Introduction to the American Court System
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In distinguishing between criminal law and civil law, the first thing that should be mentioned is that the former is “concerned with protecting the citizens of a community from actions that disturb the social order of that community, such as murder and assault” (Cantrell, n.d., p. 2), while the latter “deals with the rights and duties of one individual to another” (Cantrell, n.d., p. 5). Furthermore, criminal law designates the sole burden of proof on the state (prosecutor); the defendant needs not testify, but can resort to counsel in his/her defense. Finally, criminal law contemplates the loss of liberty (imprisonment) as the chief penalty. In civil law, on the other hand, burden of proof falls on the plaintiff (petitioner); the defendant (respondent) is required to collect evidence and even testify, and both parties have the possibility of seeking legal counsel. Finally, civil law does not contemplate loss of liberty as a penalty (unless a court order has been disobeyed).
Furthermore, it is important to have criminal laws because serious offenses that disturb the social order are often committed, thus a body of laws that prevents individuals from taking matters into their own hands (while at the same time delivering justice) is required. This being said, criminal law guarantees protection and punishment of offenders. It also procures protection for the community through the following means: deterrence; prevention/incapacitation; rehabilitation/reform; denunciation; restoration (The purposes of criminal law, n.d., pp. 1–14). Criminal law goes beyond the scope of a civil legal system; it intervenes when disputes cannot be resolved pacifically between confronted parties in order to maintain peace, order, and stability.
Finally, it is important to note that the enforcement of laws is essential for society’s ability to function with minimum conflict because it guarantees that justice will be served righteously and swiftly. Each individual has rights and liberties; the only thing stopping a person from exercising his/her rights and liberties uncontrollably (even to the point of negatively affecting the rights and liberties of others, including the right to live) is the law. There must be a higher power that all members of society subject themselves to, a deterrent that guarantees that each individual will uphold the social contract that allows for life in society.