The Corrective Justice Theory of Punishment

45 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2020 Last revised: 18 Aug 2020

Date Written: May 7, 2020


The American penal system is racist, degrading, and inefficient. Nonetheless, we cannot give up on punishment entirely, for social peace and cooperation depend on the deterrent threat of the criminal sanction. The question—central to determining the degree to which punishment is justified—is why society’s need for general deterrence is an offender’s problem. Why is it his responsibility to scare off would-be future offenders? His past offense does not magically render him accountable for the actions of total strangers. Existing theories of criminal justice are unable to answer this question.

This Article fills the lacuna—justifying state punishment, but, more importantly, establishing its moral limits—with the help of tort law principles. It argues that deterrent punishment can be justified as a means of rectifying an offender’s contribution to “criminality”—not merely the perceived, but the objective threat of crime in society. Criminality chills the exercise of our rights, forces us to take expensive precautions, and exposes us to unreasonable risks of harm. By having increased the level of criminality in the past, an offender owes a duty of repair to society as a whole, a duty of “corrective justice” in the language of tort theorists. He can fulfill this duty by decreasing the threat of crime in the future. In this way, deterrent punishment does not merely sacrifice him to limit the problem of future crime, for which he has no personal responsibility. Rather, it forces him to fulfill his own duty of repair.

This novel theory—the corrective justice theory of punishment—entails three sentencing principles. First, punishment must in fact deter crime and must be the most efficient means of doing so. Second, however efficient it may be, punishment must not harm an offender more than is required to repair his criminality contribution. Third, even if it is both efficient and reparative, punishment must not harm an offender to a degree that is entirely out of proportion to the harm prevented by doing so. The Article demonstrates how these three principles, in combination, demand a radical reduction in American sentencing scales. The Article thus concludes that the corrective justice view presents stable moral ground for the decarceral movement in America.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal sentencing, deterrence, corrective justice

Suggested Citation

Bronsther, Jacob, The Corrective Justice Theory of Punishment (May 7, 2020). 107 Virginia Law Review (forthcoming 2021), Available at SSRN:

Jacob Bronsther (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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