Definition of Retribution in Criminal Justice

By Katherine Hutchison
"An eye, an eye&quot, the principle, retribution justice
Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Retribution is a theory of criminal punishment based on the idea that the guilty should have to pay for their crimes. Retributive justice, as it is known, stands for the principle that the punishment for a crime should match the severity of the crime.

Retribution Focuses on the Crime, Not the Criminal

Some punishment theories focus on the lawbreaker: For instance, rehabilitation aims to reform the criminal for his eventual release back into society, and deterrence attempts to keep him from breaking the law again by making him want to avoid punishment. Retribution, on the other hand, does not look to the criminal's future but instead aims to properly punish him for the crime he committed. Punishment for its own sake is the purpose of retribution; the criminal must pay for his crime against society, in order to “right the wrong.”

Retribution vs. Revenge

Some people compare retribution to revenge, but while revenge is a personal matter, in which the wronged party “gets even” with the wrongdoer, retribution is instead imposed on the guilty by society to set limits on behavior for the good of the entire community.

About the Author

Katherine Hutchison has more than 20 years of editorial experience including writing and editing positions at Kiplinger, Dow Jones and various trade publications. She earned a Master of arts in journalism from New York University and completed an editing program at Georgetown University.