Retribution is a concept that can have many meanings. At its simplest, it is a penalty imposed for a crime that is designed to provide some form of compensation to the victim while also penalizing the offender. It can also potentially send a warning to people considering similar crimes, acting as a deterrence to future criminal activity by alerting members of society to the fact that if they commit crimes, they can face punishment.
The concept of responding to crimes with retribution is ancient, and many early human societies left behind documentation of the types of activities they classified as crimes and how they were punished. One aspect of punishment that was common historically was that authorities believed that it had to be equivalent to the crime in some way. The saying “an eye for an eye,” recorded in the Bible, reflects this widespread belief. Over time, attitudes toward justice shifted toward finding penalties that were not necessarily as brutal as the crime involved, but which did provide real consequences for criminal acts.
In some senses, this word is used to describe a punishment that is appropriate for a crime. This can include restitution to victims, jail time as a punishment for the criminal, and other penal measures. Retribution of this nature are intended to facilitate the orderly functioning of society by codifying crimes and providing mechanisms for punishing them. People who commit crimes do so with the awareness that they may be caught and punished.
People also use this word in a more retaliatory or vengeful way. In these case, the term may be a reflection of a desire not just for equity, but for satisfaction on the part of the victim. Vigilante justice committed by civilians taking the law into their own hands is sometimes framed under such terms. The participants argue that someone was not appropriately punished for a crime and that this forced them to take action on their own to address the matter.
Courts and the legal system must balance the understandable desire for vengeance with the need to treat all people, including criminals, fairly in legal settings. Some nations have laws against punishment that is deemed cruel and unusual in nature, for example, and many nations extend some important basic rights to prisoners and people accused of crimes. In these areas of the world, there are limits on acceptable forms of legal retribution, and individuals may be penalized for acting on their own if they feel that the law has not gone far enough.