Undemocratic Crimes

56 Pages Posted: 30 Jan 2021 Last revised: 1 Apr 2022

See all articles by Paul H. Robinson

Paul H. Robinson

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Jonathan Wilt

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Date Written: 2022


One might assume that in a working democracy the criminal law rules would reflect the community’s shared judgments regarding justice and punishment. This is especially true because social science research shows that lay people generally think about criminal liability and punishment in consistent ways: in terms of desert, doing justice and avoiding injustice. Moreover, there are compelling arguments for demanding consistency between community views and criminal law rules based upon the importance of democratic values, effective crime-control, and the deontological value of justice itself.

It may then come as a surprise, and a disappointment, that a wide range of common rules in modern criminal law seriously conflict with community justice judgments, including three strikes and other habitual offender statutes, abolition or narrowing of the insanity defense, adult prosecution of juveniles, felony murder, strict liability offenses, and a variety of other common doctrines.

In short, democratically elected legislatures have regularly chosen to adopt criminal law rules that conflict with the deep and abiding intuitions of their constituents. We endeavor to explain how this incongruent situation has arisen. Using the legislative and political histories of the doctrines noted above, we document four common causes: legislative mistake about the community’s justice judgments, interest group pressure, prioritizing coercive crime-control mechanisms of general deterrence and incapacitation of the dangerous over doing justice, usually at the urging of academics or other experts, and legislative preference for delegating some criminalization decisions to other system actors, such as prosecutors and judges.

Analysis of these reasons and their dynamics suggests specific reforms, including a legislative commitment to reliably determine community justice judgments before enactment and to publicly explain the reasons for enacting any criminal law rule that conflicts. Creation of a standing criminal law reform commission would be useful to oversee the social science research and to help hold the legislature to these public promises.

Keywords: retributivism, empirical desert, consequentialism, democratic values, standing criminal law reform commission, coercive crime-control, legislative delegation, interest group pressure, strict liability offenses, felony murder, adult prosecution of juveniles, three strikes, legislative mistake

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H. and Wilt, Jonathan, Undemocratic Crimes (2022). University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2022, p. 485, 2022, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 21-06, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3775130

Paul H. Robinson (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Jonathan Wilt

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ( email )

601 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

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