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The Relationship Between Crime & Punishment

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  • 0:01 Crime and Punishment
  • 1:32 Theories of Punishment
  • 3:12 Expected Punishment
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

The criminal law sets out both crimes and punishments, which are designed to align with each other. This lesson defines criminal punishment, explains punishment theories and explores the relationship between crime and punishment.

Crime and Punishment

I recently grounded my teenage son for staying out past his curfew. He broke a rule, so he got punished. That's the way things work, right? Even in our society. You break society's rules, or laws, and you get punished.

Criminal law, as a whole, refers to the government's power to regulate and punish certain behaviors. The behaviors are enacted into laws and become crimes. Since staying out past curfew isn't a crime and grounding isn't a criminal punishment, let's take a look at the actual requirements of criminal punishment.

Criminal punishment must:

  • Inflict unpleasant consequences
  • Be ordered by law
  • Be ordered intentionally as punishment
  • Be ordered by the government

The grounding is unpleasant, and I issued it purposefully to serve as my son's punishment. However, it's not a law, and it's not ordered by the government.

On the other hand, let's say my son was late because he was stopped by the police. He got a ticket for running a stop sign. He's ordered to appear in traffic court and pay a fine of $400. This is unpleasant, prescribed by law, administered purposefully to serve as his punishment and ordered by the government.

Theories of Punishment

There are two main reasons why the government administers criminal punishment. The first is retribution. Retribution is a punishment theory that looks backward to the crime and punishes the criminal because that's the proper thing to do. This theory assumes that criminals choose to behave badly and must therefore be blamed and held responsible for their bad behavior. You may be familiar with retribution. It's premised on the old adage 'an eye for an eye,' which means that the punishment should match or fit a crime.

Retribution forces criminals to 'pay their debt to society.' Notice that the 'debt' is matched to the crime. It's an 'eye for an eye' rather than an 'eye for a leg.' For example, running a stop sign is typically punished with a fine. Homicide is punished with a lengthy prison sentence and sometimes even the death penalty. People do not receive a lengthy prison sentence for running a stop sign.

The second reason is prevention. Prevention is a punishment theory that looks forward and punishes the criminal in an attempt to prevent future crimes.

I ground my son hoping he'll dislike the consequences enough to never want to break curfew again. I'm also hoping his siblings will notice the consequences and they, too, will never break curfew. This specific idea is known as deterrence. I'm hoping to 'deter' both my son and my other children. Deterrence assumes that the threat of punishment outweighs the urge to commit a crime.

Expected Punishment

Notice that deterrence only works when the criminal fears punishment. Many experts therefore place value in expected punishment. Expected punishment is a way to measure the cost of committing a crime.

Expected punishment is calculated by using five different factors:

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