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In reference to law, “penal” is used primarily as a descriptive term relating to punishments or crimes. For example:

  • A penal code is a set of statutes that concern criminal offenses (e.g., California Penal Code, Texas Penal Code).
  • A penal institution is a place where people who have been convicted of committing criminal offenses are confined.
  • A penal action is an action brought for the purpose of imposing a penalty upon a defendant for committing a general wrong to the public.
  • Penal liability refers to liability that arises from criminal conduct.
  • Penal sanctions refer to punishments imposed on a defendant after a finding of guilt for a criminal act, for example, a fine.

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]