Eisha Jain


The U.S. criminal justice system “piles on.” It punishes too many for too long. Much criminal law scholarship focuses on the problem of excessive punishment. Yet for the low-level offenses that dominate state court workloads, much of the harm caused by arrests and convictions arises outside the formal criminal sentence. It stems from spiraling hidden penalties and the impact of a criminal record. The key question is not just why the state over-punishes, but rather why so many different institutions—law enforcement institutions as well as civil regulatory agencies and private actors—find it valuable to do so. This Article argues that the reach of the criminal justice system is not just the product of overly punitive laws, but also the product of institutions capitalizing on criminal law decisions for their own ends. Criminal law is meant to serve a public purpose, but in practice, key institutions create, disseminate, and rely on low-level criminal records because they offer a source of revenue or provide a cost-effective way of achieving discrete administrative objectives. These incentives drive and expand the reach of the criminal justice system, even as they work in tension with the state’s sentencing goals. This dynamic creates obvious harm. But it also benefits key actors, such as municipalities, privatized probation companies, background check providers, employers, and others who have incentives to maintain the system as it is. This Article identifies how organizational incentives lead a host of institutions to capitalize on criminal law decisions, and it argues that reform efforts must, as a central goal, recognize and respond to these incentives.

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