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Criminal Punishment

The United States criminal justice system will determine criminal punishment based on the type of crime, mental state, age and criminal background of the perpetrator at the time the crime is committed. The willingness of the perpetrator to cooperate with law enforcement can also affect the punishment. There are a variety of means the criminal justice system will use to punish individuals who are found guilty of criminal acts including:

  • Imprisonment - terms can be from a few months to life depending on the crime.
  • Fines
  • Community Service
  • Probation - A sentence may be suspended if certain conditions are met. Conditions will require the perpetrator to not commit further criminal acts.
  • Restitution to victim - could be in the form of money or property
  • The death penalty
  • Parole - may be granted to an individual prior to the completion of their sentence. Certain conditions will be outlined by the state agency or commission that grants a prisoner parole. If an individual violates the terms or their parole they are sent back to prison to complete their sentence.
  • Registration laws - certain states required individuals convicted of sexual crimes to register with local police in the city where they live.
  • Plea Bargaining - many criminal cases are disposed by a plea agreement between the prosecuting attorney and the accused individual. A plea bargain can occur before a trial or during the trial and can include a dismissal of charges or a reduction of sentence.

The Criminal Justice system has several goals including: stopping future criminal acts, providing restitution to the victim, rehabilitation of the criminal, retribution for the criminal through incapacitation which can include the death or imprisonment.

  • Deter further crime - the goal of the court is to stop criminals from committing any future crimes. Punishments will be assessed with this goal in mind.
  • Restitution - this type of punishment is often combined with other types of punishments, but the goal of restitution is to restore something to the victim such as money or property.
  • Retribution - this is considered a punishment which is used to “right the balance” of an injustice. The argument for retribution is that a criminal has forfeited their rights if they commit certain crimes. The death penalty can be considered a punishment of retribution, i.e. a criminal has murdered someone else and has therefore forfeited their right to life.
  • Incapacitation of the criminal - isolating the criminal so that they cannot commit other crimes. The most common type of incapacitation is done through imprisonment. The death penalty will also incapacitate a criminal.

Guidelines for sentencing in federal cases have been established by the United States Sentencing Commission. This commission has outlined the factors which a federal judge uses to sentence the accused. Factors include the amount of loss for the victim, the age of the victim and if a weapon was used in the course of the crime. The prior record of a criminal is also assessed prior to sentencing. Certain states have also begun to use guidelines similar to the federal guidelines.