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Document Type

Article

Abstract

There is much criticism of America’s sprawling criminal system, but still insufficient understanding of how it has come to inflict its burdens on so many while seemingly accomplishing so little. This Article asks, as Americans built the carceral state, what were we thinking? The Article examines the ideas about criminal law that informed legal scholarship, legal pedagogy, and professional discourse during the expansion of criminal legal institutions in the second half of the twentieth century. In each of these contexts, criminal law was and still is thought to be fundamentally and categorically different from other forms of law in several respects. For example, criminal law is supposedly unique in its subject matter, uniquely determinate, and uniquely necessary to a society’s wellbeing. This Article shows how this set of ideas, which I call criminal law exceptionalism, has helped make mass incarceration possible and may now impede efforts to reduce the scope of criminal law. The aim here is not to denounce all claims that criminal law is distinct from other forms of law, but rather to scrutinize specific claims of exceptionalism in the hopes of better understanding criminal law and its discontents.

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