The Responsibility Gap in Corporate Crime

Criminal Law and Philosophy, 2017, Forthcoming

Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2017-42

21 Pages Posted: 28 May 2017 Last revised: 12 Aug 2017

Date Written: May 26, 2017


In many cases of criminality within large corporations, senior management does not commit the operative offense — or conspire or assist in it — but nonetheless bears serious responsibility for the crime. That responsibility can derive from, among other things, management’s role in cultivating corporate culture, in failing to police effectively within the firm, and in accepting lavish compensation for taking the firm’s reins. Criminal law does not include any doctrinal means for transposing that form of responsibility into punishment. Arguments for expanding doctrine — including broadening of the presently narrow “responsible corporate officer” doctrine — so as to authorize such punishment do not fare well under the justificatory demands of criminal law theory. The principal obstacle to such arguments is the large industrial corporation itself, which necessarily entails kinds and degrees of delegation and risk-taking that do not fit well with settled concepts about mens rea and omission liability. Even the most egregious and harmful management failures must be addressed through design and regulation of the corporation rather than imposition of individual criminal liability.

Suggested Citation

Buell, Samuel W., The Responsibility Gap in Corporate Crime (May 26, 2017). Criminal Law and Philosophy, 2017, Forthcoming; Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2017-42. Available at SSRN:

Samuel W. Buell (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7193 (Phone)

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