Criminal Justice History

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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 verdict...

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...ntrol of the department, mass corruption erupted in the city. The “Jacksonian” era created a procedure that allowed individuals a chance to be rewarded with a position as an officer after helping a politician win a campaign. Often policemen were paid a bribe to ignore criminal acts committed by gangs or brothels. The payoffs were distributed throughout the department hierarchy and many crimes went unpunished.

The 19th century reform movement made a valuable impact on the future of the criminal justice system by rationalizing laws, civilizing punishments, and introducing prevention and rehabilitation. Nevertheless many of the developments had design flaws and were altered to accommodate growing needs. Today many problems still exist within the criminal justice system and reformers are still making efforts to reduce crime and improve rehabilitation.

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