A Distributive Theory of Criminal Law
William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, 2010
73 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2010 Last revised: 14 Oct 2010
Date Written: October 5, 2010
In criminal law circles, the accepted wisdom is that there are two and only two true justifications of punishment – retributivism and utilitarianism. The multitude of moral claims about punishment may thus be reduced to two propositions: (1) punishment should be imposed because defendants deserve it, and (2) punishment should be imposed because it makes society safer. At the same time, most penal scholars notice the trend in criminal law to de-emphasize intent, centralize harm, and focus on victims, but they largely write off this trend as an irrational return to antiquated notions of vengeance. This Article asserts that there is in fact a distributive logic to the changes in current criminal law. The distributive theory of criminal law holds that an offender ought to be punished, not because he is culpable or because punishment increases net security, but because punishment appropriately distributes pleasure and pain between the offender and victim. Criminal laws are accordingly distributive when they mete out punishment for the purpose of ensuring victim welfare.
This Article demonstrates how distribution both explains the traditionally troubling criminal law doctrines of felony murder and the attempt-crime divide, and makes sense of current victim-centered reforms. Understanding much of modern criminal law as distribution highlights an interesting political contradiction. For the past few decades, one, if not the most, dominant political message has emphasized rigorous individualism and has held that the state is devoid of power to deprive a faultless person of goods (or “rights”) in order to ensure the welfare of another. But many who condemn distribution through the civil law or tax system embrace punishment of faultless defendants to distribute satisfaction to crime victims. Exposing criminal law as distributionist undermines these individuals’ claimed pre-political commitment against government distribution.
Keywords: distributive justice, criminal law, criminal procedure, victims’ rights, efficiency, retribution, deterrence, penal theory, sentencing, war on crime, felony murder, attempt, victim impact
JEL Classification: I30, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation