Anchoring the Sentencing Scale: A Modest Proposal

Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2012

35 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2012 Last revised: 30 Sep 2013

Date Written: December 1, 2011


This paper proposes a partial solution to the anchoring problem in sentencing theory. After explaining the problem and the importance of a solution to it, I advance what I term the “commensurate harms principle,” according to which the losses and deprivations imposed on convicted offenders as punishment should be kept commensurate with the standard harms their crimes cause victims. The principle is defended as an aid to setting sentences for core criminal offense types rather than tokens. Intelligent application of the principle requires us to gain an informed understanding of both the harms caused by crimes and the harms done by criminal sanctions, particularly imprisonment. The principle is grounded in a justification of legal punishment that involves censure and equalizing hard treatment. Various objections to the principle are addressed, including claims that victim and penal harms cannot be compared and that the harms produced by crimes and criminal sanctions extend beyond victims and offenders. I contend that the commensurate harms principle would counsel the sparing use of imprisonment and with many, though not all offense types, support less harsh sentences than are the norm in many countries.

Keywords: sentencing theory, retributivism, harm, culpability

Suggested Citation

Lippke, Richard, Anchoring the Sentencing Scale: A Modest Proposal (December 1, 2011). Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Richard Lippke (Contact Author)

Indiana University ( email )

Department of Criminal Justice
Bloomington, IN
United States
812-856-6049 (Phone)

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