The History & Development of the U.S. Criminal Justice System

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  • 0:02 Early Criminal Justice…
  • 2:51 The History of Police…
  • 4:36 The History of Courts…
  • 5:44 The History of…
  • 7:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sherri Hartzell

Sherri has taught college business and communication courses. She also holds three degrees including communications, business, educational leadership/technology.

This lesson describes the development of the criminal justice system in the U.S. Specifically, you will learn how each of the three areas of the criminal justice system (police, courts, and corrections) developed into the institutions they are today.

Early Criminal Justice in the U.S.

Could you imagine what it would be like living in a society without any formalized rules or laws to guide behavior and protect us from criminal activity? Well, that is exactly what it was like for early Americans during the colonial period. It was a time where Americans were figuring out how to coexist in this new land. Of course, much of who the first Americans were was carried with them when they made the voyage over, but not all things were the same and many, many things changed as America progressed.

Our modern system of criminal justice is the result of several evolutionary changes that society has undergone since the inception of the United States. Over the years, Americans have developed mechanisms that institute and enforce the rules of society as well as assign responsibility and punish offenders. Today, those functions are carried out by the police, the courts, and corrections. The early beginnings of the criminal justice system in the United States lacked this structure.

In fact, before formal rules, laws, and institutions were established in the United States, Americans relied on religion and sin as a means of shaping society and its behaviors. Many colonial crime codes were defined in biblical terms, making offenses such as profanity, blasphemy, and sacrileges of the Sabbath highly punishable. Punishments such as dunking, stoning, and whipping were designed to humiliate the offender and ultimately lead towards their repentance. Ironically, we still see this desire to make offenders remorseful for their criminal acts but more so for the victims of crime than to a higher power.

As American society expanded, both in population and location, the use of religion to guide criminal justice became less frequent. Now the law was shaped to uphold values of morality, which were a more common concern for a larger number of Americans during this time rather than religion. This change led to more laws and more violations, which is again another trend we still see today. Many believe this trend is because laws of morality are less internalized than laws of religion, making them less effective at shaping acceptable behavior. Put another way, historically speaking, God's law is far more effective at shaping acceptable behavior than the police, courts, and corrections are.

Whether right or wrong, effective or ineffective, these events are what have shaped the contemporary criminal justice system of the United States. The progression from small, religiously similar towns to large diverse cities where religion and cultural customs were vast, forever changed the landscape of the criminal justice system, creating a need for formalized police, courts, and corrections.

The History of Police in the U.S.

Early forms of policing in the United States were informal and communal. Rather than having paid professionals in uniforms enforcing the law, volunteers from the community would take watch to warn others of impending danger. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were some of the first towns to implement the night watchmen. These night watches often failed because the watchmen were poorly paid, if they were paid at all, poorly supervised, and often fell asleep or were drunk during their shifts. Those who could afford private protection would hire individuals to watch over their homes, but for the vast majority, this was not an option. Ironically, this same system was tried in England and also failed, but I guess the U.S. needed to learn from their own mistakes - not those of the English!

It was not until 1838, well after the American Revolution and a series of riots, a day watchmen was created in Boston to supplement the night watch. Unfortunately, these were two separate agencies and rivalry brought out the worst in these two groups. New York wanted to avoid this disaster, and in 1845, they created the New York Police Department, whereby unifying the night and day watchers into one unit. For the first time, police were considered separate from citizens and received a salary and a uniform. Many cities quickly followed suit in creating their own police organizations including: Chicago in 1851, New Orleans in 1852, Cincinnati in 1852, Philadelphia in 1855, Newark in 1857, and Baltimore in 1857. By 1900, almost every U.S. city, regardless of size, established a full-time police force.

History of the Courts in the U.S.

The history of the United States court system can be found by looking at the U.S. Constitution. Before the United States was founded, each colony had its own court system. The Constitution allowed states to retain certain powers, including the powers to create, enforce, and apply laws. Because crime and sin were considered related during the colonial times, punishment for things such as stealing and sacrilege was extremely severe. Even death was considered an acceptable punishment for the previously mentioned crimes. Fines and imprisonment were often used if a person failed to, say, attend church.

During the American Revolution, courts were often used to fight English-imposed laws that were considered to be unjust. Juries were used to assess the legitimacy of any law rather than addressing illegal acts. Once the United States was founded in the late eighteenth century, there was an influx of immigrants, significant population growth, and rapid urbanization, which required more courts that specialized in certain tasks. Thus the federal and state court systems were born.

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