The Expressive Cost of Corporate Immunity

57 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2012 Last revised: 23 Mar 2013

Date Written: April 26, 2012


Is it possible to justify imposing criminal liability on corporations? Two basic aspects of criminal law have no application to corporations: Corporations cannot be jailed and they cannot form mental states. Moreover, there is reason to think that much of the deterrent effect generated by corporate criminal liability could be generated more efficiently by civil liability. Still, the demand for criminal prosecution of corporations remains high. This Article seeks to understand why we have corporate criminal liability, and it concludes that expressivism is necessary to justify the practice. Expressivism justifies punishment by reference to the benefits of a statement of moral condemnation. With regard to corporations, however, the power of expressivism is strongest in the absence of liability. While there may be some expressive benefit to holding corporations criminally liable, the expressive cost of excluding corporations from criminal law altogether is the real driving force in justifying corporate criminal liability: Immunity presents a materially harmful expression. This expressive cost of immunity justifies holding corporations criminally liable. Of course, just because it is possible to justify corporate criminal liability by reference to the expressive cost of immunity, it does not necessarily follow that the current practice of prosecuting corporations serves this end well. There are reasons to think it does not, but the relationship between expressivism and corporate criminal liability suggests a fruitful path toward reimagining how and when corporations ought to be subject to criminal liability. The path to reform will be the subject of a subsequent article; this Article lays the theoretical groundwork for reform.

Keywords: Expressivism, Corporate Crime, Theories of Punishment, Jurisprudence, Criminal Law

Suggested Citation

Gilchrist, Gregory M., The Expressive Cost of Corporate Immunity (April 26, 2012). 64 Hastings Law Journal 1 (2012), University of Toledo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-16, Available at SSRN:

Gregory M. Gilchrist (Contact Author)

University of Toledo College of Law ( email )

2801 W Bancroft
MS 507
Toledo, OH 43606
United States
419-530-2712 (Phone)

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