Forms of Punishment in the Criminal Justice System

Judge in a Courtroom - Punishment in the Criminal Justice System
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It is common to think of punishment as the primary purpose of the criminal justice system. In many ways, it is. But there are many forms of punishment in use in the United States and around the world today, and many of these modern punishments for crimes are focused more on rehabilitating an offender than on “punishing” him. The concept of punishment is one that has evolved over time and continues to evolve today as we gain a deeper understanding of psychology, behavioral patterns and which types of criminal punishment are most effective at reducing an individual’s likelihood of reoffending and reducing crime levels as a whole.

Four Types of Reinforcement

Punishment is a type of reinforcement. At its core, punishment is widely understood to be an undesirable response to criminal behavior, imposed by the criminal justice system. Punishment is also used to control individuals’ behavior within families, schools, workplaces and other regulated environments like the United States military.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, better known to many as B.F. Skinner, discussed positive and negative reinforcement in his work on behavior and operant conditioning. Today, four types of reinforcement are recognized as effective ways to modify behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

When B.F. Skinner discussed positive reinforcement, he was not specifically referring to praise and rewards as a means to encourage specific behaviors. Rather, he was referring to the additional presence of a reinforcer, rather than removing a reinforcer to encourage the desired behavior. However, praise and rewards are typically used as positive reinforcement because they are effective ways to encourage specific behaviors.

A parent who praises her child for doing his chores and performing to the best of his ability in school is using positive reinforcement to encourage the child to continue to do chores and try hard in school. Another example of positive reinforcement is an employer providing incentives like additional paid vacation days and bonus checks to high-performing employees.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the inverse of positive reinforcement; it is the removal of a reinforcer to encourage a desired behavior. An example of negative reinforcement is a parent eliminating screen time limits for his children when they maintain a specific grade point average.


Using Skinner’s definitions of positive and negative reinforcement, punishment can be a form of either positive or negative reinforcement depending on how it is used. A parent who makes her child’s access to video games contingent on his good behavior in school uses punishment as negative reinforcement, because in this scenario, the child expects to lose his video game privilege if he behaves badly in school. A parent who uses punishment as positive reinforcement might require a child to do extra household chores as punishment for behaving badly in school.


Extinction is the practice of eliminating a behavior by eliminating all responses to it. An example of using extinction to curb a child’s disrespect toward his teacher is the teacher and all other adults opting to ignore the child’s outbursts and other disrespectful actions. By eliminating the child’s desired outcome – the attention he received for his disrespectful behaviors – the adults have removed the incentive for the child to misbehave.

Forms of Punishment Used Today

There are many different punishments used in criminal justice systems around the world today. Some forms of punishment currently in use, like the death penalty, are ancient. Alongside these forms are modern day punishments created with today’s society, its social mores and its economic realities in mind.


Incarceration is one of the oldest forms of punishment still in use today. In the United States, there are two primary types of facilities that house incarcerated individuals: prisons, which are run by the federal and state governments and in some cases, in conjunction with private companies; and jails, which are usually operated at the state and county level. Individuals serving relatively short sentences are held in jails, whereas those serving multi-year sentences are held in prisons, where they may have access to rehabilitative services and vocational training.

In many cases, an individual is not simply “set free” when his sentence ends. Rather, he is transitioned back into society by being put on parole, a form of supervision. He may also be required to live in a halfway house or sober living home for a specified period of time, during which he may be expected to complete treatment and secure a job.

Probation and Monitoring

Another restriction imposed on convicted individuals is supervision by law enforcement. Often, this is known as probation. In addition, a form of supervision is known as house arrest. In both scenarios, the court imposes specific restrictions on the individual, such as the requirement that he not leave his home between certain hours each day and the requirement that he wear an electronic monitoring bracelet at all times.

Consequences for violating a probation order include incarceration, an extended sentence and fines.


When an individual is convicted of a crime, she may be required to pay a fine as punishment. Individuals who commit civil violations, like parking in no-parking zones and failing to properly maintain their properties, can also be required to pay fines.


While a fine is money paid to a government agency as punishment for a crime, restitution is payment made directly to the crime’s victims to compensate them for the loss they experienced because of the offense. This payment is also known as punitive damages.


Surcharges are another form of financial punishment imposed by government agencies. In many states, like New Jersey, the state motor vehicle commission imposes surcharges on drivers with violations on their driving records. To remain licensed to drive, these drivers are required to pay surcharges annually. Failure to pay these surcharges can result in a driver’s license suspension.

Loss of Licensure

When an individual’s criminal actions interfere with his ability to do his job effectively and appropriately, he may have his professional license suspended or revoked as punishment. For example, physical therapists found guilty of sexual misconduct in Massachusetts can lose their professional licenses as a result.

A common punishment for driving-related offenses is the loss of an individual’s driver’s license. This can be imposed as punishment for drunk driving, reckless driving or failure to pay fines for other driving infractions. In many states, including Illinois, a parent can also face a driver’s license suspension as punishment for failure to pay child support.

Physical Punishment

In many parts of the world, like Singapore and Saudi Arabia, physical punishments like flogging and caning are in use today.

Death Penalty

In the United States and in many nations around the globe, individuals convicted of certain crimes can face execution as punishment. In most cases, the death penalty is reserved only for individuals who have committed heinous, violent crimes, like mass murderers.

Lethal injection is the most common execution method used in the United States. In many states, it is the only option. Some states permit prisoners on death row to choose alternative means of execution, like electrocution and lethal gas.

In other parts of the world, such as Saudi Arabia, other forms of execution like stoning and crucifixion are still in use today.

Deportation and Loss of Citizenship

An individual convicted of a crime can also be deported and lose his citizenship as punishment for a crime. Deportation is typically the punishment for illegally entering a country. When an individual who is not yet a citizen of the country where he lives is convicted of a criminal offense, like tax evasion or murder, he may be deported and barred from entering the country again.

In the United States, a citizen can also have her citizenship revoked as punishment for committing an act of treason.

Juvenile Punishments

In the United States, crimes committed by minors are handled by state-level juvenile justice systems. These systems operate outside the adult criminal justice system and typically focus more on rehabilitating offenders than on punishing them. In juvenile justice systems, punishments for juvenile offenders are known as dispositions. Dispositions that juvenile offenders can face include:

  • Detention at juvenile correctional facilities
  • Placement with a relative or within the foster system
  • Community service
  • Fines
  • Restitution
  • Loss of driver’s license or delayed eligibility for a driver’s license
  • Probation
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Counseling
  • Mandatory completion of an anger management or similar course
  • Electronic monitoring

Long-term Punishments for Offenders

Not all punishments end when the convicted person’s sentence ends. Some punishments follow the offender for years afterward, sometimes for the rest of his life.

One of the modern day punishments that impacts an individual for years after serving her sentence is having to register as a sex offender. Depending on the state where she lives and the nature of her offense, an individual convicted of a sex crime can remain on a state sex offender registry for life. When an individual is a registered sex offender, she is barred from working in certain environments and from living in certain areas. Additionally, her personally identifying information and information about her offense remain publicly accessible for as long as she remains on the sex offender registry.

Another one of the forms of punishment in use today is the loss of the convicted individual’s civil rights, like the right to vote and the right to own a firearm.

When a person is convicted of a felony, whether he loses the right to vote and how long he loses that right, depends on the state where he lives. In Maine and Vermont, individuals convicted of felonies never lose the right to vote. In many states, like West Virginia and New Jersey, a person’s voting rights are automatically restored when his sentence is completed. In other states, like Alabama and Delaware, an individual convicted of a felony may be required to complete an additional waiting period or take additional actions to restore his voting rights after he completes his sentence.

All individuals convicted of felonies in the United States are prohibited from owning firearms. Restoring firearm rights and the restrictions surrounding a convicted person’s firearm rights are handled at the state level, with some states taking a more lenient approach to firearm rights for convicted individuals than others.

Read More: What Are the Objectives of Punishment?

The Purpose of Punishment

The main goal of imposing punishments on convicted individuals is to reduce crime rates. For convicted individuals, being punished ideally modifies their behavior and makes them less likely to offend again. For those who have not offended, knowing that there are punishments in store for individuals found guilty of crimes can deter them from offending.

There is some debate about whether the threat of punishment is an effective crime deterrent. These debates often focus on specific punishments, like the risk of losing one’s life to execution, and the efficacy of punishment versus rehabilitation.

What sociological research has found is that the concept of being caught and punished for a crime is a more effective crime deterrent than any actual punishment. When law enforcement is visible in a community, individuals are less likely to offend than they are in communities without a police presence. Once an individual is convicted and sentenced, a more severe punishment will not reduce her likelihood of offending again. In fact, a longer, harsher sentence has been linked to an increased chance of recidivism, because spending time in prison among other offenders can desensitize an individual to incarceration and improve her knowledge of criminal strategies.

Certain punishments have an additional purpose: to keep others safe by preventing the offender from offending again. Imprisoning a drug dealer or a murderer keeps that person isolated from the community and unable to interact in harmful ways, while revoking a person’s driver’s license because of his drunk driving conviction protects other motorists and pedestrians on the roadway from a potentially dangerous driver.

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