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The Purpose of Criminal Law

Angela MacArthur, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Angela MacArthur

    Angela has taught English, Communications, and Canadian Studies at the post-secondary level for 20 years. She has a Master of Arts degree with a focus on English Language and Literature, as well as an Honors Bachelor of Arts in English from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. She has also completed a Fundamentals of Teaching and Learning certificate from Sheridan College.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Find what the main objective of criminal law is. Learn the definition of criminal law and understand its different elements. See various criminal law examples. Updated: 10/14/2022

Table of Contents


What is Criminal Law?

The purpose of criminal law is to provide a society with a set of rules regarding legal and illegal behavior. In other words, criminal law outlines what actions and behaviors are allowed. It defines what actions are crimes and how to punish those who commit these crimes.

A criminal offense is simply an action that breaks an established criminal law. The failure to report such activity can also constitute a crime in certain circumstances. A criminal offense provides the basis for an arrest.

Criminal law can be established at both the federal and state levels. While some laws apply nationwide, some states will have different criminal laws than others. However, the federal government develops the rules that govern the criminal law system so that everyone accused of a crime receives the same punishment or treatment.

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  • 0:01 Criminal Law
  • 0:45 Criminal Law and Civil Law
  • 1:59 Elements of Criminal Law
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

Criminal law is different from civil law. The main objective of criminal law is to identify a breach of the rules of the Criminal Code, while the purpose of civil law is to rectify wrongs committed within private dealings. If someone is arrested for shoplifting, their charges are dealt with under criminal law since theft is a crime. If someone is injured on another person's property, they can sue for damages; this is considered a civil law matter. Civil law can involve cases between individuals, groups, or organizations and functions outside the realm of breaches of the Criminal Code.

While there is no crime at the base of a civil law matter, there are misconducts. Misconduct occurs when someone or an organization has wronged another person or organization, or something has happened between two individual parties where one feels the other has done wrong. Civil law tends to deal more with financial recompenses for damages; however, civil law matters can be directly related to criminal law cases, such as when someone sues another person in a wrongful death suit. In this case, one person is holding another person responsible for the death of someone, whether or not the person accused was charged or convicted in criminal court.

On the other hand, criminal law focuses solely on actions that break the law. The punishments in the case of a guilty finding may be financial, as is found most often in civil matters; it may also involve incarceration, probation, or other restrictions on freedom, such as rehabilitation programs or no-contact orders. In criminal law cases, the adversaries are not individuals but the state or federal government against an individual, group, or organization involved in illegal behavior.

Purpose of Criminal Law

The purpose of criminal law is to define acceptable expectations of behavior within a society. There are several objectives to the creation and upholding of criminal law: preventing crime; protecting the public; punishing and rehabilitating those who commit crimes; supporting those who have been victimized by crime; and, on a larger scale, defining the moral code of society and dictating what is considered proper or correct behavior. Countries can provide citizens with order and stability through an established set of criminal laws. Knowledge of criminal law can guide the choices of those governed by it.

The most visible point of criminal law is to prevent crime and protect the public. The Criminal Code details actions that can harm others physically, financially, or personally. Through the criminal justice system, unwanted behaviors can be identified and punished in an attempt to rehabilitate those who commit them and deter others from becoming involved in criminal activity. Deterrence makes society a safer place in which to live.

Criminal law also supports victims of crime by seeking out who committed the crime and punishing them for it. Financial compensation may be part of the punishment, but it is primarily the sense of justice that comes from seeing someone punished for their misdeeds and the hope that the accused may one day see the errors of their ways that help victims move on from the event.

Overall, criminal law is like a guide to the expectations of society. A lack of knowledge of the Criminal Code is not considered a defense against a criminal charge; this shows that the established rules are a statement of the morals of a particular society and what the people value.

Goals of Criminal Law

Several goals drive the institution and maintenance of criminal law. These are listed below:

  • Retribution: The punishment aspect of criminal law is about instituting consequences for unwanted behaviors. Society wants to see people punished for their wrongdoings, especially when those behaviors injure others physically, emotionally, or financially. Through retribution, victims of crime can see perpetrators forced to take responsibility for their actions. They may even see financial compensation for their injuries and suffering.
  • Deterrence: The consequences for crime outlined within criminal law are designed to discourage others from engaging in similar behaviors. The idea of having to pay fines, report to a probation officer, or spend time in jail can be the drive behind another person's will to avoid particular actions. While people hope that others will act out of a sense of the greater good, this is not always the case, and laws and punishments designed by criminal law can help keep citizens' behavior in line.
  • Incapacitation: In restricting the freedom of those convicted of a crime, whether through incarceration, probation, or no-contact orders, criminal law can help protect society and rehabilitate criminals. Incapacitation guarantees that those known to break the law are away from people and situations that may encourage them to commit crimes. It may also lead those involved in criminal activity to reconsider their behavior and avoid future crimes to avoid further incarceration or limitation of movement.
  • Rehabilitation: Those convicted of a crime may face several different consequences designed to prevent them from committing future crimes and reconsidering how they act within society. These consequences also aim to rehabilitate those who have committed a crime, teaching them to change their behavior and positively impact society. Whether those convicted of a crime have to pay fines or have their freedom restricted, these punishments give them a chance to reconsider what they have done, understand why it is wrong, and prevent further occurrences. Some people convicted of a crime are even sent to rehabilitation centers if their crimes are due to substance abuse or mental health issues.
  • Restoration: This aspect of criminal law addresses the harms committed during the commission of a crime. This could mean financially compensating a victim who has lost money or property through the crime or the time needed to recover from it. Restoration can involve contact between those who commit a crime and their victims to determine compensation. On the other hand, it can also mean the restriction of contact between the two. Restoration focuses on the victims' needs.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of criminal law?

The purposes of criminal law are numerous. Its main function is to keep order and deter crime. Criminal law also punishes and rehabilitates people involved in crime and supports victimized people.

What are the goals of criminal law?

Criminal law is a framework with which to guide citizen behavior. It outlines illegal acts and defines their punishments. It also creates a system in which people who commit crimes are tried and punished.

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