Is Criminal Justice Politically Feasible?

22 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2003

See all articles by Philip N. Pettit

Philip N. Pettit

Princeton University; Australian National University (ANU) - Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS)

Date Written: 2002


On the assumption that criminal justice systems fail to live up to any of the established rationales for their existence, the paper asks after why this might be so and what, if anything, might reduce their resistance to the effects of systematic, reasoned discussion. The answer is developed in three sections. In the first, I describe a dynamic in policy-making that was first identified by nineteenth century studies of the rise of the administrative state - I call it the outrage dynamic - and I show how this force also operates in the case of crime. In the second, I look at the upshot of this dynamic for criminal sentencing policy, arguing that it makes it difficult for democratic politicians to enact or maintain any policies, no matter how well argued or successful, that routinely fall short of what by cultural standards are the maximal, acceptable sanctions. Finally, in the third section I identify one institutional arrangement - putting decisions at arm's length from elected politicians - that might make it politically feasible to shape the penal system by reasoned debate.

Suggested Citation

Pettit, Philip N., Is Criminal Justice Politically Feasible? (2002). Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Vol. 5, pp. 427-450, 2002. Available at SSRN: or

Philip N. Pettit (Contact Author)

Princeton University ( email )

305 Marx Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1012
United States
609-258-4759 (Phone)
609-258-1110 (Fax)


Australian National University (ANU) - Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200

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