Community Perceptions of Theft Seriousness: A Challenge to Model Penal Code and English Theft Act Consolidation


  • For comments, questions, and helpful advice, we are grateful to Andrew Ashworth, John Darley, Joshua Dressler, David Greenberg, Jeremy Horder, David Ormerod, Paul Robinson, Phyllis Schultz, Dan Simon, Alex Steel, George Thomas, an anonymous reviewer for this journal, and participants at colloquia at Rutgers and Queen Mary College, London. We also acknowledge the contribution of Professor Kevin Grobman, Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University, who played a significant role in the first phase of the study.

Stuart P. Green, Rutgers School of Law–Newark, 123 Washington St., Newark, NJ 07102; email: Green is Professor of Law & Justice Nathan L. Jacobs Scholar, Rutgers School of Law–Newark; Kugler is a Postdoctoral Research in the Department of Psychology, Lehigh University.


In the middle of the 20th century, criminal law reformers helped pass laws that consolidated previously distinct common-law offenses such as larceny, embezzlement, false pretenses, extortion, blackmail, and receiving stolen property into a unified offense of theft, imposing uniform punishments for a diversity of methods of stealing and a diversity of types of property that could be stolen. The result was a “consolidated” scheme of theft, with a single, broad definition of property (typically, “anything of value”) and a single scheme of grading (based, roughly, on the value of the thing stolen). In this study, participants were given two sets of scenarios—one involving variations in the means by which a theft was committed, the other involving variations in the type of property stolen—and asked to rate these thefts in terms of blameworthiness and punishment deserved. They drew sharp distinctions across both means of theft and type of property, not adopting a consolidated view. Under the principle of fair labeling—the idea that criminal law offenses should be divided and labeled so as to represent widely felt views about the nature and magnitude of law breaking—such data provide the basis for a significant challenge to modern theft law.