Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

Culture and Contempt: The Limitations of Expressive Criminal Law

58 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2005  

Ted Sampsell-Jones

Mitchell Hamline School of Law


Criminal sanctions work to reduce crime in a variety of ways. In a simple economic sense, legal sanctions raise the cost of criminal conduct. Expressive law scholars have shown that the criminal law can help to reduce crimes in other ways as well - by shaping preferences, changing social meanings, and encouraging non-legal sanctions. Lawmakers rely on these mechanisms when they attempt to use criminal laws to change behavior. But lawmakers and scholars alike should keep in mind that the expressive function of criminal law does not always work as intended.

In order to illustrate that point, this article examines street culture's reaction to criminal drug policy. The first section describes street ideology and the social meaning of crack dealing and marijuana use. It relies not only on recent academic work in the fields of sociology and history, but also on a variety of primary sources, including music, movies, magazines, poetry, and memoirs. These sources demonstrate that in street culture, drug policy has utterly failed to produce its intended social norms. In fact, if anything, criminal drug policy has helped to create a system of norms and meanings that undermine the state's goal.

The second section lays a foundation in theoretical sociology for the argument that expressive criminal law can fail. It draws on several concepts, including strain theory, differential association, and labeling theory, from canonical sociological texts. The third section examines implications for recent law and norms scholarship. Finally, and most provocatively, the article questions whether criminal law's production of oppositional cultures is truly a failure or simply part of its intended function.

Keywords: Criminal law, expressive law, social norms, drug policy, drug crime, street culture, hip hop culture

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Sampsell-Jones, Ted, Culture and Contempt: The Limitations of Expressive Criminal Law. Seattle University Law Review, Vol. 27, 2003. Available at SSRN:

Ted Sampsell-Jones (Contact Author)

Mitchell Hamline School of Law ( email )

875 Summit Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105-3076
United States

Paper statistics

Abstract Views