What Is a Criminal Law?

Criminal law refers to a type of law that not only dictates a standard of expected behavior but also imposes sanctions or punishments if an individual fails to comply with that law. Criminal law is enforced by agents of the government.

History

  • The first code of law, which blended criminal and civil law into one canon of conduct, was developed by the ancient Sumerians. The Sumerians developed their code of law around 2100 B.C. The Code of Hammurabi is an example of an early code of law, one that combined criminal and civil law. Hammurabi was a Babylonian. It was not until the Normans invaded England that a separate code of criminal law was developed. From this early Norman code of criminal law, the criminal system and set of laws that exist in countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States is founded.

Function

  • The primary function of a criminal law is to control and regulate the conduct of people living in society, of people living in a community. The theory behind criminal law is that if morality alone is not enough to motivate people to comply with the mores of a society, imposing sanctions and penalties on people who violate specific provisions of the law will provide such a motivation. Unlike civil law, which involves the private imposition of sanctions for violation, the penalties for a violation of criminal law are imposed by the state.

Types

  • Criminal law can be divided into three general groups.
    First, there is felony criminal law. This is the most serious type of criminal law, focusing on the most significant type of crime. The penalties associated with committing a felony or breaking a criminal law classified as a felony, include prison time, large fines and, in some instances, a sentence of death.
    Second, a lesser type of criminal law is a misdemeanor. This involves a less serious crime but can still result in a jail sentence (usually less than a year) and fines.
    Finally, there is what is known as an infraction. This is a type of illegal conduct. However, some scholars do not classify it as a true crime. An example of an infraction is a ticket for a traffic infraction.

Effects

  • There are five intended effects of a criminal law. Retribution for the crime committed is one motivation of criminal law. A criminal law is also designed to provide deterrence. Third, a criminal law is intended to incapacitate a wrongdoer, to keep the person who is guilty of a crime segregated from the community to some degree for some period of time. Fourth, one of the effects associated with a criminal law is to allow a victim of crime to obtain an appropriate form of restitution. Finally, an effect of criminal law is to rehabilitate the wrongdoer with the goal that this person will not re-offend.

Theories

  • The theories that have developed around criminal justice generally and the application of criminal law specifically center on how the five intended effects should be balanced. For example, one of the theories is that society as a whole benefits if a criminal can be rehabilitated. Therefore, those individuals that espouse such a position believe the criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation through the application of a criminal law. At the other extreme are those individuals who believe that the primary purpose of a criminal law should be retribution and punishment. In such an situation, the emphasis of a criminal law would be on sanctions and penalties.