Original Understanding, Punishment, & Collateral Consequences

Penn Journal of Constitutional Law (2024)

Full Citation

Original Understanding, Punishment, & Collateral Consequences (2024)


Brian Murray


Penn Journal of Constitutional Law


Can Founding-era understandings of punishment limit the reach of punitive state activity, specifically with respect to automatic collateral consequences? This Article begins to tackle that question. For over a century, the Supreme Court has struggled to define the boundaries of crime and punishment. Under current doctrine, a deprivation constitutes punishment when it furthers a legislatively assigned penal purpose. A retributive purpose is sufficient, whereas traditionally instrumentalist purposes, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation, are not. Scholars have criticized this framework for several reasons, highlighting its jurisprudential assumptions, philosophical confusion, historical inconsistency, unworkability, complexity, and failure to reflect the essentially punitive nature of many, if not most, of the “collateral consequences” that flow from a conviction.

This Article offers a different critique along methodological grounds, arguing that existing doctrine is divorced from core jurisprudential premises in the broader constitutional tradition and the original meaning and understanding of crime and punishment. First, while the American Constitution and legal tradition permit legislative determination of new types of crimes and the quantity of punishment, the understanding of crime and punishment at the time of the Founding was much simpler than the understanding reflected by existing doctrine. Current law mistakenly defers to legislative judgment for resolving the definitional question, all but guaranteeing legislative overreach. Second, the Court’s precedents have restricted the only sufficient penal purpose to retribution despite significant philosophical and legal history suggesting early American thinkers, reformers, and the Framers considered other purposes to be punitive. Founding era attitudes relating to the justifications for and purposes of punishment, and the types of deprivations carried out by the state in the wake of conviction, suggest a thicker understanding of punishment that contemplates both retributive and instrumentalist purposes.

Put simply, there is ample evidence that Founding-era thinkers understood punishment to include state-imposed suffering that served retributive and non-retributive purposes. The meaning of punishment was informed by an array of philosophical concepts, historical practices, and an understanding of criminal law and its enforcement built from liberal premises that also are instrumentalist. Many early punishments had stigmatic, incapacitative, or rehabilitative purposes, and reformers often pointed to instrumentalist purposes to justify modification of punishment practices, leaving room for the punishment label to apply to more state-sanctioned deprivations than are currently classified as punishment. By contrast, existing doctrine narrowly conceives the meaning of the term “punishment”. If “purpose” is the lodestar, then the definition of punishment should be broader based on the historical evidence. In an era of overwhelming collateral consequences, lawmakers and judges who take the original meaning of terms seriously for purposes of constitutional interpretation should take note when either classifying or adjudicating the character of a deprivation carried out by the government. These findings furnish grounds for questioning the modern classification of many automatic collateral consequences as non-punitive measures, providing potential limits that are consistent with Founding-era conceptions of punishment.