The Purpose of Criminal Law

Criminal law is the body of rules that defines criminal offenses and regulates their apprehension, charging, trial, and punishment. It is the antithesis of civil law, which deals with non-criminal acts and legal actions between private individuals or corporations.

The purposes of criminal defense laws vary between jurisdictions, but generally five objectives are accepted: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and restoration. Each is achieved through punishments ranging from physical whipping to life imprisonment with government supervision.


One of the most basic purposes of criminal law is to punish offenders. Historically, this has been seen as a way to “get revenge” on a criminal for harming someone else (Durkheim, 1953).

Retribution also involves balancing an unjust advantage gained by the crime with a loss suffered by the offender. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including monetary compensation to the victim, or by bringing the offender and victim together to discuss the incident and encourage forgiveness.

Two other reasons for punishment include deterrence and incapacitation. Individual deterrence aims at the convicted offender and seeks to punish him/her enough to discourage future criminal behavior. General deterrence aims at society and seeks to discourage other individuals from committing offenses. Penalties can include prison sentences, monetary fines and community service. They can also include banishment or death penalty. Penalties are also sometimes applied for moral or religious reasons, as in a theocracy with a police force or in a system of penance.


Retribution suggests that a criminal’s punishment should be proportional to his or her crime. This theory, which has roots in ancient societies such as the Code of Hammurabi, aims to prevent crimes by punishing the perpetrators with severity that fits their wrongdoings. Unlike revenge, retribution is based on a moral and ethical belief that the offender deserves to be punished for his or her crime.

When information about associated aspects other than the crime is salient, individuals can incorporate these into their punishment decision-making and thereby achieve utilitarian goals as well as retributive ones. For example, a white-collar criminal who steals funds from an employer and deprives that company of economic opportunity is probably a bad person who deserved to be punished severely.

Contemporary theorists who advocate retributive punishment, such as Rachel Barkow, are concerned that it contributes to our proclivity to incarcerate too many people without necessarily improving public safety. However, they also fear that retributivists may be able to scuttle their proposals for reform by insisting that the punishment must appear to be primarily retributive.


Rehabilitation is an alternative to punishment and aims to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior. This includes counseling, education, job training and substance abuse treatment. It also considers other factors such as social environments, mental health issues and antisocial personality traits.

Early rehabilitative philosophy focused on improving moral character, believing that criminals committed crimes because of weak moral characters. This view is still prevalent today, but it is being replaced with the belief that criminal behavior is often caused by external circumstances beyond an offender’s control.

For example, the use of drugs, mental illness, poverty and lack of education are often cited as risk factors for crime. If these factors are identified and treated, a criminal may not commit more crimes in the future. This is a more realistic and compassionate philosophy than one that simply focuses on punishing the offender.


Law enforcement is the process by which the police, sheriff’s departments, and other federal and state agencies work to arrest offenders and prosecute them for criminal offenses. The criminal justice field also includes activities such as preventing crime, protecting civil rights, and providing services to victims.

The Office of Justice Programs provides leadership and resources to support local, state, tribal, and community-based efforts to reduce crime, recidivism, and unnecessary confinement, as well as to promote fair and effective criminal justice systems. The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects, analyzes, publishes, and disseminates data on crime and criminal justice issues at the national and state levels.

This requires establishing and maintaining trust between the police and communities they are sworn to serve, which is best achieved through accountability for misconduct, transparency through data collection and reporting, and efforts to ensure that new technologies do not perpetuate disparities in police practices based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), or disability.