7.1. A Brief History of Punishment

David Carter and Kate McLean

A Brief History of Punishment

The importance of feeling safe and secure in person, and in home is arguably one of the top themes in political discourse today. “Fear of crime” influences how we think and act day-to-day – as well as whom we vote for, and what policies we support. It has also caused great fluctuations in the United States with regards to how we punish people who are convicted of violating the law. In part, punishment comes from the will of the people, which is then carried out through the legislative process, and converted into sentencing practices. Citizens have differing views on why offenders should be punished, and how much punishment they should receive. Such correctional ideologies, or philosophical underpinnings of punishment, have been emerged throughout history, and are not unique to the United States. The next several sections will expand upon some of the most influential philosophies of punishment introduced in Part 6, including retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.

Think About It: One of the most frequently-cited statistics in the media is the U.S. homicide rate.  Often, you will hear about the number of homicides in a state, or a city for a particular year. An interesting clarification regarding this number: it typically does not include a number of deaths that occur in prison.

Given that over 2 million individuals are incarcerated, on any given day, in the United States, deaths in prison (and jail) are common – yet these are not normally counted in any widely-published statistic. In 2019, there were approximately 4,324 deaths that occurred in prisons in the United States – including 311 suicides, 253 overdoses, and 143 homicides. In fact, this was the highest number of homicides recorded in the history of reporting (19 years). Why do you think prison homicides have increased over time?

It should be noted that the “Mortality in State and Federal Prisons” reporting system is voluntary, and so it may not actually capture all deaths that occur in prison. Find out more here: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=243


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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