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April 11, 2021

"Against Criminal Law Localism"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brenner Fissell now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Scholars have long called for greater localism in criminal justice as a response to the crises of racialized mass incarceration and over-policing.  A downward shift of power to smaller local governments is thought to maximize an array of values, including liberty, equality, and efficient experimentation, and also to allow for criminal justice to better reflect societal viewpoints in policies.  But no criminal “justice” localists have recognized that a critical distinction exists between the devolution of power over criminal “law” and devolution of power over criminal “procedure.”  Because of foundational features of local government law, localities have no authority to decriminalize conduct criminalized by a state — their option is only to add more offenses to the existing state code.  Increased localism in criminal law, then, functions as a one-way ratchet for more misdemeanor criminalization and all its attendant ills: incarceration, crippling fines and fees, and the authorization of more policing, surveillance, and managerial social control of marginalized groups.  Criminal “law” localism will counteract the benefits that criminal “justice” localism is expected to advance.  Pragmatic criminal justice localists should therefore narrow their claim, excising substantive criminal law from their devolutionary program.

April 11, 2021 at 11:08 AM | Permalink


I don't believe that the premise of the article is very accurate. Many jurisdictions including Denver have decriminalized conduct in practice by declining for enforce certain laws.

This isn't limited to drugs. Adultery crimes, for example, have long been dramatically underenforced, as have bigamy/polygamy and statutory rape laws. The author seems to be laboring under the confusion that we have a continental European style mandatory prosecution regime.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Apr 12, 2021 6:56:01 PM

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