Throughout the 19th century, the criminal justice system in America and beyond began to evolve into a structure that more closely resembles the institution today. Prior to this period the criminal justice system was composed of laws based on moral commandments, social precedents and arbitrary punishments. The reform movement of the 1800s brought new outlooks on criminal acts and launched new methods of punishment that humanized and rationalized the criminal justice system.
The ancient criminal justice system existed as codes of law that were written copies of moral and social precedents carved into stone or clay tablets and displayed in public areas. In 1750 B.C. the Babylonian king Hammurabi had his code of law and means of punishment engraved into a large stone tablet topped with an image depicting God handing him the law. Ancient codes of law did not rely on rational or scientific detention to determine if the accused had committed the crime. Babylonians believed the river would be the judge of the crime and tested their power by throwing the accused individual into the Tigris or Euphrates river. If they could swim they were free however if they drowned they were guilty.
Along with the irrational means of conviction came harsh punishments that ignored the degree to which they matched the crime. In the Justinian code of Roman law there is an excellent example of the amplification of sentencing that declares “anyone who composes a libellous song to the injury of another” or some other form of publically ridiculing another would be banished to “an island by the authority of a Decree of the Senate”. This declaration is representative of most sentences of ancient codes of laws and further into history, although many verdicts of this period were dropped to show the government’s clemency.
Many ancient laws were punished with physical punishments such as the infamous Babylonian law “an eye for an eye” that specified if a man lost his eye by the hand of another, he could then remove the perpetrators eye. A major contributor to the use of physical punishment was the notion of honor that existed in many cultures. In the middle ages of Europe, men carried weapons that were used as tools in daily life. Knives served a dual purpose as a utensil to eat and a means of defending one’s honor. Honor was also tarnished by the use of shaming as a form of reprimanding in the middle ages of Europe and the Colonial Era. Devices like “the pillory” immobilized criminals by locking in their hands and head into an apparatus in a public place where spectators could chastise the captives.
Many of the forms of punishment did not consider prevention or rehabilitations as resources to combat criminal behavior. The use of branding shows the doubts in rehabilitation. By branding the individual with a “T” for thief, they were declared a criminal for life. The filthy, disease ridden jails were not used in rehabilitation but as houses of holding to keep the alleged...