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Prof. Robinson examines criminal law’s core principles

May 27, 2021

In “Criminal Law’s Core Principles,” Robinson writes that focusing only on the current criminal justice theory leads to a “blank slate” conception of lawmaking, which is “dangerously misguided.”

In an article forthcoming in the Washington University Jurisprudence Review, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Colin S. Diver Professor of Law Paul Robinson warns that, when writing criminal law rules, lawmakers must be cognizant that they are working with an already established set of criminal law core principles.

In “Criminal Law’s Core Principles,” Robinson writes that focusing only on the current criminal justice theory leads to a “blank slate” conception of lawmaking, which is “dangerously misguided.”

“In fact, lawmakers are writing on a slate on which core principles are already indelibly written and realistically they are free only to add detail in the implementation of those principles and to add additional provisions not inconsistent with them,” Robinson writes. “Attempts to do otherwise are destined to produce tragic results from both utilitarian and retributivist views.”

Robinson identifies nine “near universal core principles,” the existence of which “has important and diverse practical implications: in suggesting reduced crime-control effectiveness where the criminal law conflicts with a core principle, in setting limitations on and strategies for social reform, in supporting a broader use of restorative justice, in suggesting a more nuanced application of the legality principle, in supporting the recognition of a general mistake of law defense and a mitigation for partial excuses, in assessing the feasibility of creating an international criminal law or of creating a criminal law for a territory now being created whose population does not yet exist, and even in planning initial contact with extraterrestrial beings.”

Robinson is one of the world’s leading criminal law scholars. A prolific writer and lecturer, Robinson 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.

He is a former federal prosecutor and counsel for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures and is the author or editor of 17 books, including the standard lawyer’s reference on criminal law defenses, three Oxford monographs on criminal law theory, a highly regarded criminal law treatise, and an innovative case studies course book.

A member of the American Law Institute, Robinson recently completed three criminal code reform projects in the U.S. and two modern Islamic penal codes, including one under the auspices of the U.N. Development Programme. He began his academic career at Rutgers University School of Law at Camden in 1977 and joined the Penn Law faculty in 2003.

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