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Difference Between Punishment and Penalty

By Mitchell Land ; Updated April 18, 2017
Social penalties have changed over the centuries.

Punishments and penalties can seem very alike. Both stem from wrongdoings or faults; however, punishments are typically consequences of misbehavior, while penalties stem from breach of a rule or law. Parents often struggle with punishing children or establishing firm penalties.

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Criminal Consequences

Criminals must endure consequences for crimes committed. A range of punishments and penalties exists for the realm of criminal acts. For instance, in many states, the most heinous crimes result in the death penalty. Jail time is a common punishment for criminals. Penalties generally refer to consequences for specific crimes, whereas punishment is considered as the group of consequences experienced by a convicted criminal.

Child Discipline

Disciplining children varies, depending on the child’s age and development. Verbal discipline does not work for infants who cannot fully comprehend the language, but tone goes a long way in teaching a child right and wrong. Children quickly learn the idea of punishment, so cause-and-effect is a solid tool in child discipline. Penalties can be established so a child knows exactly what the consequence will be for a specific wrongdoing.


Penalties are more prevalent in sports than general punishments are. Sports usually have specific rules, and breaking a rule typically has an exact penalty. In ice hockey, a minor penalty leads to any player but the goaltender to be "ruled off the ice for two minutes, during which time no substitute shall be permitted," states the New Jersey Youth Hockey League. Punishments in sports usually stem from athlete misconduct and a consequence handed down from a coach, team manager or league conference.

Punishment: Then and Now

Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king, believed in retaliation – “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Punishment practices have evolved since his rule from 1792 B.C. to 1750 B.C., and that era's Hammurabi's Code, one of the first recorded codes of law. Today, general social ideals prevent punishments from being too cruel and unusual. Justifying an act of punishment requires reference to rules, laws and regulations in place.

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About the Author

Residing in Bristol, Va., Mitchell Land began writing for various websites in 2010. He worked as a writing center tutor at Baylor School for three years, where he also contributed music reviews to "Baylor Notes." He attends Greensboro College in North Carolina and studies theater and French.

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