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ACLU report highlights Professor Robinson’s empirical research and scholarship on criminal codes and offense grading

December 10, 2019

A recent ACLU report relies heavily on the research and scholarship of Penn Law Professor Paul H. Robinson to support its position that the “ever-expanding” Pennsylvania Crimes Code both contributes to the problem of over-incarceration and runs counter to fundamental concepts of fairness.

Robinson is one of the world’s foremost scholars on criminal code trends and serves as the Colin S. Diver Professor of Law at Penn Law. Earlier this year, he was appointed to the National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Law and Justice (CLAJ).

“The Pennsylvania Legislature commissioned us to do the criminal code study and we presented our results before a joint session of the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees, but nothing happened,” said Robinson. “I’m thrilled that the ACLU has taken up the issue. Perhaps they can spur criminal law recodification.”

Robinson, Director of the Law School’s Criminal Law Research Group, credits his students with helping bring the crimes code research and scholarship to fruition.

“This critique of existing Pennsylvania criminal law was a very large project and simply could not have been undertaken but for the Herculean efforts of the Penn Law students in the Criminal Law Research Group,” said Robinson. 

In “More Law, Less Justice,” the ACLU argues that Pennsylvania’s “legislative hyperactivity” is putting more people behind bars, covering the same behavior already captured by offenses listed in the 1972 version of the Crimes Code, adding offenses that most Pennsylvanians don’t believe deserve criminal punishment, and making penalties more severe.

To remedy these issues, the ACLU recommends that the legislature stop passing laws that add criminal offenses to the crimes code, require an existing crimes comparison statement when proposing any expansion of offenses, and recodifying the current crimes code to eliminate “unnecessary and duplicative offenses” and “reset the grades of all offenses in a way that truly reflects the appropriate seriousness of the crime.”

To bolster its position, the ACLU report cites Robinson’s 2009 report on grading offenses, compiled with the University of Pennsylvania Criminal Law Research Group, to show the dramatic increase in offenses and suboffenses in the Criminal Code since 1972. Robinson found that there has been “an average of 22 [new crimes added] per year to the [Pennsylvania] Crimes Code and an additional 41 annual new crimes [added outside of it].” 

The ACLU further cited Robinson’s 2010 article, “The Modern Irrationalities of American Criminal Codes: An Empirical Study of Offense Grading,” published in The Journal of Criminal Law and co-authored with Thomas Gaeta, Matthew Majarian, Megan Schultz, and Douglas Weck – all Penn Law students who worked with the Law School’s Criminal Research Group In that piece, Robinson called legislative action across the country “a relentless and accelerating rate of criminal law amendments.”

The ACLU report also quotes Robinson’s 2005 article, “The Accelerating Degradation of American Criminal Codes,” published in the Hastings Law Journaland co-authored by Michael T. Cahill, in which he predicted that we are moving “ever closer to a world in which the law on the books makes everyone a felon.”

The author or editor of 17 books, 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.