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The Purposes of Criminal Law

Updated on November 10, 2012

by Amber Maccione

Criminal Law

Laws are written and enforced to obtain order within a society of people. Without law, there would be no expectations on how one should act. Safety of individuals would not exist. The basic rights that we hold with law, we would no longer be able to exercise. People would constantly be being victimized (Schmallegar 2011 p. 114-115). One type of law is criminal law, which is a “body of laws and regulations that define and specify the nature of and punishments for offenses of a public nature or for wrongs committed against the state or society” (Schmallegar 2011 p.117).

When a person commits a crime, they violate the law. The law has been established to determine what a crime is and what not a crime is. Criminal law determines what part of the law has been broken and what the punishment should be for breaking it (substantive criminal law). Procedural law specifies what methods can be used to enforce the substantive criminal law (Schmallegar 2011 p. 117).

As a parent, we tell our children what is allowed and what is not allowed. Our children test the boundaries by seeing how close they can get to the “line” without breaking the rule. Society does the same. That is why there is criminal law. Criminal law identifies the parameters of conduct within society. It tells society how close they can get to the line, but what will happen if they cross it. Criminal law is concerned with defining crimes and setting punishments if broken (Criminal Law 1999).

One of the things that criminal law does is protecting public order. Society wants to be able to go about their lives without worrying about their safety. Crime produces chaos; chaos produces violence; violence produces harm; harm produces pain and suffering. Therefore, law is necessary to prevent the pain and suffering of its society.

When a crime does occur, public order is disturbed and the law calls for order to be restored. The criminal is arrested and brought to court to receive the punishment that the law says he deserves. The law establishes a punishment to hold the criminal responsible for causing harm to the public. The punishment is also a message from society to the criminal that says society is displeased with his/her behavior and that he/her must be held accountable for their actions (Schmallegar 2011 p. 117).

Just as the law is used to hold a person accountable for their behavior, it is also used as a deterrent. Law was created to deter society from committing harmful acts. It was also created to “provide a framework of liberty” (Law 2010). The law states what behavior is wrong and what will happen if you break it. Therefore, it hopes that the person who is thinking about committing a crime, will weigh out that the punishment is not worth the risk and deter the person from committing the crime to begin with (Schmallegar 2011 p. 117).

So with law comes order. Law lets society regulate human interaction, enforce moral beliefs, define the economic environment, enhance predictability, support the powerful, promote orderly social change, sustain individual rights, redress wrongs, identify wrong doers, and mandate punishment and retribution (Schmallegar 2011 p. 115). Without law, none of this would be possible and there would be chaos instead of order. Therefore, law is needed for society to run and function. Society knows through law what they can not do. But they also know what they can do. So law brings about structure, order, and freedom. We can practice our liberties freely because we know what our government expects us and others to do. Law frees us to live with no fear and with peace and happiness.


Criminal Law. (1999). In Great American court Cases, Gale. Retrieved from

Law. (2010). In Encyclopedia of American Studies. Retrieved from

Schmallegar, F. (2011). "Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st

Century." Retrieved from

Copyright © 2012


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