Punishment, in criminal law, the penalty inflicted by a court on a person convicted of a felony, misdemeanor, or contempt. Punishment is any form of deprivation, loss, or discomfort imposed by sentence. In most of the advanced, democratic countries of the world the inflicting of pain or physical discomfort as a punishment has been abolished. The eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically forbids “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Corporal (bodily) punishments include death (called capital punishment) and imprisonment. Noncorporal punishments are the levying of fines and forfeiture of rights such as citizenship or voting privileges. In some countries, such practices as exile, whipping and torture, and confiscation of property are still legal.

The study of the forms and theory of punishment is called penology. Since imprisonment is the most common form of punishment, penology deals also with prison management and with the treatment of convicts. Originally, punishment was inflicted in retribution, or retaliation, for the crime committed. It was thought also that seeing the criminal suffer for his or her act would deter others from committing crimes.

Penologists have introduced the idea that criminals should be reformed, or rehabilitated, while imprisoned so that they may safely be set free. Although granting that society must be protected from lawbreakers, some penologists believe that punishing criminals is an archaic idea. There is considerable controversy over the practice of granting paroles on the basis of good behavior and apparent rehabilitation. Persons opposed to parole argue that the criminal who does not serve out his full sentence has not “paid his debt to society.”


Until modern times imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment. Death, torture, whipping, and mutilation were from ancient times common forms of punishment. Even in 18th-century England more than 200 crimes were punishable by death. Such punishment as physical restraint with chains and shackles or in the stocks or pillory was common. Fines and confiscation of property were also traditional punishments. Wrongdoers of high rank often were banished, or sent into exile. During the age of colonization, England and France helped settle their colonies by transporting (exiling) petty criminals and undesirables to them. During the 19th century imprisonment became the customary form of punishment.