The purpose of Criminal Law is to protect the publicfrom harm by inflicting punishment upon those who have already done harmand by threatening with punishment those who are tempted to do harm. Theharm 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;sexualimmorality; danger to the government; disturbance of the publicpeace and order; or injury to the public health. Conduct that threatens tocause, but has not yet caused, a harmful result may be enough to constitutea crime. Thus, criminal law often strives to avoid harm by forbiddingconduct that may lead to harmful result. One purpose ofboth civil law and criminal law in the common law system is torespond to harmful acts committed by individuals.
However, each type of lawprovides different responses. A person who is injured by the action ofanother may bring a civil lawsuit against the person who caused the harm. If the victim prevails, the civil law generally provides that the personwho caused the injury must pay money damages to compensate for the harmsuffered. A person who acts in a way that is considered harmful to societyin general may be prosecuted by the government in a criminal case. If theindividual is convicted of the crime, he or she will be punished undercriminal law by either a fine, imprisonment, or death.
In some cases, aperson’s wrongful and harmful act can invoke both criminal and civil lawresponses. Various theories have been advanced to justify or explain thegoals of criminal punishment, including retribution, deterrence, restraint, rehabilitation, and restoration. Sometimes punishment advances more thanone of these goals. At other times, a punishment may promote one goal andconflict with another. The theory of retribution holds that punishment isimposed on the blameworthy party in order for society to vent its angertoward and exact vengeance upon the criminal.
Supporters of this theorylook upon punishment not as a tool to deter future crime but as a devicefor ensuring that offenders pay for past misconduct. Those who support thedeterrence theory believe that if punishment is imposed upon a person whohas committed a crime, the pain inflicted will dissuade the offender andothers from repeating the crime. When the theory refers to the specificoffender who committed the crime, it is known as special deterrence. General deterrence describes the effect that punishment has when it servesas a public example or threat that deters people other than the initialoffender from committing similar crimes. Some believe that the goal ofpunishment is restraint.
If a criminal is confined, executed, or otherwiseincapacitated, such punishment will deny the criminal the ability oropportunity to commit further crimes that harm society. Another possiblegoal of criminal punishment is rehabilitation of the offender. Supportersof rehabilitation seek to prevent crime by providing offenders with theeducation and treatment necessary to eliminate criminal tendencies, as wellas the skills to become productive members of society. The theory ofrestoration takes a victim-oriented approach to crime that emphasizesrestitution for victims.
Rather than focus on the punishment of criminals,supporters of this theory advocate restoring the victim and creatingconstructive roles for victims in the criminal justice process. Forexample, relatives of a murder victim may be encouraged to testify aboutthe impact of the death when the murderer is sentenced by the court. Promoters of this theory believe that such victim involvement in theprocess helps repair the harm caused by crime and facilitates communityreconciliation. The various justifications for criminal punishment are notmutually exclusive.
A particular punishment may advance several goals atthe same time. A term of imprisonment, for example, may serve toincapacitate the offender, deter others in society from committing similaracts, and, at the same time, provide an opportunity for rehabilitativetreatment for the offender. On the other hand, the goals of punishment mayat times