penal code | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

A penal code is a body of statutes that specify crimes and their punishments, more commonly referred to as the substantive criminal law or the criminal code.

See also Model Penal Code

A penal code is a set of laws that define and prohibit certain types of conduct and establish the punishments that may be imposed for violations of these laws. Legislative bodies typically enact these codes and may be applied at the federal, state, or local levels.

Penal codes are an essential component of any criminal justice system, as they provide the framework for defining criminal behavior and for punishing those who engage in it. They are often organized into categories based on the severity of the offense, with more serious crimes carrying more severe penalties.

Components of Penal Codes

In the United States, penal codes are typically divided into two broad categories: substantive criminal law and procedural criminal law. Substantive criminal law defines the types of conduct that are prohibited and establish the punishments that may be imposed for violations of these laws. Procedural criminal law, on the other hand, governs the process by which criminal cases are handled, including the procedures for arrest, trial, and sentencing.

Goals of Penal Codes

One of the primary goals of a penal code is to ensure that the punishments for criminal behavior are proportionate to the severity of the offense. This requires a careful balancing of the interests of society, the needs of the victim, and the rights of the accused.

In many cases, penal codes reflect the values and priorities of the society in which they are enacted. For example, some countries may have more lenient penalties for drug offenses, while others may impose harsher penalties for crimes related to public safety or national security.

The Development of Penal Codes

The development of these codes is often influenced by a variety of factors, including political, social, and economic considerations. For example, the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 in the United States was driven in part by concerns about rising crime rates and the need to impose tougher penalties for certain offenses.

Criticisms of Penal Codes

Such codes are not without their critics, however. Some argue that they are overly punitive and that they do little to address the underlying social and economic factors that contribute to criminal behavior. Others argue that they are ineffective at deterring crime and that they contribute to a cycle of poverty and social marginalization that leads to further criminal activity.


Despite these criticisms, these codes remain an essential component of the criminal justice system. They provide a framework for defining criminal behavior and for punishing those who engage in it and help to ensure that the rights of victims and accused are protected. As societies continue to evolve and change, it is likely that penal codes will continue to evolve as well in response to new challenges and emerging concerns.

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Last Modified: 07/12/2023

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