In the legal and social science literature, legal and criminal scholars define criminal sanctions by differentiating them from civil sanctions. From a historical and philosophical perspective, a criminal act differs from civil action in the way in which criminality is viewed by society. A criminal act is considered in a...
In the legal and social science literature, legal and criminal scholars define criminal sanctions by differentiating them from civil sanctions. From a historical and philosophical perspective, a criminal act differs from civil action in the way in which criminality is viewed by society. A criminal act is considered in a broader context as a crime against all of society.
While a criminal act may be perpetrated against one member of the community, the criminal action is such that it violates the moral and social structure of the society at large. A civil action may hurt society, but many violations of civil law are not viewed as negatively as criminal acts. If you had a choice between working next to a tax evader or a murderer, who would you choose? Your answer demonstrates how society is more socially accepting of violations of civil law than criminal law. The broader social implications of violating civil or criminal law distinguish the goals of sanctions.
For example, the financial crisis of 2008 was the one of the worst economic disasters in the history of the United States, only comparable to the Great Depression in 1929. The crisis was precipitated by the leadership of large financial institutions taking an extraordinary financial risk to maximize profit. Although the crisis clearly impacted society in the worst negative way imaginable, the leaders of participating financial institutions were not criminally charged.
Many paid civil fines, but for the most part, they were not held personally responsible, and most survived unscathed (some profited from buyouts and retirement) from the chaos of their decisions. The broad impacts on society were thought to be mitigated by fines, regulatory changes, and increased oversight. In this example, society was harmed, but financial harm is not treated on the same level as physical harm to human beings.
By comparison, domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh perpetrated one of the worst crimes in history: the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh’s actions resulted in the death of 149 adults and 19 children. In this example, the appalling lack of regard for human life and the McVeigh’s justification violates the moral and social conscious of any rational thinking person. Crimes of violence against children, women, and helpless seniors or mass shootings arouse the same sentiment. The moral distinction between these examples is essential in understanding the primary role of sanctions in a criminal act.
A person found guilty violating a law in a civil action may serve jail time, but the primary objective of the judge in a civil case is to restore the victim to their original state of being before the crime took place. Not so in the case of a criminal act. A review of the literature appears to indicate the primary purpose of sanctions in criminal law are equally divided between deterrence and revenge.
Deterrence, in a sense the judicial system wants to send a strong message to others who in the future may contemplate a similar act, and the judge wants to be clear the severity of the sanctions (life imprisonment, the death penalty, etc.). Revenge, in the respect in a criminal case, cannot restore the victim(s) to their original state of being before the commission of the crime. You can not bring a murdered loved one back to life or regain the innocence of a child when an adult has molested them.
The argument of whether deterrence is effective is hotly debated in legal literature, and there is no real conclusive answer to the debate. The effectiveness of the sanction is not germane to the question. From the current review of available research, the answer to your question is that deterrence or revenge is the principal goal of a criminal sanction.