American Criminal Law: A captivating Journey Through Justice–A Review

Thinking back on my fifty plus years as a practicing law librarian, I have come to believe that criminal law is one of the more humanistic of legal disciplines because it can reach people at such a personal level. Paul H Robinson* and Sarah M Robinson capture this thought in their book, “American Criminal Law: Its People, Principles, and Evolution” (Routledge 2022). It offers a refreshing take on this complex subject.

This book breaks away from dry legal jargon and  instead weaves a compelling narrative that explores the history, core concepts, and ongoing debates within American criminal law. The authors write, “Criminal law is one of the most interesting perspectives on the human adventure,… it requires us to examine how we want people to act, what we will do when they act improperly, and how we decide what we can reasonably expect of people. And to do this, we must assess what makes a successful society, what citizen protections and obligations a society should enforce, as well as the principles of justice that the community shares.”

The authors’ strength lies in their engaging, approach. Each chapter delves into a specific principle, like legality or culpability, by presenting a historical case that illuminates its foundation. This is then contrasted with a modern case, highlighting the evolution of the concept. This back- and- forth through time keeps the reader engaged and demonstrates how the law adapts to societal changes.

Beyond historical context, the book excels at introducing complex legal doctrines in an understandable way. The Robinsons use real-world scenarios and relatable examples, making even intricate concepts like criminal intent or causation feel accessible.

Another strength is the book’s focus on the “people” aspect of American criminal law. It doesn’t shy away from the philosophical underpinnings and the ongoing struggles to balance individual rights with public safety. The book showcases the varied perspectives on issues like punishment and criminal justice reform, prompting readers to form their own informed opinions.

Professor Robinson* delves further into the book’s themes. **

“Q: You write in the preface that American Criminal Law is “not meant to be a workman’s handbook for criminal justice participants but rather a travel brochure for anyone interested in the life and evolution of criminal law and society.” A two-part question: Why did you want to write this book, and why did you want it to appeal to a broader audience than just those in the legal community and students?

Robinson: Much of my scholarly work has focused on the shared intuitions of justice of ordinary people. The research suggests that those intuitions are sophisticated and nuanced. In other words, criminal law is a special area of law to which ordinary people come with a certain natural expertise in judging the relative wrongfulness of conduct and the relative blameworthiness of an offender. That has led me to start writing books for a general audience, appreciating that they have a natural aptitude and interest in criminal law that they do not have for other areas of law.

But not only is it possible to speak to a general audience about criminal law, it is also important to do so. Criminal codes ought to reflect the community’s shared intuitions of justice, rather than being drafted primarily upon the theories of experts and academics that ignore the importance in criminal law of community views.

Q: You write that “criminal law remains as one of the only moral authorities available to describe what society considers to be truly condemnable.” What gives criminal law its moral authority?

Robinson: That is an extremely interesting question on which I’ve actually written a good deal. Criminal law earns its moral authority by publicly committing itself to doing justice above all else. A system that regularly does injustice and regularly fails to do justice is a system that will lose its moral authority with the community and will thereby lose access to the powerful forces of social influence that the law’s earned moral credibility can bring.

It is for just this reason that I have long argued that the criminal justice system must avoid rules and practices that produce systematic injustice or failures of justice. Unfortunately, there are many who have influence in shaping criminal justice rules and practices who are willing to produce regular deviations from justice in order to promote some other goal, be it crime-control, a political or ideological agenda, or some other goal that they see as important.

Q: In what ways does criminal law concern itself not just with tangible harms to people and property but also with intangible harms to institutions and larger societal interests?

Robinson: Certainly, people tend to think first about physical harms to persons or property when they think of criminal law, but the vast majority of offenses in the criminal code concern intangible rather than tangible interests. Counterfeiting, insider trading, and deceptive business practices all concern injuring an intangible societal interest, such as the perceived reliability and fairness of particular economic activity, not causing a tangible harm. Mistreating a dead body, defecating in public, and consensual adult incest with birth control all concern violation of societal norms, not tangible harms.

Q: You write that “generations from now people will look back on our present society and roll their eyes—or scowl in disgust—at something we now criminalize that they have come to see as wholly acceptable or at something we fail to criminalize that they have come to see as highly condemnable. What is something we now criminalize that will be seen as acceptable or something that might be condemnable that we have failed to criminalize?

Robinson: Well, of course, that’s the challenge. No generation can know for sure what is coming around the historical corner. I’m sure many centuries ago in Europe no one could have imagined a world in which blasphemy was not a crime. They could not see it coming.”

In conclusion: “American Criminal Law” is not just for law students or legal professionals. This book is a valuable resource for anyone with an interest in the American justice system. Its engaging style and insightful analysis make it a compelling read for anyone who wants to understand the history, principles, and ongoing evolution of how America defines and punishes crime.


  •  * Paul H Robinson is Colin S. Diver Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Professor Robinson has been described as “one of the world’s leading criminal law scholars. A prolific writer and lecturer, he has published articles in virtually all of the top law reviews, lectured in more than 100 cities in 34 states and 27 countries, and had his writings appear in 15 languages”.
  • ** This Q&A section is quoted from an interview posted on the University of Pennsylvania Penn Carey website
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