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Substantive criminal law is interpreted through a body of rules that dictate what a crime is and how punishment for a crime is administered. Learn more about it in this lesson.

What Is Criminal Law?

Two types of criminal law make up the U.S.

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criminal justice system. Substantive criminal law defines those crimes and the punishments for those crimes. Procedural criminal law are the actual procedures at work to investigate and prosecute criminal behavior.Nowadays, substantive criminal law is based on tweaking older past laws, enacting new laws as new criminal activity emerges, and abolishing unnecessary laws.

The history of substantive law is long.

The Development of Substantive Law

Can you believe criminal law dates back thousands of years ago? It might not seem that back then there would be a need for a sophisticated criminal legal system, but history tells us differently.The Code of Hammurabi showed why the people needed a substantive and procedural set of rules for dealing with criminal behavior. Under the rule of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who ruled from 1792 BCE-1750 BCE, a justice system that enforced an eye for an eye style of punishment was the order of the day. In an eye for an eye judicial system, a collection of some nearly 300 rules, the victim’s class determined the severity of the crime and its punishment. The lower the class, the more severe the punishment.

Here are a few examples:

  • If a son strikes his father, his hands shall be cut off
  • If a female tavern-owner refuses to accept corn in exchange for a drink but accepts money and the price for the drink is less than what the corn would have been worth, the tavern-owner would be thrown in the water (drowned)
  • If a slave who denied being the possession of his owner was convicted, he would lose an ear

While some punishments were downright cruel, others were simply unfair. Because of this, the people needed a fair and impartial way of dealing with lawbreakers. This is where substantive criminal law changed the game.

Substantive criminal law is the body of laws that determines what is a crime and what is fair punishment for said crime.

Substantive Criminal Law Today

Substantive law deals with the substance or the elements of the behavior that either makes something a crime or not. For every alleged criminal action, there are specific elements that must be present. For example, for a person to be charged with burglary, the following three events must be:

  1. Unlawful breaking and entering,
  2. Into a structure
  3. With the intention to commit a crime

Without all three elements, the behavior may not be considered burglary, and a jury may determine that no crime has been committed.

It is important to mention that different states or jurisdictions may have different elements. There is no one set of elements for every crime or for every jurisdiction.To modernize an example of criminal behavior from Hammurabi’s code, a man who strikes his father – or anyone else for that matter – would have an opportunity to defend his actions and even plea-bargain his way out of a sentence. But under no circumstances would he lose as much as a fingernail for the crime.

In fact, in California, the court would have to prove:

  1. Defendant touched with the intent to cause harm
  2. Plaintiff did not want to be touched
  3. The defendant harmed the Plaintiff
  4. A reasonable person would have been offended by the touch

Then, based on the substance of the crime, the court determines the severity of the crime and decides the punishment. In California, for instance, a simple assault may only carry a fine and several months in jail. That’s a far cry from lopping a defendant’s hands off.

The Link to Procedural Criminal Law

One cannot fully understand substantive criminal law without a brief explanation to connect procedural criminal law.

Once a person is charged with a crime, unlike the Hammurabi days, people are now protected by the Bill of Rights. An accused person can rest knowing that he will be treated fairly. The Bill of Rights ensures that the people are treated fairly in criminal cases.Some rights include:

  • Right to a fair trial
  • Right to legal council
  • Right to due process
  • Protection against illegal searches and seizures

In the end, our modern justice system provides two ways in which criminal behavior is defined and punished and rights to citizens who find themselves on the wrong end of the law.

Lesson Summary

Substantive criminal law is actually the substance of the crime. In other words, it is the elements that define a crime and the punishment for said crime.

Each state or jurisdiction may have different elements, but there are specific elements for each possible crime. There are also specific punishments for each crime, and they are based on a set of laws. This, along with procedural criminal law, ensures that any person accused of a crime is treated equally. Procedural criminal law safeguards the rights of the accused in terms of fair trial, due process, and unlawful search and seizure among other rights.

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