Definition Of Retribution In Criminal Justice

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Retribution is at the heart of just about all judicial systems that deal with law and order. To the extent that punishment is supposed to fit the crime, retributive justice can be distinguished from revenge in the sense that defendants are expected to give up something in return for the offenses they committed. Retribution can be considered a susceptible principle insofar as ranging in doctrines from “an eye for an eye” to “the Golden Rule.”

Early Criminal Justice Systems

Long before Hammurabi, the ancient King of Babylonia, codified the laws of the lands he ruled, societies approached crime and punishment based on religious beliefs. For example, the “eye for an eye” doctrine is biblical, but it is also present in the Code of Hammurabi that is believed to predate the Holy Scripture. This means that ancient societies believed in a form of retribution that was closer to retaliation.

As religious leaders and philosophers pondered retribution, the Golden Rule of reciprocity was brought into consideration. Retribution without consideration of morals or ethics could be considered revenge. From these musings the concept of retributive justice has advanced to punishment that must fit the crime.

Economic Retribution or Restitution

When criminal offenders are believed to have gained an unfair advantage over others by breaking the law, judicial systems attempt to look beyond the punishment. Making victims whole by assessing fines or ordering restitution are concepts that seek to make retribution a more equitable affair to society in general. Unfortunately, such attempts do not always work as intended.

An example of economic retribution would be a court order extended to a white-collar criminal who stole funds from his or her employer. Sending this convict to prison for a crime that deprived his or her victims of economic opportunity is not a good example of a punishment that completely fits the crime. If the convict is not allowed to work and make restitution, the victims are not being served by justice system. In fact, a lengthy period of incarceration may come at a deep cost to taxpayers, who would be denied of economic opportunity as well.

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