AN INTRODUCTION TO THE MODEL PENAL CODE
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A
N
I
NTRODUCTION TO THE
M
ODEL
P
ENAL
C
ODE
Paul H. Robinson
Edna & Ednyfed Williams Professor of Law
Northwestern University School of Law
Visiting Professor of Law
University of Michigan Law School
Markus Dirk Dubber
Associate Professor of Law &
Director, Buffalo Criminal Law Center
State University of New York at Buffalo
American criminal law is codified in fifty-two criminal codes. The federal
criminal code overlays the codes of each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the power to impose criminal liability is reserved primarily
to the states, with federal authority limited to the prohibition and punishment of those
unusual crimes specially related to federal interests (such as crimes committed on
property of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as military bases, crimes against certain
federal officers, and crimes that involve conduct in more than one state that is difficult for
a single state to effectively prosecute, such as drug and organized crime offenses). The
vast bulk of most crimes and essentially all "street" crimes-homicide, rape, robbery,
assault, and theft-fall under jurisdiction of one of the fifty state criminal codes or the
code of the District of Columbia.
There is much diversity among these fifty-two criminal codes and, therefore, it is
often difficult to state "the" American rule on any point of criminal law. But there also
are many similarities among the codes, in large part due to the influence of the American
Law Institute's Model Penal Code. Promulgated in 1962, the Code prompted a wave of
state code reforms in the 1960's and 1970's, each influenced to some extent by the Model
Code.
Some of the Model Penal Code provisions have not been widely accepted. For
example, while the Model Penal Code generally rejects the common law's "felony
murder" rule, which in its broadest form holds all killings in the course of a felony to be
murder, most states have retained the rule. Similarly, a majority of states have rejected
the Model Penal Code's innovation in prescribing the same punishment for inchoate
offenses, such as attempt, and consummated offenses.
Nonetheless, the Model Penal Code, more than any other code, is the closest thing
to being an American criminal code. The federal criminal code is too unsystematic and

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incomplete in theory and too irrelevant in practice to function as a national code. Where
states have not followed the Model Code, the divergences locate points of controversy
that often continue today. And the Code and its proposals have been the intellectual focus
of much American criminal law scholarship since the Code's promulgation.
I. T
HE
H
ISTORY OF THE
C
ODE
The Model Penal Code was not the first or the most ambitious, but far and away
the most successful, attempt to codify American criminal law. To appreciate the Model
Code's significance, it must be placed within the spotty history of American criminal
codification.
1
Unlike the development in continental Europe, modern criminal law in the
United States did not arrive in the form of criminal codes. Rather than concern
themselves with the threat of punishment, American reformers pragmatically proceeded
directly to reform the punishment itself. In the new field of corrections, Americans led
the way. As a French resident of Philadelphia noted admiringly in 1796, "the attempt at
an almost entire abolition of the punishment of death, and the substitution of a system of
reason and justice, to that of bonds, ill-treatment, and arbitrary punishment, was never
made but in America."
2
As early as 1776, Thomas Jefferson had drafted a bill for the
Virginia legislature that called for punishment based in light of the theory of prevention
outlined by Cesare Beccaria and developed by Jeremy Bentham
.
The final two decades of
the eighteenth century brought the establishment of solitary confinement prisons in
Philadelphia and then in New York and other states, including Virginia.1823 saw the
opening of the prison in Auburn, New York, to which visitors flocked from around the
world, including Alexis de Tocqueville.
3
These reforms helped the prison reform
movement in Europe.
American criminal codes were first compiled by Edward Livingston and later
David Dudley Field. Livingston's elaborate drafts for a federal criminal code and a
Louisiana criminal code, completed in 1826, were both the most ambitious and the least
successful efforts at criminal law codification in the United States. Livingston's Penal
Code was Benthamite both in scope and in substance. The Penal Code was divided into
four separate codes comprising all aspects of penal law, from the definition of penal
norms in a Code of Crimes and Punishments, to the imposition of those norms in a Code
of Procedure and a Code of Evidence, and eventually to the actual infliction of sanctions
in a Code of Reform and Prison Discipline. Each aspect of the penal law, and each
corresponding code, were individually, and as a system, designed to rationalize penal law
on the utilitarian principle that Bentham had derived from Cesare Beccaria's famous
treatise on Crimes and Punishments: la massima felicita divisa nel maggior numero.
4

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David Dudley Field was both far less ambitious, and far more successful, as a
criminal codifier. A successful New York lawyer, Field's codification efforts extended
beyond the penal law and reflected pragmatic concerns about the accessibility of law,
most importantly to lawyers. Field's codes were designed to simplify legal practice by
sparing attorneys the tedium of having to sift through an everrising mountain of common
law opinions. As a result, Field was more concerned with streamlining than he was with
systematizing or even reforming New York penal law. Field's New York Penal Code was
submitted to the legislature in 1865, and passed into law in 1881. It remained in force
until it was replaced by the New York Penal Law of 1967.
The New York Penal Law, like the revised criminal codes of many other states,
was based in large part on the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code, which had
been published in 1962. In fact, Herbert Wechsler, the Chief Reporter of the Model
Code, served on the legislative commission that drafted the New York code.
The Model Penal Code combined Livingston's systematic ambition and integrated
utilitarian approach with Field's pragmatism and legislative success. When the Model
Code project was launched in 1951, the vast majority of American criminal codes were in
a sorry state. Only Louisiana had undertaken a serious effort to reform its criminal code
since the nineteenth century. A typical American criminal code at the time was less a
code and more a collection of ad hoc statutory enactments, each enactment triggered by a
crime or a crime problem that gained public interest for a time. The major contribution of
previous code "reforms," including the reform of the federal criminal code in 1948, was
to put the offenses in alphabetical order. Faced with this state of affairs, the American
Law Institute's decision to draft a Model Penal Code was an ambitious undertaking.
The American Law Institute (ALI) is a non-governmental organization of highly
regarded judges, lawyers, and law professors in the United States. The Institute typically
drafts a "restatement" of an area of law, which articulates and rationalizes the governing
rules in American jurisdictions. When published, the ALI Restatement of the Law for a
particular area often becomes persuasive authority for courts and legislatures and
commonly is relied upon by courts in interpreting and applying the law.
When the Institute undertook its work on criminal law, however, it judged the
existing law too chaotic and irrational to merit "restatement." What was needed, the
Institute concluded, was a model code, which states might use to draft new criminal
codes.
The Institute's criminal law work was first started in 1931, a year after the Institute
completed a model code of criminal procedure. But the work was stalled during the
depression years by lack of adequate funding and later by the events surrounding World
War II. It was renewed in 1951 with a grant from a private foundation and proceeded at
full speed for more than a decade.

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From the beginning, the project bore the imprint of the Chief Reporter, Herbert
Wechsler, a law professor at Columbia University who also had participated in the
Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
5
Wechsler assembled a distinguished and
remarkably diverse advisory committee of law professors, judges, lawyers, and prison
officials, as well as experts from the fields of psychiatry, criminology, and even English
literature.
6
In addition, a number of drafting groups tackled various specific topics, such
as the treatment of insane offenders or the death penalty. After much debate within the
drafting group and the advisory committee, Tentative Drafts of parts of the Code with
detailed commentary were presented to and debated by the entire membership of the
Institute at its annual meetings. This process of annually considering Tentative Drafts
continued until 1962, when the Institute finally approved a complete "Proposed Official
Draft." The original drafters' commentaries contained in the various Tentative Drafts
were consolidated, revised, and finally republished along with the 1962 text as a six-
volume set in 1985.
7
The diversity of its advisory committee indicates the Livingstonian scope of the
Model Penal Code's ambition. The Model Penal Code is not merely a criminal code. Its
coverage extends beyond the substantive criminal law to the law governing the infliction
of punishment. In fact, the Code refers to itself as a "Penal and Correctional Code" or
P.C.C., with its first two parts dedicated to substantive criminal law and the other two
parts addressing "treatment and correction" and "organization of correction,"
respectively.
8
No part of the Model Code is explicitly devoted to the remaining aspect of
penal law, the law of criminal procedure and evidence. Nonetheless, the Code is littered
with procedural provisions, including sections that determine the method and propriety of
prosecution in particular cases,
9
address the defendant's competency to stand trial,
10
define, assign, and shift the burden of proof,
11
establish evidentiary presumptions,
12
and
deal with the appointment of expert witnesses.
13
These provisions complement the ALI's
1930 Model Code of Criminal Procedure. Ten years after the completion of the Model
Penal Code, the ALI also published a Model Code of Pre-Arraignment Procedure
.
While the Model Penal Code acknowledged the importance of retributional
concerns, it commonly gave prominence to more utilitarian functions: to deter criminal
conduct and, in the event this failed, to diagnose the correctional and incapacitative needs
of each offender.
15
The Penal Code in this way laid the foundation for the Correctional
Code.
16
For example, the Penal Code prescribes the same peno-correctional treatment for
a person who attempts to commit an offense as for a person who manages to consummate
the offense, because both undeterred offenders have displayed the same symptom of
dangerousness.
17
Still, it cannot be said that the Model Code systematically worked out the
implications of any particular theory of punishment (or treatment). Adopting an approach

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that has been characterized as "principled pragmatism,"
18
the Code drafters never lost
sight of the Code's ultimate goal, the reform of American criminal law. Instead of
rewriting criminal law in strict consequentialist terms, the Code drafters took care to
ground the Code firmly in existing law and frequently sacrificed theoretical consistency
for pragmatic expediency. To continue with the example of attempt, the Model Code
carved out an exception for serious offenses, to blunt the otherwise radical impact of its
new principle of equal treatment for attempted and consummated offenses.
19
Similarly,
the Code did not condemn capital punishment, the one sanction that could not fit into its
law of "treatment and correction." Instead, it addressed the question in a bracketed
section that imposes many serious restrictions on the imposition of capital punishment.
20
Ironically, this conflicted provision later became the foundation for several death penalty
statutes and, eventually, the United States Supreme Court's effort to place capital
punishment on a constitutional foundation.
21
As a pragmatic document, the Model Code enjoyed great success in American
legislatures. The scope of the Code's impact on the entirety of American criminal law
thus in the end exceeded even that of the most successful earlier criminal codification
project, the Field code.
II. T
HE
I
NFLUENCE OF THE
M
ODEL
P
ENAL
C
ODE
Even before the Model Penal Code was finished, its Tentative Drafts were used as
models for criminal code reform. The two decades following the 1962 promulgation saw
a host of state recodifications. New codes were enacted in Illinois, effective in 1962;
Minnesota and New Mexico in 1963; New York in 1967; Georgia in 1969; Kansas in
1970; Connecticut in 1971; Colorado and Oregon in 1972; Delaware, Hawaii, New
Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Utah in 1973; Montana, Ohio, and Texas in 1974; Florida,
Kentucky, North Dakota, and Virginia in 1975; Arkansas, Maine, and Washington in
1976; South Dakota and Indiana in 1977; Arizona and Iowa in 1978; Missouri, Nebraska,
and New Jersey in 1979; Alabama and Alaska in 1980; and Wyoming in 1983. All of
these thirty-four enactments were influenced in some part by the Model Penal Code.
Draft criminal codes produced in other states, such as California, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia, did not pass
legislative review and may yet be revived.

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Of the states that have not yet adopted a modern criminal code, the federal system
is the most unfortunate example. The U.S. Congress has tried on and off to reform the
federal criminal code since 1966, when Congress established a code revision commission
at the urging of President Johnson.
22
In 1971, the "Brown Commission" produced a
comprehensive and systematic Proposed New Federal Criminal Code.
23
Later code
proposals, built upon the Brown Commission model, were introduced as legislative bills.
One of these bills even passed the Senate but died in the House of Representatives.
Criminal code reform is always difficult because it touches highly political issues, but the
lack of a modern federal criminal code is considered a matter of some embarrassment
among criminal law scholars in the United States. The present federal criminal code is
not significantly different in form from the alphabetical listing of offenses that was
typical of American codes in the 1800's.
The Model Penal Code's influence has not been confined to the reform of state
codes. Thousands of court opinions have cited the Model Penal Code as persuasive
authority for the interpretation of an existing statute or in the exercise of a court's
occasional power to formulate a criminal law doctrine. (While American courts have
authority to interpret a code's ambiguous provisions, they generally are bound to follow
what they know to be the legislative intention, and bound by interpretation decisions of a
higher court.)
Even the Model Penal Code's official commentaries have been influential. Many
states have little legislative history available for their courts to use in interpreting a state
code provision. Where the state code provision was derived from or influenced by a
Model Penal Code, the Model Code's commentary often is the best available authority on
the reasoning behind the provision and its intended effect.
The Code's official commentaries also have become an important research source
for criminal law scholars. The commentaries generally give a thoughtful and detailed
explanation of the reasoning underlying a Code provision as well as the scholarly debates
concerning it. Also, because the Official Commentaries were not published until 1980
(Special Part) and 1985 (General Part), the drafters had available to them information on
how each of the Model Penal Code provision's fared during the previous two decades of
state criminal code reform. The extent of a Code provision's reception or rejection by the
states often is detailed in the Official Commentaries.
The Code's provisions for sentencing
24
and treatment
25
have not been influential.
They reflect a rehabilitative approach that has since passed out of favor. The Code has
many fewer grading categories than most modern American codes, thereby allowing
greater sentencing discretion within each offense grade.
26
Its sentencing system generally
relies upon the exercise of broad discretion by judges to individualize an offender's
sentence.

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Current American practice is to limit sentencing discretion.
27
That change in
approach comes in part from a belief that discretion undercuts the virtues of the legality
principle: Discretion increases the likelihood of disparate sentences for similar offenders
committing similar offenses.
28
Discretion increases the potential for abuse by a biased
decision maker. Discretion undercuts predictability, which is important for both effective
deterrence and fair notice. Finally, discretion shifts the criminalization and punishment
decisions away from the legislative branch and to the less democratic judicial and
executive branches of government.
The Code's discretionary sentencing system also is of little current influence in the
U.S. because of a change in the underlying theory of liability and punishment.
29
The
Code's use of discretion was consistent with its interest in using the criminal justice
system to promote rehabilitation and to incapacitate dangerous offenders who could not
be rehabilitated. With that purpose, the length of an offender's incarceration logically
depended upon how the person changed during his criminal commitment. An actual
release date could only be determined when an offender appeared to be ready for release.
But the limited ability of the social sciences to rehabilitate has dampened the
interest in broad sentencing discretion. This, along with a growing interest in imposing
just punishment, has led to less sentencing discretion and more determinate sentences
(that is, sentences not subject to early release on parole).
This change in the underlying penal philosophy affected the legislative success not
only of the Code's sentencing and treatment provisions but also of some of its liability
and grading provisions. For example, few states have followed the Code's abandonment
of the common law distinction between the punishment for attempted and consummated
offenses. The Code's policy makes good sense if one's focus is on rehabilitation and
incapacitation of the dangerous--an offender may be equally dangerous whether or not his
conduct in fact causes the harm intended or risked. On the other hand, if the criminal law
is to capture the community's sense of justice, then the community's shared intuition that
resulting harm does matter cannot be ignored.
30
The Code's special part also has become dated in some areas, such as in its
treatment of sexual offenses and drug offenses. American society's views on many
sexual and gender issues have changed since the Code was drafted in the 1950's. Modern
American codes typically adopt a gender neutral approach to defining sexual offenses,
give greater expression to the concern for victims of sexual offenses, and reflect a greater
sensitivity to the history of sexual victimization of women by men. For instance,
beginning in the 1980's, states began to reject the marital immunity for rape, which the
Model Penal Code had retained from the common law. At the same time, drug offenses
now figure among the most serious offenses defined in American criminal codes. In 1962

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the Model Code included no drug offenses. In an appendix to the Code's special part, the
drafters merely remarked that "a State enacting a new Penal Code may insert additional
Articles dealing with special topics such as narcotics, alcoholic beverages, gambling and
offenses against tax and trade laws."
III. T
HE
I
NNOVATIONS OF THE
M
ODEL
P
ENAL
C
ODE
To appreciate the Model Code's contribution to criminal law codification in the
United States, it is important to recall the embryonic state of the subject at the outset of
the Model Penal Code project in the early 1950's. The 1948 reform of the federal
criminal code had just been completed, an alphabetical ordering of federal crimes "for
which," according to a contemporary observer, "the spadework was done by the hired
hands of three commercial law-book publishers, on delegation from a congressional
committee desirous of escaping the responsibility of hiring and supervising its own
staff."
31
As a result, the Model Code drafters had virtually no existing American criminal
codes to which to turn, with the possible exception of the recently reformed criminal code
of Louisiana. That code, however, could have only limited significance for a Model Code
of American criminal law because of the unique history and nature of Louisiana law,
which alone among the states was rooted not in uncodified English common law, but in
codified European civil law. Much of what the Model Penal Code introduced into the
United States has long been common practice in European codes. But while the Code's
structure generally resembles that of many European codes, the extent to which these
foreign codes more directly influenced the Model Code is unclear. As was noted above,
the strongest foreign influence on the Code came in the person of Glanville Williams, a
criminal law expert on the uncodified English common law.
1. A Comprehensive General Part
The Model Penal Code drafters created a "General Part" that contains a set of
general principles applicable to each of the specific offenses contained in the "Special
Part" of the code. The general principles include such matters as general principles for
imposing liability, general principles of defense, general inchoate offenses, etc. This is
hardly revolutionary, and was not so when the Model Penal Code adopted this form.
Such a structure provides greater clarity and sophistication while simultaneously
simplifying the code. Instead of having to repeat the rules governing complicity,
omission liability, culpability requirements, or available defenses, in each offense (or
leaving them to the courts to define) the rules can be stated once in detailed form in the
General Part, to be referred to in the prosecution of any offense in the Special Part.

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The current federal criminal "code" is typical of what existed in the states before
the Model Penal Code. It has essentially no General Part. (The term "code" may suggest
a document of greater coherence and planning than is present in the current federal
"code," so it may be better to refer simply to "Title 18 of the United States Code"). Title
18's Chapter 1, grandly titled "General Provisions," includes a less-than-helpful
definition of complicity, an insanity defense, and a few definitions. Thus, 99% of the
General Part remains uncodified in federal law, thereby delegating criminal law-making
authority to the federal judiciary.
2. An Analytic Structure
The Model Penal Code, like most successful criminal codes, implicitly provides an
analytic structure that gives judges, lawyers, and jurors a decisional process for assessing
criminal liability. Its three-part structure might be summarized with these questions:
First, does the actor's conduct constitute a crime? The Code defines the contours
of the law's prohibitions (and, where duties to act are created, the law's commands). This
is the issue most familiar to lay persons and most prominent in older criminal codes. It is
the sole subject of the Code's entire Special Part.
Second, even if the actor's conduct does constitute a crime, are there special
reasons why that conduct ought not be considered wrongful in this instance, under these
facts? Article 3 of the Model Penal Code answers this question through the use of
justification defenses. These defenses concede the violation of a prohibitory norm, but
offer a countervailing justificatory norm that undercuts the propriety of liability on the
special facts of the current situation.
Finally, even if the actor's conduct is a crime and is wrongful (unjustified), should
the actor be held blameworthy for it? Is he or she deserving of criminal liability and
punishment? This question is answered primarily by the excuse defenses and culpability
requirements in Articles 2 and 4 of the Code. For example, wrongful conduct by an actor
who is at the time insane or under duress or involuntarily intoxicated may not be
sufficiently blameworthy to merit the condemnation of criminal conviction.

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3. Defining Offenses Fully, Using Defined Terms
The Model Penal Code drafters understood that an undefined term invites judicial
law-making in the same way as an absent or partial provision, and can as effectively
undercut the goals of the legality principle. Every code will inevitably contain ambiguous
language that must be interpreted by judges. A drafter's obligation, they believed, is to
reserve that delegation of judicial authority to the instances in which it is not reasonably
avoidable. Code terms that might reasonably be given different definitions by different
readers ought to be defined.
With this view, the Model Penal Code drafters did much to fully define offenses and to
define the terms they used in defining offenses, the Code explicitly rejects common law
offenses and bars judicial creation of offenses.
32
In addition, the Code's General Part
includes definitions of commonly used terms. Defined terms also are contained at the
beginning of many articles in the Special Part.
Compared to many European criminal codes, the Model Code covers more topics
in greater detail. As a result, the Code occasionally reads more like a criminal law
textbook than a code. Its comprehensiveness and detail reflect the scope and nature of the
Code's reform ambition. Topics can be left for judicial or scholarly interpretation only in
the presence of a highly sophisticated judiciary and academic community. At the time of
the Code project, the criminal law in the United States met neither of these conditions.
The Code, after all, was specifically designed to wrest the criminal law out of the hands
of the judiciary which, in centuries of common lawmaking, had left the criminal law an
unprincipled mess.
4. A System for the Interpretation of Code Provisions
The Model Penal Code drafters' concern for advancing legality interests also
showed in their creation of a system for the interpretation of the Code's provisions. Such
guidance in the exercise of judicial discretion increases the law's predictability and
reduces both disparity in application and the potential for abuse of discretion.
The statutory principles of interpretation also are designed to advance the goals for
which criminal liability and punishment are imposed. Model Penal Code Section 1.02
directs judges to interpret ambiguous provisions to further the Code's purposes.
33
While
such a provision has its shortcomings (it gives no guidance on what to do when different
purposes conflict, as frequently occurs), it is an important first step toward rationality in
code drafting, for it offers a formal statement of what the code is meant to achieve.
5. A System of Offenses

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Rather than a collection of offenses, where each offense is an independent
creature, often the result of a political campaign prompted by a particular crime or event,
the Model Penal Code adopts a system of offenses, in which offenses are designed to
work together as a complementary group. Offenses typically avoid both gaps and
overlaps in coverage. By considering all offenses together, the legislature can better
insure that the penalties associated with each offense properly reflect the relative
seriousness of that offense in relation to other offenses.
Part of this systematic approach to creating and defining offenses is to organize
offenses conceptually-offenses against the person, offenses against property, etc.-and
within each general group to organize offences into related subcategories. Offenses
against the person, for example, are organized into four articles: homicide ( 210),
assault, endangerment, and threats ( 211), kidnapping and related offenses ( 212), and
sexual offenses ( 213). Such conceptual grouping makes it easier to see, and to avoid,
overlaps among offenses and unwarranted grading disparities. It also makes it easier for a
code user to find the relevant offense. And, when the relevant offense is found, such
grouping insures the user that related offense are nearby, not hidden in a dark corner
elsewhere in the Code.
6. Innovations in Specific Criminal Law Doctrines
In substance, the Model Penal Code is based on the American criminal law at the