Forms of Punishment in the Criminal Justice System


The purpose of the criminal justice system is to control behavior by investigating, prosecuting and punishing those people who violate criminal laws. Sentencing is the punishment phase of the process. A judge sentences the person convicted of committing a criminal act by imposing a form of punishment authorized by the law in that state.The options available to a judge increase in severity from fines and probation to incarceration.


  • Monetary fines are the most common form of punishment imposed by judges because most cases are either traffic infractions or non-violent violations of criminal laws. Judges have the discretion to decide how much the fine should be. If the law sets a minimum or a maximum fine for a particular offense, the judge retains discretion to order payment of a fine within that range. A judge may direct a person to pay a fine in addition to sentencing the person to incarceration, probation or community service.


  • Probation is an alternative to incarceration. Probation permits the sentencing judge to impose conditions on the convicted person’s release. Ordering the convicted person to refrain from the use of drugs and alcohol or to attend counseling are examples of conditions a judge can impose. The probation officer assigned to the case supervises the convicted offender to make certain the conditions are being met. Rehabilitation is the ultimate goal of probation supervision. The period of probation supervision a judge may impose is established by the sentencing laws of each state. Generally, probation is three years for a misdemeanor and five years for a felony. A person who is doing well on probation may be recommended for early release from supervision by his probation officer.


  • Incarceration is a form of punishment in which the offender is held in custody in either a jail or prison for the length of time imposed by the judge. A sentence of one year or less is served in a local jail. Sentences in excess of one year are served in a state prison.

Community Alternatives

  • States are allowing judges to impose sentences that do not involve the usual forms of punishment. Sentences can make use of community-based organizations. One form of community alternative sentence is community service. Reserved primarily for non-violent, non-repeat offenders, community service is an alternative to incarceration or probation. A person convicted of a crime is sentenced to perform a specified number of hours of service to the community. The judge imposing the sentence refers the person to the community organization administering the program. The person is assigned to work in a facility in need of volunteer workers. Soup kitchens, public parks, community centers and publicly operated hospitals are some of the facilities in which a person would work for the number of hours set by the judge.


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