The Concept of Criminal Law

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What distinguishes “criminal law” from all other law? This question should be central to both criminal law theory and criminal justice reform. Clarity about the distinctive feature(s) of criminal law is especially important in the current moment, as the nation awakens to the damage that the carceral state has wrought and reformers debate the value and the future of criminal law institutions. Foundational though it is, however, the question has received limited attention. There is no clear consensus among contemporary scholars or reformers about what makes the criminal law unique.

This Essay argues that Antony Duff’s The Realm of Criminal Law offers an answer—and that the answer is correct. Duff rightly diagnoses criminal law as unique by virtue of the fact that it censures particular acts in the polity’s name. It is a mechanism of collective condemnation. The Essay advocates recognition of this concept of criminal law and draws out implications for both criminal law theory and criminal law reform.


Criminal law reform, legal theory, law & society, race, criminalization, collective condemnation, enforcement, punishment, abolitionism, Antony Duff, The Realm of Criminal Law

Publication Title

Criminal Law & Philosophy

Publication Citation

14 Crim. L & Phil. 447 (2020)