In the adjudication of criminal law, judges tend to agree upon the elements that make up a given crime, but are less certain about exactly which element the law seeks to punish. For example, in child pornography possession statutes, it is difficult to determine the underlying transgression that is targeted by the punishment. Is it the act of possessing the images that is blameworthy or is there something else? And if so, what? Does the law actually seek to punish certain thoughts that the images engender – particularly to steer people away from thinking about children in a certain way? The closer one looks, the more one might suspect that the law is punishing thoughts about certain images. From this perspective, the crime of possession takes the shape of a thought crime more than anything else. However, this very state of mind—which might be the true object of punishment—is not even an element of the offense.
Gabriel S. Mendlow’s The Elusive Object of Punishment highlights such uncertainties in criminal law and how they might produce unfair punishment practices. As the author notes, these uncertainties “underlie an assortment of familiar disputes—over venue and vagueness and mens rea, over whether an offender’s sentence is proportionate to his offense, and over whether the offense itself is a legitimate object of punishment…Yet these disputes may hinge on deeper disagreements about the identity of the wrong a law punishes.” Through careful statutory analysis, Mendlow makes a powerful case that the object of punishment can be obscure and elusive, and that justice may suffer as a result. Continue reading "Why We Punish: Lessons in Indeterminacy"