conduct - often requires nuanced, subjective, and sometimes complex judgements, at least as nuanced, subjective, and complex as our notions of justice.

The paper makes the case for two distinct code documents, each drafted to best perform its function, and explores how this can be done.

Keywords: criminal code

JEL Classification: k14

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H., Structuring Criminal Codes to Perform Their Function. Buffalo Criminal Law Review , Vol. 4, No. pp. 1-11, 2000, Symposium: The Model Penal Code Revisited. Available at SSRN: or

Paul H. Robinson (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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