The notion of “democratizing criminal law” has an initial appeal because, after all, we believe in the importance of democracy and because criminal law is so important – it protects us from the most egregious wrongs and is the vehicle by which we allow the most serious governmental intrusions in the lives of individuals. Given criminal law’s special status, isn’t it appropriate that this most important and most intrusive governmental power be subject to the constraints of democratic determination?
But perhaps the initial appeal of this grand principle must give way to practical realities. As much as we are devoted to democratic ideals, perhaps the path to a better society is one that must recognize inherent weaknesses in the system of democratic action, which necessarily relies upon the judgments of common people. Perhaps, when dealing with things as important as doing justice and preventing crime, we must look instead to experts, such as criminologists and moral philosophers. Perhaps the path to a better society is one that, in this instance, should skirt democratic preferences as needed?
More specifically, consider some of the realities that might derail a movement toward democratizing criminal law: First, perhaps there is no such thing as a shared community view of justice on which to base a criminal law, but simply an endless list of individual disagreements. There can be no such thing as a criminal code that reflects community views if there is no such thing as a community view. Second, even if there were a shared community sense of justice, perhaps it is brutish and draconian, something born of anger and suspicion and not something that even the people themselves feel should be enshrined in public principles of liability and punishment. Third, even if community views of justice are in fact enlightened, something that people would be proud to enshrine in public law, perhaps they are not the path to a society with less crime. That is, perhaps the path to effective crime control is not through justice – either the community’s view of it or the moral philosopher’s view – but through more instrumentalist crime-control mechanisms, such as general deterrence or incapacitation of the dangerous. And finally, even if relying upon the community’s views of justice did turn out to be a mechanism of effective crime-control, wouldn’t such a system condemn us to live under the status quo of current community views, when history teaches us that a society can improve itself and the lives of its members only by moving ever forward in refining its judgments of justice?
Thus, this brief essay will take up these four questions: Is there any such thing as the community’s views of justice? Are the community’s views of justice brutish and draconian? Why should a criminal law concerned with crime-control care what the community thinks is just? Should the criminal law ever deviate from the community’s shared judgments of justice?
Robinson, Paul H., "Democratizing Criminal Law: Feasibility, Utility, and the Challenge of Social Change" (2017). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law. 1684.
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