Why only the state may inflict criminal sanctions: The case against privately inflicted sanctions

Alon Harel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Criminal sanctions are typically inflicted by the state. The central role of the state in determining the severity of these sanctions and inflicting them requires justification. One justification for state-inflicted sanctions is simply that the state is more likely than other agents to determine accurately what a wrongdoer justly deserves and to inflict a just sanction on those who deserve it. Hence, in principle, the state could be replaced by other agents, for example, private individuals. This hypothesis has given rise to recent calls to reform the state's criminal justice system by introducing privately inflicted sanctions, for example, shaming penalties, private prisons, or private probationary services. This paper challenges this view and argues that the agency of the state is indispensable to criminal sanctions. Privately inflicted sanctions sever the link between the state's judgments concerning the wrongfulness of the action and the appropriateness of the sanction and the infliction of sufferings on the criminal. When a private individual inflicts punishment, she acts on what she and not the state judges to be a justified response to a criminal act. Privately inflicted sanctions for violations of criminal laws are not grounded in the judgments of the appropriate agent, namely the state. It is impermissible on the part of the state to approve, encourage, or initiate the infliction of a sanction (for violating a state-issued prohibition) on an alleged wrongdoer on the basis of a private judgment. Such an approval grants undue weight to the private judgment of the individual who inflicts the sanction.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)113-133
Number of pages21
JournalLegal Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2008


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