substantive criminal law | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Crimianal Law

Substantive criminal law is part of the criminal law that specifies prohibited acts and the punishments associated with those acts.

Contrast with procedural law

Substantive criminal law (often shortened to just criminal law) is a critical aspect of the criminal justice system. It refers to the body of law that sets out the various crimes an individual can commit and the corresponding penalties or sanctions that can be imposed on them. The substantive criminal law covers a wide range of offenses, including violent crimes, property crimes, drug offenses, and white-collar crimes.

The fundamental principle of criminal law is to provide a clear and precise definition of criminal behavior. It defines the conduct that society deems unacceptable and outlines the punishment or sanctions that will be imposed on individuals who engage in such conduct. Thus, substantive criminal law plays an essential role in establishing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in society and the consequences for violating those boundaries.

Substantive criminal law consists of both statutory and common law. Statutory law is created by the legislative branch of government, while common law is created by the judiciary through case law. Together, these laws establish the crimes an individual can be charged with, the elements of those crimes, and the penalties that can be imposed for each crime.

The elements of a crime refer to the specific actions, circumstances, and mental states that must be present for an individual to be found guilty of that crime. For example, the elements of murder may include the intentional killing of another person with malice aforethought. If the prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed all of the elements of the crime, the defendant can be found guilty and subject to the appropriate punishment.

In addition to defining the elements of a crime, criminal law also establishes the range of punishment or sanctions that can be imposed for each offense. This range can include imprisonment, fines, community service, probation, or a combination of these sanctions. The punishment or sanction imposed for each crime is typically proportional to the seriousness of the offense and the harm caused.

Substantive criminal law is an essential component of the criminal justice system. It sets out the types of conduct that society deems unacceptable and the corresponding punishments or sanctions that can be imposed for violating those standards. Without substantive criminal law, the criminal justice system would lack clear guidelines for determining guilt and appropriate punishment, which could lead to arbitrary and unjust outcomes.

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Last Modified: 04/08/2023

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