Forms of Punishment
An infraction is a violation that is the lowest form of crime in the United States and is typically punishable by a fine but not jail time. Examples of infractions include jaywalking, failure to stop at a stop sign, and littering.
A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that carries the possibility of up to one year of incarceration and can include fines, probation, community service, and restitution. Examples of misdemeanors include assault, public intoxication, and trespassing.
A felony is the most serious type of criminal offense and encompasses the same possibilities of punishment as misdemeanors but includes a longer period of incarceration, life in prison, or even the death penalty. Examples of felonies include homicide, burglary, and kidnapping. Misdemeanors can also be punishable in certain states as felonies if the defendant is a habitual offender.
There are five common theories of punishment in criminal law: deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution, and restitution. Deterrence happens when the court imposes a specific punishment with the intention of discouraging future crime. General deterrence is when the court dissuades the public at large from committing crime in fear that they might be punished in the same way the defendant was punished. Specific deterrence is when the court dissuades the individual defendant from committing another crime in fear of the same or worse punishment.
Sometimes the court finds that the defendant has rehabilitation potential, meaning that the defendant can be transformed into a valuable member of society. The most common forms of punishment for offenders that demonstrate rehabilitative potential are probation, educational and career-focused programs, rehabilitative programs, and counseling. Rehabilitation decreases jail and prison populations and lowers the offender's risk of committing more crimes.
Incapacitation protects the public from the defendant and is achieved by house arrest, incarceration, or the death penalty.
Retribution balances the scales of justice and is intended to punish the defendant in a way equal to the crime committed. The retribution theory of punishment is believed to increase victims' and society's confidence in the judicial system. The theory behind retribution is that the punishment should fit the crime and embraces the phrase "eye for an eye." For example, if a defendant is convicted of first-degree murder, the prosecution may seek the death penalty as punishment.
Restitution is a form of punishment used to rectify (correct) an injury that the defendant inflicted on a victim. This form of punishment also penalizes the defendant financially. For example, a case may arise in which the defendant is prosecuted for vandalizing the victim's car. As part of the defendant's sentence, the court can order the defendant to financially pay for the damage caused to the victim's car.