Criminal Law


Criminal Law, branch of law that defines crimes, establishes punishments, and regulates the investigation and prosecution of people accused of committing crimes. Criminal law includes both substantive law, and criminal procedure, which regulates the implementation and enforcement of substantive criminal law. Substantive criminal law defines crime and punishment, and criminal procedure is concerned with the legal rules followed and the steps taken to investigate, apprehend, charge, prosecute, convict, and sentence to punishment individuals who violate substantive criminal law. For example, criminal procedure describes how a murder trial must be conducted. The purpose of Criminal Law is to protect the public from harm by inflicting punishment upon those who have already done harm and by threatening with punishment those who are tempted to do harm. The harm that criminal law aims to prevent varies. It may be physical harm, death, or bodily injury to human beings; the loss of or damage to property; sexual immorality; danger to the government; disturbance of the public peace and order; or injury to the public health. Conduct that threatens to cause, but has not yet caused, a harmful result may be enough to constitute a crime. Thus, criminal law often strives to avoid harm by forbidding conduct that may lead to harmful result. One purpose of both civil law and criminal law in the common law system is to respond to harmful acts committed by individuals. However, each type of law provides different responses. A person who is injured by the action of another may bring a civil lawsuit against the person who caused the harm. If the victim prevails, the civil law generally provides that the person who caused the injury must pay money damages to compensate for the harm suffered. A person who acts in a way that is considered harmful to society in general may be prosecuted by the government in a criminal case. If the individual is convicted of the crime, he or she will be punished under criminal law by either a fine, imprisonment, or death. In some cases, a person’s wrongful and harmful act can invoke both criminal and civil law responses.


Various theories have been advanced to justify or explain the goals of criminal punishment, including retribution, deterrence, restraint , rehabilitation, and restoration. Sometimes punishment advances more than one of these goals. At other times, a punishment may promote one goal and conflict with another. The theory of retribution holds that punishment is imposed on the blameworthy party in order for society to vent its anger toward and exact vengeance upon the criminal. Supporters of this theory look upon punishment not as a tool to deter future crime but as a device for ensuring that offenders pay for past misconduct. Those who support the deterrence theory believe that if punishment is imposed upon a person who has committed a crime, the pain inflicted will dissuade the offender and others from repeating the crime. When the theory refers to the specific offender who committed the crime, it is known as special deterrence. General deterrence describes the effect that punishment has when it serves as a public example or threat that deters people other than the initial offender from committing similar crimes. Some believe that the goal of punishment is restraint. If a criminal is confined, executed, or otherwise incapacitated, such punishment will deny the criminal the ability or opportunity to commit further crimes that harm society. Another possible goal of criminal punishment is rehabilitation of the offender. Supporters of rehabilitation seek to prevent crime by providing offenders with the education and treatment necessary to eliminate criminal tendencies, as well as the skills to become productive members of society. The theory of restoration takes a victim-oriented approach to crime that emphasizes restitution for victims. Rather than focus on the punishment of criminals, supporters of this theory advocate restoring the victim and creating constructive roles for victims in the criminal justice process. For example, relatives of a murder victim may be encouraged to testify about the impact of the death when the murderer is sentenced by the court. Promoters of this theory believe that such victim involvement in the process helps repair the harm caused by crime and facilitates community reconciliation. The various justifications for criminal punishment are not mutually exclusive. A