Criminal Law: The Purpose of Penalties

You must have heard the statement- “No crime goes unpunished.” This is definitely true in the eyes of the law, especially criminal law.

The meting out of punishments and penalties for committing crimes is an important aspect of criminal law, as this is the way the system attempts to control the rate of crime in the country. While different states have different standards of punishment for each level of crime, the purpose of this is similar across the country.

Typically you will find that there are 5 purposes for punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. To get a better understanding of what these mean and how they impact punishment, let’s break these down!


Deterrence means that the purpose of the penalty is to prevent people from committing the crime again. It does this by invoking fear of committing crimes. Specific deterrence refers to individual defendants. The defendant will be scared to commit the crime again once they are punished. General deterrence refers to the public, where they will fear receiving the same outcome as someone else who has committed a crime.

Any type of punishment can serve the purpose of deterrence. However, stronger punishments are more likely to invoke a stronger response. For example, if you hear of a criminal receiving life imprisonment rather than a three-year sentence, you are more likely to be afraid of the punishment.


If you have committed a crime and are placed under house arrest, you are facing an incapacitation penalty. This means that defendants are removed from society. The idea behind incapacitation is that society will be free from the person committing criminal activities.

You could face a few penalties of various severity under incapacitation. You could be placed under house arrest or face a smaller incarceration sentence with limited jail time. You could also face life imprisonment or even the death penalty. This depends on the seriousness of the crime you commit.


Rehabilitation helps a defendant realize the error of their ways and alter their behavior to become more responsible citizens. Substance abuse is a crime that is often given rehabilitation measures as penalties.

These measures could include educational programs, vocational programs, treatment center placement, and counseling and therapy. Sometimes these are paired with a period of parole or probation to ensure that the defendant is working on making changes to their lifestyle.


Punishment is a way to remove the desire people may have to avenge themselves against a defendant. If the public is satisfied that the defendant is facing adequate penalties, they are less likely to act out against them.

Retributive measures can take any form and are usually meted out for crimes of assault, battery, and criminal homicide.


Restitution punishes a defendant financially. The crime-doer is made to compensate for their crimes by literally paying for them.

This could be charged in terms of compensation for the victim or fees, and are charged for personal injuries, loss of property, or even emotional distress.