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The History of Criminal Law

by Scott Grabel

criminal law The criminal law and criminal justice system have evolved over a period of thousands of years. From Pontius Pilate’s refusal to crucify Jesus Christ to the sensational Watergate trial of President Richard Nixon, criminal law has evolved significantly over the past 2,000 years. Tribalism established a commitment to one’s own tribe, land and friends while the introduction of feudalism developed a society that lacked the initial resource comfort provided by tribal communities. The era of Enlightenment uncovered a different method of thinking that sought to understand why people exhibited criminal behavior. The establishment of penal codes and a juvenile justice system during the 19th century changed the face of crime and the criminal justice system.

Criminal law during early times was the result of a shift from tribalism—loyalty to a tribe or friends—to feudalism—a societal structure focused on owning land in exchange for labor. In England during the 2nd century BC, the first jail appeared resulting from an increased use of trial and grand jury systems. Royalty established jails to house individuals retained for criminal violations. Early jailing systems allowed commoners to observe and taunt offenders. In addition, necessities, such as food or clothing, required payment from the offender; if they could not afford these items, they went without them.

The decline of feudalism led to a revision of the justice system during the 16th and 17th centuries. Criminal justice authorities moved to punish the accused by locking up offenders and forcing them into labor. Despite the difficult conditions, jailers and authorities sought to incorporate rehabilitative methods by delivering the skills necessary to obtain work through forced labor. This would hopefully change an accused person’s situation.

  • England’s increase in merchant activity led to the resolving of disputes using a criminal charge process.
  • Gallery slavery involved the gathering of vagrants and thieves from the streets and the forcing of individuals into lifetime servitude.

The United States owes much of its early legal processes to England. The Enlightenment—a major intellectual movement—spurred change in how people examined human behavior. During the late 18th century, what we consider classic criminological theory fully developed. In the United States, colonists used religion as a foundation for understanding crime. In addition, slavery contributed significantly to the evolution of criminal law.

Corporal punishments were prominent, although people began implementing punishments that “fit the crime.” Democracy and capitalism increased and the economic statuses and demographics of everyday citizens began to change, as America became its own country. In addition, the church and religion began to have less informal control over how citizens conducted their lives. Consequently, the introduction of a new criminal system was required.

  • Police forces for the new republic were not created during the Constitutional Convention in Pennsylvania in 1787.
  • Colonists treated crime as sin, but this changed when the new republic came about.

From the mid-19th century to the late 19th century in the United States, the justice system evolved using established legal codes and practices. Jim Crow laws established a method to reconcile slavery of the past. The country began to rely significantly on criminal justice procedures. Today, more than six million people have received rehabilitative measures, including incarceration, for crimes, including petty theft, drug abuse and murder. Today’s “war on drugs” causes the incarceration of juveniles and adults alike. Criminal justice professionals insist that incarceration will not change drug behavior. Today, citizens and criminal justice specialists consider the benefits of a criminal justice system that does not include a punitive component for specific types of crime.

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