First-year criminal law course in webcomic form

Nathaniel Burney's Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law is a complete first-year Criminal Law course in comic form, in 17 parts on a Tumblr. It's clearly written, and the illustrations go a long way toward making complex ideas easier to grasp. Burney's comics have been collected between covers in a printed book, which would make a great gift for would-be criminals and anyone considering pre-law.

The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law (via MeFi)


  1. The retaliation aspect of the justice system has one important aspect that the comic doesn’t talk about. The state taking retaliation is important because if vengeance is the job of the state, it is not the job of the victim or the victim’s family. If people feel the state is taking revenge on wrongdoers, they don’t have to take revenge themselves. That’s why you don’t see clan or tribal wars in places that have a functional justice system.

    1.  This is a great point.  The comic’s analysis is from the perspective of a completely detached Apollonian philosopher applying only logic to the situation.  There’s a lot of work in behavioral psychology on morality that suggests that morality is not very rational — people are willing to lose money to punish cheaters, which a completely “rational” economic agent wouldn’t do.  I was confused about some of the retributive aspects of the criminal justice system but the idea that those are there to satisfy peoples’ congenital desire for “justice” or “vengeance” or whatever is a good tentative explanation.

      1. I’m strongly opposed to having a punitive aspect to the justice system for the very reason that I have such a strong desire to punish the criminals.  Revenge is a terrible thing to codify as public policy.

        And yet, I’m strongly in favor of putting violent criminals (if they don’t have any really valid extenuating circumstances) away where they can’t do any more harm.

      1. Then…a photograph with a caption is a comic? Robcat’s point is that the images don’t add anything to this.

  2. That is SO not a complete first year criminal law course. It’s more like an editorial in a philosophy course. Entertaining, but not a law course by any stretch of the imagination.

    1. And you would learn that negative reinforcement is not a synonym for punishment.

      Positive reinforcement: the adding of an appetitive stimulus to increase a certain behavior or response.

      Example: Father gives candy to his daughter when she picks up her toys. If the frequency of picking up the toys increases or stays the same, the candy is a positive reinforcer.

      Positive punishment: the adding of an aversive stimulus to decrease a certain behavior or response.

      Example: Mother yells at a child when running into the street. If the child stops running into the street the yelling is positive punishment.

      Negative reinforcement: the taking away of an aversive stimulus to increase certain behavior or response.

      Example: Turning off distracting music when trying to work. If the work increases when the music is turned off, turning off the music is a negative reinforcer.

      Negative punishment (omission training): the taking away of an appetitive stimulus to decrease a certain behavior.

      Example: A teenager comes home an hour after curfew and the parents take away the teen’s cell phone for two days. If the frequency of coming home after curfew decreases, the removal of the phone is negative punishment.


    From The Three Rs:

    “Instead, such a civilized sentence would be purely indefinite: You punishment would last until it wasn’t needed any more – potentially lasting FOREVER.
    But this is hardly a civilized thing to do.  That’s the stuff of mediaval dungeons and tyrants’ gulags, not something we associate with modern justice.”

    I don’t know if this is cognitive dissonance on the artist’s end or on my end.

  4. I think book about sources of crime (and behaviour in general) would make a better gift instead of one about retribution.

    1. The assertion was that punishment is the government’s only tool *with respect to the criminal justice system*.

  5. Regarding the question “How does adding more suffering make society better off?”, I would say that a person who commits a violent crime at least should no longer be considered part of society. Therefore, adding more suffering (directed at the criminal) doesn’t make society any worse off at least. Having said that, I advocate only “mental” suffering through long or indefinite imprisonment. It gives them some time to think about what they did wrong. However, if they try to escape or they’re caught after escaping, then kill ’em!

    1. Therefore, adding more suffering (directed at the criminal) doesn’t make society any worse off at least.

      I can think of nothing that would make society worse off than systematically trying to make anyone suffer.

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