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CAPSULE SUMMARY

Chapter 1

SOME BASIC ISSUES IN CRIMINAL LAW

I. A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO CRIMINAL LAW

A. Felonies vs. misdemeanors:  Modern criminal statutes typically divide crimes into two broad categories: felonies and misdemeanors. A good general rule, at least for state as opposed to federal crimes, is that:

  • a felony is a serious crime that is punishable by at least one year in a state prison; and
  •  a misdemeanor is a lesser crime for which the maximum penalty is either: (a) incarceration for less than a year, typically in a city or county jail rather than in a state prison; or (b) a fine or (c) both.

B. Theories of punishment:  There are two main philosophies about what the purpose of criminal law should be, often labeled “utilitarianism” and “retributivism.”

1. Utilitarianism:  The basic concept of utilitarianism is that society should try to maximize the net happiness of people – “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Utilitarians cite the following as the narrow objectives that a system of criminal law and punishment should try to achieve:

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