Criminal Law Law and Legal Definition

Criminal law is the body of rules and statutes defining the offences against the community at large. It regulates how suspects are investigated, charged and tried. The law also provides the punishments for convicted offenders. This is also termed as penal law.

In the broadest sense, the term criminal law is used to include all that is involved in ‘the administration of justice.’ In this sense it embraces three different fields: substantive criminal law, criminal procedure and the special problems in administration and enforcement of criminal justice. However, the phrase criminal law as it is commonly used includes only substantive criminal law. Substantive criminal laws define particular crimes. In contrast, criminal procedure describes the process through which the criminal laws are enforced or it establishes rules for the prosecution of crime. For example, the law prohibiting murder is a substantive criminal law. The manner in which government enforces this substantive law through the gathering of evidence and prosecution is generally considered a procedural matter. Enforcement of criminal laws in the United States has traditionally been a matter handled by the states.

In the U.S., substantive criminal law originated for the most part in common law, which was later codified in federal and state statutes. Modern criminal law has been affected considerably by the social sciences, especially in the areas of sentencing, legal research, legislation, and rehabilitation.

In criminal law, punishment is allowed due to the wrongful intent involved in the crime. A punishment such as incarceration seeks to give any victim involved retribution against the offender, deter the criminal from future criminal acts, and hopefully rehabilitate the offender. This is distinguished from civil law, which seeks to compensate the injured party rather than punish the wrongdoer. American law has abandoned the practice of incarcerating people for failure to pay their debts. Criminal statutes, which vary by jurisdiction, describe the type of conduct that has been deemed a crime, the intent required, and in some instances, the proper punishment. In a criminal case, the state, through a prosecutor, initiates the suit, while in a civil case, the victim brings the suit.

Justifications for punishment typically take five forms:

  1. retributive;
  2. deterrence;
  3. preventive;
  4. rehabilitative; and
  5. restitutionary.

There are limitations on the punishment that may be imposed. The U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment states: 'Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.' A number of state constitutions also contain the same, or similar, provisions.