What is the Penal Code?

N. Madison
N. Madison

The penal code is a set of laws, or codes, that list crimes and the punishments that may be given for them. A local jurisdiction, such as a state, may have a penal code that differs from that applicable in another state. Likewise, different countries typically have different penal codes, and some don't have any at all. Often, a jurisdiction publishes its penal code in book or other document form, numbering each code. This makes it easy for law enforcement officials, those who work in criminal justice, and even regular people to access the code when necessary.

Different countries often have different penal codes.
Different countries often have different penal codes.

Sometimes national and regional laws differ, but often, a country has the same types of laws as the regions within it. For example, a local region’s code may make selling drugs illegal, and national laws may prohibit it as well. In some cases, however, the penal code that applies depends on where the crime occurs. If a person sells drugs in a particular region, he may be prosecuted based on the region's laws. If he buys drugs in the region but then travels elsewhere to sell them, national laws may apply.

Different jurisdictions may have similar codes in common, though they are usually named or numbered differently. For example, California code 187 is murder. In Singapore, code 391 covers gang robbery. In New York, code 120.10 covers first degree assault. Other jurisdictions’ penal codes may cover the same crimes but assign them different numbers and punishments.

Sometimes, a jurisdiction must make changes to its criminal codes. For example, a law may be ruled unconstitutional or outdated, resulting in its removal. Some old laws may be kept but their punishments changed. A very old code, for instance, may list flogging as a punishment. If flogging is no longer an acceptable penalty, the legal code may be amended; new codes can be added as well.

An example of a questionable penal code may be Singapore code 377, which used to make certain types of sexual acts illegal. The Georgia penal code also lists some interesting laws. For example, Title 39, Chapter 2, Section 17 of the Georgia penal code makes it illegal to sell or give away a person under 12 for the purpose of rope walking, begging, or gymnastic pursuits. According to Georgia's codes, this crime is a misdemeanor. In some places, legal codes even make the use of certain words or phrases illegal.

N. Madison
N. Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments


@anon85219: Any actual crime that is committed can be prosecuted. And, in any case prosecuted, there is always the possibility of jailtime. Chances are, since this is your first offense, you will get what is called "time served" and not have to spend any time in jail.

However, depending on the judge (or his mood) you could do a few days in jail, but probably not. You might get probation or community service.

Let me make clear that I am not an attorney and am not giving legal advice. Just offering my opinion.


can you get jail time for a larceny misdemeanor of 175.00? It was my first offense. I have never had a ticket or been in trouble. I made a bad mistake in judgment. will I get a sentence for this? I just want to pay this off. I am a stay home mom. thanks.

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