The Time Frame Challenge to Retributivism

37 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2018 Last revised: 16 Nov 2018

See all articles by Adam J. Kolber

Adam J. Kolber

Brooklyn Law School; NYU School of Law

Date Written: November 12, 2018


Retributivists believe that criminal offenders should suffer or be punished in proportion to what they morally deserve. There is, however, an often-ignored debate as to whether desert should be assessed across a person’s life (the “whole life” view) or only for crimes that are the subject of a current sentencing proceeding (the “current crime” view). Both options are unappealing. The whole life view may be superior on theoretical grounds but is hopelessly impractical. The current crime view is somewhat more practical but has no solid theoretical foundation. The lack of a suitable time frame in which to assess desert represents an important challenge to retributivist conceptions of proportionality. Even uncertainty about the proper time frame may itself be detrimental to some retributivists’ hopes of justifying the incarcerative sentences of particular offenders.

Keywords: retributivism, consequentialism, justification, whole life, current crime

Suggested Citation

Kolber, Adam Jason, The Time Frame Challenge to Retributivism (November 12, 2018). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 18-48. Available at SSRN: or

Adam Jason Kolber (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

NYU School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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