Crime and Punishment have existed since biblical times. Since the beginning essentially no laws were in existence, and the whirlwind of what society deemed as necessary has provided some significant historical impacts throughout the centuries. Crime has in essence, been the same although it has had some changes due to our technological advances, however punishment, nevertheless, has gone through many changes. Medieval times, of torture, and trials by ordeals transitioned to the Magna Carta, putting forth the earliest versions of the law. The Code of Hammurabi was placed into an early form of our Constitution; however, crime and punishment still were unruly. Fast forward to the days of the wild west to shifting to modern days of the controversial death penalty by lethal injection. Regardless, of centuries past we continue to find new ways, discover, test and conduct theories on what is in the best interest in determining what is cruel and unusual. The process of how we determine punishment based on crime has progressed, however, we still have a long way to go to find the middle ground where everyone is pleased.
The history of crime and punishment
While it has been almost impossible to find evidence where the historical roots of Crime and Punishment have begun, some may speculate that it has been around since biblical times, so for the purpose of this paper, I am going to use this as my starting point. From the beginning crime and punishment have always been hand and hand, for every crime, there is a punishment. “The law of retaliation (eye for an eye; Lex talionis) was the operative principle in most cases involving corporal punishment (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24: 19-22; Deuteronomy 19:21 ).” (Butler, 1991) From the first murder where Caine murdered his brother Able, the process of how punishment has evolved since biblical times, to our modern-day crime and punishment model is a roller coaster. Rape, murder, thieves among many other forms of crime is not new to mankind, these crimes have been around for centuries. Unfortunately, these crimes tend to stay and continue to grow as populations increase and other factors like poverty, mental health and technology continue to grow. Crime has essentially been the same from the beginning of time however punishment has progressed tremendously over time, bringing many important factors to our justice system today. Variances from the early days pertaining to the law of retaliation to; getting your hands cut off in medieval times, to being stoned to death due to committing adultery, to our modern times of the eighth amendment, to the death penalty we as a society continue to change the ways of punishments fitting to the crime.
Crime has always been a cement in our society, from the first murder in biblical times; where a sense of jealousy and anger took over Caine because Caine was furious that God, ideally looked upon Abel, for bringing better flocks to him. Caine was enraged with his brother and killed him. Crime has evolved in a way that criminals attempt to get smarter about the coverups, and stories they portray to get out of being a suspect. Punishment, however, has immensely advanced from the punishment of Caine and Able, where god, in the end, cursed Caine for the murder of his brother, to the modern times of the death penalty.
In earlier times, the punishments were very cruel, and there were creative techniques to punish people for their crimes. The middle ages were dark lawlessness times where punishment was taken into each individual's hand. Certain crimes were settled by victims of family members, and in return, this would cause generation-long blood feuds. Petty crimes compared to today were punishable by death. Women were stoned to death for adultery, hands were cut off for stealing, trials by ordeals were prevalent during the medieval times. Torture and unethical practices were a crucial role in the punishment process.
Trials by ordeals comprise of a group of men and members of the clergy. To prove innocence one form would be to place underwater for a moment usually about five minutes if you survived you were innocent if you drowned you were guilty. If you were a member of the church you might have the clergy on your side to lessen your punishment, but even then, you still may expire from the wounds or infections that may incur from the actual punishment like walking over hot coals. Ultimately you would have to do something dangerous and survive to prove your innocence. Trials at the gate was an added punishment system of medieval times. A monthly meeting of the village elders would decide if you were a good person, by interviewing other members of the village, this system led to the juror system of six to twelve members. Subsequently, King John signed into law the Magna Carta which was the earliest forms of structured law. “ The Magna Carta became a symbol of the rule of law as the ultimate sovereign” (Cartwright, 2018) This later contributed to the constitution.
Turn of the century
As I delved into my research, I stumbled upon insights from various Magna Carta essays, shedding light on its impact. The Magna Carta was a stepping stone, to the creation of a more reasonable punishment system. Fast forward to a century before the wild west, in the 1700s the code of Hammurabi was adopted. “ These 282 case laws include economic provisions (prices, tariffs, trade, and commerce), family law (marriage and divorce), as well as criminal law (assault, theft) and civil law (slavery, debt). Penalties varied according to the status of the offenders and the circumstances of the offenses.” (Augustyn et al., 2018) Principally this was the first written law of the justice system in which we still use today. Onward onto the colonial days when our early English settlers came to colonize the United States.
In the early colonial times were the Salem witch trials, which was a very dark time in our history. Women and men were accused of witchcraft and after trials, they deemed these crimes as punishable by death. Many of the accused were hung or burned in a public setting. Punishments, to crimes, were still brutal, then again not as brutal as that of medieval times. Times were still evolving, hangings happened often, however, whippings tended to be the flavor of the times. “Whipping, the most common form of punishment, generally attracted an audience. Whipping posts were located next to the courthouse so punishment could be carried out quickly following the trial. “ (Unknown)
As the United States grew so did the new forms of government. Adopted from Europe, Sir Robert Peele, introduced a modern policing system, to include watchmen and constables. Shortly thereafter the constitution was adopted, and new forms of government were being written into law, however America, still had a long way to go. In the days of the wild west and the settlers moving west, courts and the policing system were still in their early stages. Settlers moved west for the gold rush; however, courts and sheriffs were few and far in between cities, towns, and villages. Lawlessness was still present. Punishments were still brutal and wouldn't be justified in today's courts. Bank robbers ran rampant, as well as train robbers, punishments for outlaws if they were caught included death by any means. Slavery was still apart of society, prostitution was still legal, and guns seem to be the way of settling crimes. After the constitution was written, it took many years post, Magna Carta, Code of Hammurabi, Sir Robert Peele to create fairness of crime and punishment and many of these rules and laws we still use today.
With the creation of new laws for punishments, we as a society are still finding ways to create and agree upon a system that is justified and fair. Still, a century after the eight amendment commenced, “ Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” (Constitution) This created controversy in our modern times. Cruel and unusual punishment, some consider being in prison cruel, some consider the shu cruel, some consider unjustified punishments cruel and unusual however the biggest debate our modern times is the death penalty.
The death penalty came from the times of Hammurabi, “The first established death penalty laws date as far back as the Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, which codified the death penalty for 25 different crimes.” (Death Penalty Information Center, n.d.) The death penalty became the biggest debate of the eighth amendment. In the United States, we organized death by firing squad, death by electric chair or gas chambers. These methods were deemed cruel and unusual, a more humane way of death was introduced. Death by lethal injection, this was presented in Oklahoma, in the year 1977.
The states felt this was a more humane and less expensive way to execute prisoners. (Denno & Duignan, 2012) To this day the death penalty has been stalled, with the continued argument that this isn’t a justified punishment. Earlier this year Governor Gavin Newsom, put a pause on executions since there are so many death row inmates in litigation. As you can see even in our modern times, we as a society are continuing to evolve.
Since biblical times, to our modern times, the laws for crime and punishment have gone through a tremendous transformation. Looking back at all the different ways our society has gone through seems as though our ancestors were savages. Crimes essentially were and are in essence the same, they evolved through technological advances, however, punishment has had the principal change over time. Before our modern times, punishments were tortuous, evil, demeaning, extremely painful and death was often executed. Death was the fundamentals of the punishment system for centuries past. Over time, as laws were implanted the punishments, were rather fitting to the crimes. Punishments may have changed over time however they continue to bring the debate into our modern times.