Criminal Law Exceptionalism

68 Pages Posted: 10 May 2022 Last revised: 14 Jun 2022

See all articles by Benjamin Levin

Benjamin Levin

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: May 6, 2022


For over half a century, U.S. prison populations have ballooned and criminal codes have expanded. In recent years, a growing awareness of mass incarceration and the harms of criminal law across lines of race and class has led to a backlash of anti-carceral commentary and social movement energy. Academics and activists have adopted a critical posture, offering not only small-bore reforms, but full-fledged arguments for the abolition of prisons, police, and criminal legal institutions. Where criminal law was once embraced by commentators as a catchall solution to social problems, increasingly it is being rejected, or at least questioned. Instead of a space of moral clarity, the “criminal justice system” is frequently identified by critical scholars and activists as a space of racial subordination, widespread inequality, and rampant institutional violence.

In this Article, I applaud that critical turn. But, I argue that, when taken seriously, contemporary critiques of the criminal system raise foundational questions about power and governance—issues that should transcend the civil/criminal divide and, in some cases, even the distinction between state and private action. What if the problem with the criminal system isn’t exclusively its criminal-ness, but rather is the way in which it is embedded in and reflective of a set of problematic beliefs about how society should be structured and how people should be governed? What if the problems with criminal law are illustrative, rather than exceptional? Ultimately, I argue that the current moment should invite a de-exceptionalization of criminal law and a broader reckoning with the distributive consequences and punitive impulses that define the criminal system’s functioning—and, in turn, define so many other features of U.S. political economy beyond criminal law and its administration.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal justice, abolition, criminal justice reform, decriminalization, legal theory, race and the law, theories of the state, theories of punishment

JEL Classification: K14, K42, P16

Suggested Citation

Levin, Benjamin, Criminal Law Exceptionalism (May 6, 2022). Virginia Law Review, Forthcoming, U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 22-14, Available at SSRN: or

Benjamin Levin (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

1 Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics