At MyLawQuestions, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is Retributive Justice?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Retributive justice is a legal principal that dictates that punishment for a crime is acceptable as long as it is a proportionate response to the crime committed. In this type of justice system, a crime is typically seen as being done against the state or government, rather than against an individual or community. As such, it is left to the state to seek justice in terms of punishment against the individual who has perpetrated the crime. It is often associated with concepts such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and similar ideas regarding punishment.

In most respects, retributive justice seeks to punish a person for a crime in a way that is seen as compensatory for the crime. This type of justice system will often use imprisonment, loss of property, and even loss of life in an effort to see that someone who commits a crime is punished in a way that is proportionate to the crime that has been committed. The sense of proportion, however, can vary greatly depending on the society, and so this form of justice can be significantly different in different areas.

Imprisonment is often used in a retributive justice system.
Imprisonment is often used in a retributive justice system.

For example, someone who has committed murder may be punished in various ways by different systems. In some systems, a person who takes a life forfeits his or her own life and may be put to death as punishment. Other systems may see lifelong imprisonment as sufficient punishment, since it often takes away all the potential a person had in his or her life much as someone else’s potential was taken away by the murder. There is also a school of thought that focuses less upon the harm done by a crime, and rather looks to the unfair advantages that may have been gained through the crime.

The idea of retributive justice may consider an "eye for an eye" mentality.
The idea of retributive justice may consider an "eye for an eye" mentality.

This type of examination of a crime is often used in civil matters, especially as it relates to financial benefits gained unfairly. One of the major criticisms against retributive justice is that it often creates a system in which abuses can occur, and punishment may not be proportionate for the crime committed. In an effort to prevent this type of abuse, many systems utilize minimum and maximum punishments that can be given to keep punishment as equal as possible. This can lead to other problems, however, since equal is not always fair, and the same fine levied against someone who is wealthy and someone who is poor rarely creates the same severity of punishment for each person.

Discussion Comments


Retributive Justice is used when there is a 'moral imbalance.' the only problem is this was cause of the holocaust.

To punish the Jews is a result of a cult-like order and roles being violated and persecuted wrongly to murder them used as justice. (Nazism was a cult -- did anyone notice). Self righteous much? I think so. This type of justice was used to shut someone up who was of high social status causing an 'upset' (e.g. harassing softball olympian). Don't cause an upset when you're dealing with crazies.


Does anyone have theories on why retributive justice can be better than rehabilitative?


@burcinc, @turquoise-- I think this discussion is leading into a common question-- retributive justice vs restorative justice-- which is better?

The retributive justice system is something that we have employed in the US in our history and like the article said, many state courts do still employ different versions. Rehabilitation is also something that we have put into effect. But the justice system that we are mainly using now is restorative justice. Restorative justice is basically a combination of retributive justice and rehabilitation.

I don't disagree with retributive justice, but I don't think it is enough alone. When it's supported with rehabilitation programs for criminals, it a much healthier system. This way, not only is the criminal punished for his crime and the victim assisted, but there is an effort to make peace between these individuals.


@burcinc-- I know what you're talking about. This man in Iran had thrown acid on a woman's face for not accepting his marriage proposal. The Iranian court decided to retribute the punishment to the criminal by having the woman throw acid on his face. The woman ended up forgiving him and didn't punish him.

If I had experienced something like that, I think I would want acid thrown on that man's face too. If this “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” policy was how all criminals were punished however, I think the society would become a lot more brutal. So at the end of the day, I think rehabilitation of criminals might be a better idea.

I don't think that criminals are healthy individuals. I think they need help and they need to be re-integrated into society. As a leader country, the US also has to be careful about the kind of example we set for the rest of the world. And I'm not sure that retributive justice is exactly the kind of image our justice system should hold.


I support retributive justice theory. There was a great example of retributive justice in Iran on the news the other day, and it made me realize once again that this is the best type of punishment system.

Some people might find this system primitive, but I don't. It may be the oldest punishment system, but it works. It really deters criminals by giving them a punishment similar to their crime. Not only is that person not able to repeat that crime, but it's a deterrent to those in society who had plans of committing the same.

Obviously the punishment of death doesn't allow that criminal to mend his ways in the future. But it's a great message to the rest of society. I personally feel that retribution is the most just punishment system. The article says that equal is not always fair, but we can make it fair, can't we?

What do you think?

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Imprisonment is often used in a retributive justice system.
      Imprisonment is often used in a retributive justice system.
    • The idea of retributive justice may consider an "eye for an eye" mentality.
      By: kilukilu
      The idea of retributive justice may consider an "eye for an eye" mentality.