Legal Philosophy and Criminal Law Scholar Raff Donelson to Join Chicago-Kent College of Law

CHICAGO, October 29, 2021—Raff Donelson, a legal philosophy and criminal law scholar, is joining Chicago-Kent College of Law as an associate professor of law in fall 2022.

Donelson’s research interests include moral philosophy, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, and race and law. In his doctrinal work, he focuses on constitutional protections for criminals and the accused, and his theoretical research interests include metaethics and general jurisprudence. Donelson is joining Chicago-Kent from Pennsylvania State University Dickinson Law, where he is currently an associate professor of law.

“Raff Donelson’s strong background in philosophy and impressive legal scholarship offers a fresh perspective to modern-day debates about policing and punishment,” says Chicago-Kent Dean Anita K. Krug. “His prolific research into essential, and often unasked, questions about criminal law makes him a wonderful fit for our law school.”

Donelson’s research is focused on the “unexplored questions” about the fundamental concepts of law, punishment, and policing. As both a lawyer and philosopher, he sees criminal law as an area “where some of our most deeply held moral judgments become realized.”

“[For] people who study philosophy, a natural place for them to reside in the law school space is doing substantive criminal law,” Donelson says. “Thinking about what ought to be the crimes, what ought to be the penalties, or what justifies punishment in general.”

But some rudimentary areas remain woefully unexplored, he says.

“A lot of theorists like talking about ‘what’s the justification for having punishment?’….But not a lot of people actually explain what a punishment is,” Donelson says.

For the past several years, Donelson has worked on projects exploring punishment. In his latest article, “Natural Punishment,” soon to be published in the North Carolina Law Review, Donelson suggests that harms befalling a person because of their crime—such as the death of a child when a parent is negligent—might be considered punishment, too. Donelson notes that some foreign jurisdictions already recognize such cases as punishment and take this into account during sentencing, offering offenders a punishment discount, as they were “already punished enough.”

As for other unexplored questions, Donelson notes that “there’s not a lot of philosophy of policing, even among people who are philosophers of criminal law.” In his paper, “Blacks, Cops, and the State of Nature,” Donelson argues that rather than seeing police departments as a mechanism of state-backed anti-Black racism, one should see them as not being under state control at all. He argues that Black people and police “are locked in a Hobbesian state of nature” outside the law, replete with unchecked violence and distrust from which “there may be no escape” because police officers have no incentive to change it, and Black people cannot.

Prior to joining Dickinson Law, Donelson held a joint appointment as an assistant professor of law and philosophy at Louisiana State University. He was director of the law, ethics, and social justice program in LSU’s philosophy department and served on the advisory board for the LSU Ethics Institute. Donelson is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and also received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Northwestern. He also holds a master’s degree in humanities from University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Williams College.

Donelson says he is excited about returning to Chicago and joining the faculty at Chicago-Kent.

“It’s an awesome faculty with lots of people that I already know, like, and respect,” he says. “And I spent most of my adult life in Chicago; it’s the best city in our country, maybe the best city in the world.”

Read more about Raff Donelson and his research interests on the Chicago-Kent website.

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