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The Model Penal Code (MPC) is a statutory text which was developed by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1962. The Chief Reporter on the project was Herbert Wechsler. The current form of the MPC was last updated in 1981. The purpose of the MPC was to stimulate and assist legislatures in making an effort to update and standardize the penal law of the United States of Americamarker. Primary responsibility for criminal law lies with the individual states, and such national efforts work to produce similar laws in different jurisdictions. The standard they used to make a determination of what the penal code should be was one of "contemporary reasoned judgment" — meaning what a reasoned person at the time of the development of the MPC would judge the penal law to do. The ALI performed an examination of the penal system in the USA and the prohibitions, sanctions, excuses, and authority that are used throughout. The MPC was a combination of what the ALI deemed to be the best rules for the penal system in the United States. Since its formulation, the MPC has played an important role in standardizing the codified penal laws of the United States.

Key Features

A key feature of the MPC is its use of standardized mens rea (criminal mind) terms to determine levels of mental states, just as homicide is considered more severe if done intentionally rather than accidentally. These terms are (in descending order) "purposefully", "knowingly," "recklessly", and "negligently", with a fifth state of "strict liability". If an offense requires a specific mental state, then any more severe criminal mental state will suffice. Thus if an offense is defined in the form, "It is illegal to knowingly do X," then it is illegal to do X knowingly or purposely (a more severe state), but not to do so recklessly or negligently (the two less severe states). Absolute liability means that it is illegal to do something, regardless of one's mental state. The use of standard terms allows laws to be relatively simply worded and comprehensible. The two highest forms of culpability, purposely and knowingly, are frequently grouped together as "intentional", whereas recklessness and negligence are considered "unintentional". If a law makes an actor absolutely liable for an offense, the actor can only be guilty of what the MPC calls violations, which only deserve penalties of fines, and no jail time. See sections 2.05 and 1.04.....

Another important feature is that under the MPC, any action not explicitly outlawed is legal. This concept follows the saying, "That which is not forbidden is allowed" as opposed to "That which is not allowed is forbidden." Legal scholars contrast the MPC's limits with laws passed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Unionmarker, which allowed people to be punished for acts not specifically outlawed but similar to acts that were.

Under the MPC, ignorance of criminal law is not considered a valid defense, unless the legislature intended on making the mistake of law a defense, the law is unknown to the actor and had not been published, or the actor is acting as a result of some official statement about the law. See sections 2.02(9) and 2.04.

Certain parts of the MPC contain multiple options, inviting states to choose one. A particularly controversial topic is the proper place of the death penalty in the MPC. However, the MPC explicitly states that the "[American Law] Institute took no position on the desirability of the death penalty." Note that no state is obligated to adopt any specific part of the MPC; see below.


Advocates of the MPC stress that the law must be clearly defined to prevent arbitrary enforcement, or a chilling effect on a population that does not know what actions are punishable. This is known as the legality principle. However, critics say that the assumption that there are no possible legal systems between the extremes of "forbidden" and "allowed" is the central weakness of the MPC. British law, for example, assumes that a jury can decide what is "reasonable" both in the context of British law and social expectations as well as the specific accusation they are being asked to judge. Behavior may thus be deemed unlawful by a jury in cases where the MPC would require legislative change to produce a conviction.


The MPC is not law in any jurisdiction of the United States; however, it served and continues to serve as a basis for the replacement of existing criminal codes in over two-thirds of US states. Though many states only adopt portions of the MPC, states such as New Jerseymarker, New Yorkmarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, and Oregonmarker have enacted almost all of the provisions. Idahomarker adopted the model penal code in its entirety in 1971, but the legislature repealed this action in 1972.

On rare occasions the courts will turn to the MPC for its commentary on the law and use it to seek guidance in interpreting non-code criminal statutes. It is also used frequently as a tool for comparison.

Section 230.3 Abortion (Tentative draft 1959, Official draft 1962) of the MPC was used as a model for abortion law reform legislation enacted in 13 states from 1967 to 1972. It is included as Appendix B of Justice Blackmun's opinion in the January 22, 1973 Doe v. Bolton decision of the United States Supreme Courtmarker (Roe v. Wade's lesser-known companion case).


  1. Professor Paul H. Robinson, University of Pennsylvania, Criminal Law: Cases and Controversies, full discussion beginning on page 39 (2005).
  2. Ibid at 24


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