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What is criminal law?

Criminal law is an area of law that permits the government to punish people for committing crimes. Crimes are wrongs committed against society, and what behavior constitutes a crime must be clearly defined in a statute or other legislation. Although a person may have victimized another person by committing the crime, the government (for example, the United States or a state, or a county) prosecutes the wrongdoer, not the individual who was victimized. In prosecuting a wrongdoer for committing a crime, the government typically seeks to have the person punished by imposing incarceration in prison or jail.

How is criminal law different than civil law?

The criminal law is distinguishable from civil law in several respects. Civil actions typically are private causes of action brought by individual members of society who have been harmed, and the civil actions are brought against the person (or entity) who has harmed them. Those bringing civil actions usually seek to recover money from the wrongdoer for the harm suffered. In contrast, criminal actions are brought by the government, not individual members of society, for harms committed against society at large. In bringing criminal actions, the government typically seeks to punish the wrongdoer for the wrong committed, and punishment most often takes the form of incarceration in prison or jail.

Why is it important to understand criminal law?

Most first-year law students are required to take a criminal law course during their first year of law school because criminal justice is an essential component of our legal system. All practicing attorneys, regardless of their area of legal expertise, need to have a basic understanding of the criminal law because it permeates several aspects of our society, and most lawyers, at some point in their careers, are contacted by family members, friends, or potential and current clients about criminal law issues they are encountering.

What makes criminal law an interesting area of law to you?

There are a multitude of reasons that make criminal law a fascinating area of law to study. First, criminal law investigates why we need a justice system at all, what purposes our criminal justice system should serve, and how best to carry out justice in this country. Moreover, criminal law looks not only to societal harm but also at whether, in a civilized society, the person who may have caused the harm is worthy of our punishment. To determine whether one is worthy of punishment, we often look at what the person was thinking at the time the person engaged in the offending conduct. Criminal law answers essential questions like:

What are some career options for students who excel in criminal law?

A wide variety of professional options are available to students interested in a career in criminal law. Careers in criminal law include working as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney, a judge, or even as a legislator whose job it may be to draft and enact statutes defining various criminal offenses.