Criminal Law

What’s the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Law?

By Jessica Gillespie, Legal Researcher and Editor
Criminal law and civil law differ in several ways. One key distinction is that only criminal cases lead to jail time.

The theory behind criminal law is that the government needs to punish some kinds of behavior for the good of society. The general theory behind civil law, on the other hand, is that individuals should be made whole—often through monetary compensation—for wrongs committed against them.

Who Brings the Case

In a criminal cases, the state or federal government prosecutes someone who allegedly violated a law. Legislatures create the relevant laws—they define criminal offenses and specify the possible punishments for them. There are more criminal offenses than can be numbered; common crimes include theft, murder, and sexual assault. The potential penalty for many, if not most, crimes includes time in jail or prison.

Civil cases don’t carry the threat of incarceration. Money, rather than jail time, is usually what’s on the line. The plaintiff wants financial compensation (and/or, in some cases, equitable relief).

Civil cases can involve the government, but they often center on disputes between private parties (including corporations). Whereas in criminal law the government has to be the one to bring the case, in civil law any injured party can file a lawsuit. Types of civil litigation include defamation cases, landlord-tenant disputes, and wrongful death claims.

Possible Penalties

Again, the consequences differ depending on whether a case is in criminal or civil court. Convictions for crimes result in penalties imposed by the government—these can include fines paid to the state and mandatory treatment programs. For example, the sentence for a DUI might include time in jail, fines, license suspension, having to drive with an ignition interlock device, and counseling for alcohol abuse.

Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, don’t result in incarceration. Someone who is found liable in a civil lawsuit generally will be ordered to pay money directly to the plaintiff in order to make up for the harm done. For example, a care provider might have to pay a patient in order to compensate for treatment gone wrong.

Criminal Plus Civil

It’s possible for a single act to be both a crime and a tort. For instance, assault is a crime, but it’s also a violation of civil law. Someone who assaults another can be prosecuted for and convicted of the crime and sued by the victim for compensation for the injury.

Go to the main crime definitions FAQ page.

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