Retributivism is a theory of criminal punishment which states that wrongdoers should be punished to cause suffering for the wrongdoer proportionate to the severity of their crime rather than to deter future crime or to rehabilitate them. In other words, society seeks retribution from the wrongdoer and punishes them according to the perceived wrongfulness of their actions. Proportionality of the punishment to the crime is an important aspect of retributivism. For example, capital punishment for a petty larceny would be considered to be a punishment that is not proportionate to the crime committed and as such does not serve the purposes of retributivism. 

Retributivist ideology has been around since the genesis of criminal punishment and has been seen throughout many ancient civilizations. The United States has partially adopted retributivism in the criminal justice system in the form of mandatory sentencing requirements.

Critics of retributivism claim that the theory fails to consider underlying factors that may have contributed to the wrongful act and therefore punishments that are not proportionate to the crime committed are frequently given. 

For additional information, see this article on Retributivism and Over-Punishment and this Virginia Law Review article. 

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]