This article on ‘Punishments and their Purposes in US’ written by Nilanjana Banerjee focuses on the purpose of the punishments, the philosophy behind it and the consequences. Crimes ( as defined by Oxford Dictionary) are ‘an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law’[1]. The definition itself includes the role of punishment and thus… Read More »

This article on ‘Punishments and their Purposes in US’ written by Nilanjana Banerjee focuses on the purpose of the punishments, the philosophy behind it and the consequences. Crimes ( as defined by Oxford Dictionary) are ‘an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law’[1]. The definition itself includes the role of punishment and thus signifies that in criminal justice system, it plays a very vital role. There are various ways to classify crimes...

This article on ‘Punishments and their Purposes in US’ written by Nilanjana Banerjee focuses on the purpose of the punishments, the philosophy behind it and the consequences.

Crimes ( as defined by Oxford Dictionary) are ‘an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law’[1]. The definition itself includes the role of punishment and thus signifies that in criminal justice system, it plays a very vital role. There are various ways to classify crimes like violent, non-violent, crimes against humans, etc.

The most basic and common classification is on the basis of its severity. In US, it is done in four different parts and their respective punishments are decided. It becomes pertinent to note that punishments are decided based on the purpose they serve. For a minor crime like jaywalking, there is no violent punishment given.

All these will be discussed in detail in this article. Moreover, it will elaborate on the purpose of the punishments, the philosophy behind it and the consequences.


The topic of Crimes under US law is very wide as its states have their own system along with the feudal system. But what is common to every place is their division into four categories and the purpose of the punishment as elaborated hereinafter. This article deals with various divisions of crimes and associates them with their seriousness. Further, this article aims at finding out the purpose of different punishments.

There are two primary sources of statistics of crimes in US i.e. FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and BJS ( Bureau of Justice System). Together, they paint a not very clear picture of the crimes. FBI collects the data of reported crimes only, while BJS aims at collecting reported as well as unreported crimes. But before all, it is pertinent to know about crimes and the punishments.

What is Punishment?

Oxford Dictionary defines punishment as ‘ to make somebody suffer because they have broken the law or done something wrong and punishment is ‘an act of punishing somebody.[2]

While Black’s law dictionary defines punishment as ‘a pain, penalty, suffering or confinement inflicted upon a person by the authority of law and the judgment and sentence of a court for some crime or offence committed by him or for his omission of any duty enjoyed by law.’[3]

From these aforementioned definitions, it becomes clear that punishment is given in return for either ‘commission of any act which is forbidden by law’ or ‘omission of any act which was a duty. Unlike the goal of civil litigation which aims at compensating the victims, in a criminal prosecution the goal is to punish the wrongdoer (the person who committed the crime).

Determining the Categories of Punishment

There is no abstract rule of punishment for every crime. As per US criminal Justice system, the severity of crimes determine the intensity of the punishment. For that very purpose, crimes under US law are categorized into four different types. They are:

  1. Felonies
  2. Misdemeanor
  3. Felony-misdemeanor
  4. Infractions

(Top to bottom- highest to least severity)

The system of categorization (as called in US) is known as grading. This substantive classification further depends on the ‘intent’ element in crime. ‘Malum in se crimes’ are evil and more dangerous in nature than the ‘malum prohibitum crimes’. However, ‘malum in se crimes’ are evil in nature as adjudged by the civilians too. ‘Malum prohibitum’ is a wrong because the statute regulating the concerned act makes it so.

Examples of Malum in se crimes are murder, rape, arson, while malum prohibitum includes evasion of tax.

Felonies are the most serious crimes accompanied by heinous intent and mostly the consequences are grave like loss of life or grievous injury. It can also cause destruction of property. Punishment options in felonies include execution, prison time, fine. It can even include alternative sentences like rehabilitation or probation etc.

The second-grade serious crime is misdemeanor. The intent required is comparatively less heinous than felonies and consequently, the result is less grave. Such crimes are punishable with jail time instead of prison time, rehabilitation, community service. The prisons are operated by the state or federal government and are more restrictive in nature.

The third is felony misdemeanor which can be prosecuted either as a felony or even as a misdemeanor. It depends absolutely on the circumstances of the case. The discretion of prosecuting which way is on the judge who is hearing the concerned case. As already mentioned that it can be prosecuted as felony or misdemeanour, therefore the punishment solely depends on it.

The least serious category of crimes is infractions, otherwise known as violations. It includes minor offenses like jaywalking, simple motor vehicle accidents. As these offenses are the least serious, the punishment concerned is also minor. Mostly, the punishments in such cases include fines.

Purpose of Punishment

The punishment as rewarded with certain offenses is not randomly decided. There is an underlying purpose behind awarding punishments of various times.

In short, punishments are determined by the severity of crimes or the ways either to correct the wrongdoer or make him go through same pain.

There are several theories of punishments that describe the punishment, their underlying aim, the philosophy behind it and the consequences too. But the US Criminal Law justice recognizes specifically five purposes. They are-

  1. Deterrence (general and specific)
  2. Incapacitation
  3. Rehabilitation
  4. Retribution
  5. Restitution

Each of these five purposes is described in detail hereinafter.


In layman’s terms, deterrence is the discouragement of any action by instilling fear of consequences in minds of the wrongdoer in specific or public at large in general. The deterrent theory of punishment aims to act on the motive of the offender and creates fear in his or her mind. It does so by providing exemplary punishment which keeps them away from doing the criminal act.

It is based on the belief that if the offender is not punished, then the number of crimes will experience a drastic surge. Deterrence function of punishment seems to have lesser relevance while dealing with crimes that are the conduct of one or a few deviant individuals and not those which are extraordinary conflicts. These aims at eliminating or at least reducing the gravity of the origin of the crime.[4]

Deterrence can be aimed at any single individual to make sure that the particular individual is less likely to commit such crimes in the future. In such cases, it is specific deterrence. While at times it is applied to the public at large that is to create a fear in minds of others that consequences of committing such crime can cause draconian results. The situation where a wrongdoer is used as an example for others is called general deterrence.


The general meaning of incapacitation is ‘to make an individual incapable of committing a crime[5]. Historically, it was done by execution or banishment. It applies to recidivists i.e. the offenders who have committed repeated offences or are called habitual offenders. In 1996, in US state of California, a form of incapacitation was used to punish sex offenders.

It was called ‘chemical castration’ where the offenders were given certain hormonal drugs to eliminate or reduce their sex drive. But it proved effective only when they were taken voluntarily, not under compulsion, along with some psychological treatments. Primarily, these hormonal drugs alone could not make the offender incapable of committing sex crimes.

Basically, these punishments are utilized for such offenders who are dangerous and are likely to commit such grave crimes unless restrained.

The principle of incapacitation is controversial as at times it becomes difficult to identify such violent and habitual offenders.


As the term suggests for itself, rehabilitation is restoring to normalcy by training, etc. after any deviant act. It prevents future crime by altering the wrongdoer’s behavior. It can be done by therapy, counseling, vocational or educational training. The philosophy behind rehabilitation is to make the offender capable of returning back to society and live there as a law-abiding member of the community.

It is a humane alternative to violent forms of punishment under deterrence, incapacitation. In some cases of rehabilitation, the offender is released under some conditions while in others they serve for a longer time as a part of training. Rehabilitation was widely criticized in US in 1970s but it gained acceptance later in 1980s – 1990s.

Moreover, until the final decades of 20th century, the primary goal was rehabilitation. As per the researcher, it was proven effective in reducing recidivism. One of the most widely used instruments of incapacitation was indeterminate sentences governed by the degree of reform the offender exhibited.

Critics still object to it as it gives significant discretion to the prison administrator in dealing with the situation.


It aims at preventing any future crime by eliminating the desire for personal avengement by the victim towards the wrongdoer. It is based on the concept of ‘lex talionis’ i.e. law of retaliation and as expressed in Exodus, it is an eye for an eye. In general, the severity of punishment is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime done.

It was in 1970- 80s that the criminal justice system shaping US shifted to retribution. Under retribution, it is seriously significant that the offenders actually be guilty of the crime for which the punishment is given. It is believed that it would be improper to allow the victims to go unpunished.

Punishing offenders restores the balance in society and satisfies the sense of avengement by the victims. Moreover, it believes that offenders have misused society’s benefit and therefore they should not be allowed to gain any unethical advantage by doing so. They need to be restricted and the person suffering the loss should be satiated.

It has been criticised by remaking that ‘satisfaction cannot be scale to determine the punishment’. While the other critics say that doing what others have done to us is fair prima facie.


This is the final one which, prevents further crime by punishing the defendant financially. Court orders the wrongdoer to pay for the harm done to the victims, which resembles the compensation in civil litigation. The Mandatory Restitution Act of 1996 was established for the purpose of determining the value to be given in restitution.

If the defendant is found guilty of the charges during the trial, United States Attorney will provide the information concerning the loss and the amount to be compensated. Generally, the court orders restitution when it finds that it is necessary to make the victim whole as the victim has suffered some financial loss.

The direct victims are entitled to restitution, however, the indirect victims are eligible in certain cases too. Like the surviving members of the murdered person’s family. The amount to be covered depends on the loss suffered, severity of the crime, defendant’s ability to pay.

However, restitution amount is not the same as the fine. Fines are predetermined and specific penalties are paid to the court as a part of punishment. Whereas restitution is determined from case to case and aimed towards compensating the victim.

In this way different punishments serve different purposes and they are not any random assortments of penalties.


Crimes are deviant activities that cause no good to society. Therefore, it is vital to curb them and prevent the offenders from committing such crimes.

For this purpose, punishments are framed keeping in mind the gravity of the crime, loss caused, nature of offender, an example to society. The United States has four different categories of crimes classified on the basis of seriousness. The highest being a felony and the least being infractions. Depending on these, the punishments also vary.

Basically, there are five purposes (as acknowledged by US law). The deterrence aims at frightening individuals or society at large, while incapacitation does so by removing the offender from the society.

Rehabilitation aims at altering the defendant’s behavior. Retribution prevents offence by giving the victim’s feeling of avengement a sense of satisfaction. But restitution punishes the defendant financially.


[1] Oxford Dictionary

[2] Oxford Dictionary

[3] Black’s Law Dictionary

[4] Elena Maculan & Alicia Gill, The rationale and purpose of criminal law and punishment in transitional context, 40 OXFORD JLS 132 (2020).

[5] Britannica

  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Updated On 22 Sep 2021 4:16 AM GMT
Nilanjana Banerjee

Nilanjana Banerjee

National University of Study and Research in Law Ranchi

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