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History of Crime & Punishment | How Criminology Has Evolved

Posted on 2020-04-08

Crime has existed since the dawn of time, but the ways in which humanity has dealt with it has evolved. Sometimes it's a direct reflection of our priorities, and other times, it's an example of our humanity at play. But the evolution of crime and punishment says a lot about how humanity has grown and evolved, as well. 

It's led to the development of modern criminology, a respected social science with the aim to prevent crime by learning why and how it occurs. 

So, when did crime and punishment start? How has it changed over the centuries? What factors lead people to commit crimes? In this guide, we'll answer all these questions and discuss the historical background of punishment — from the inhumane to the ethical.

the history of crime and punishment

What Is the History of Crime and Punishment?

From the beginning of time, humans have seen revenge as a valid form of punishment. History tells us that punishments were often doled out by the victim of a crime as revenge or payback. 

Often, the punishment did not match the crime and was too severe, which resulted in the criminal taking on a new role as the victim — and probably seeking revenge of their own. It was a vicious cycle that led to many blood feuds among families — like the Montagues and the Capulets in "Romeo and Juliet."

person in handcuffs

What Is the History of Punishment?

Eventually, people realized that having families constantly seeking revenge on each other wasn't a productive way to live, so laws and rules regarding crime and punishment were established.

These new laws were designed so that the punishment matched the crime, even though more often than not, the punishment was still inflicted by the victim as a form of revenge. The Code of Hammurabi became one of the first legal codes to be established, and modern criminal justice is still influenced by it.

Hammurabi and the Laws of Retribution

Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who ruled from 1792 until 1750 B.C.E. The Code of Hammurabi was a set of legal precedents for different types of crimes and disputes, ranging from family law to contracts and major crimes — this is one of the earliest examples of the "innocent until proven guilty" adage that we still follow today. 

The Code of Hammurabi included specific punishments based on the criminal's age, social class and gender. For example, if a rich man was found guilty of stealing, he would be charged a higher fine than if a slave was found guilty of stealing. Alternately, the punishment for killing a rich person would be far more severe than for killing a slave.

the code of Hammurabi

But the punishments weren't always as logical as the laws themselves. The punishments could be extremely gruesome and cruel since they relied heavily upon the laws of retribution, or "an eye for an eye." So, if a man broke his colleague's leg, then his punishment would be to have his own leg broken. The punishments could end up being as severe as mutilation, dismemberment or even violent death.

Plato and Aristotle

Early philosophers play a major role in how we look at crime and punishment today. They also help us understand why crime and punishment are important. They helped humanity understand that the reason for committing a crime can have an impact on how severe a punishment should be.

Plato and Aristotle, in particular, are responsible for our understanding of the relationship between crime and punishment today. These two philosophers helped us understand why it's equally important to uncover why a person commits a crime as it is to ensure others don't commit the same crime. They also pointed out that the two are often closely related, as well:

  • Plato: Plato claimed that a major reason why people commit crimes was because of a lack of education and wealth. People who lived in poverty and who were uneducated — probably because they couldn't afford to get an education — were more likely to commit crimes, often just to survive. Plato believed that crimes should be punished, of course, but the punishment should reflect the degree of fault rather than the severity of the crime. For example, if a man was caught stealing bread to feed his starving family, he should receive a lesser punishment than a man who steals bread for himself.
  • Aristotle: Meanwhile, Aristotle was explaining that punishments and responses to crime should be used as an opportunity to prevent others from committing crimes. He believed that when criminals receive punishment, it should be severe enough that it warns the rest of society to not commit the same crime while also reminding the criminal to not commit a crime again.

Plato and Aristotle

Roman Law and Secularism

The Romans were the first people to look at crime and punishment as a purely human trait. Historical crime and punishment commonly claimed that punishing a criminal was "doing God's work" and that committing a crime was the same as sinning. 

But the Romans saw crime as an insult to society as a whole, and Roman Law was established to bring order to society. Roman Law was less concerned about pleasing religious deities and more concerned with ensuring society was safe, orderly and fair. 

Many of the basics of Roman Law are still practiced in modern civil law and criminal justice in the 21st century.

Middle Ages and Christianity

The evolution of crime and punishment took a few steps backward in the Middle Ages when the rise of Christianity made it closely linked to religion again. This meant, once again, crimes were considered to be acts against God, and punishments for these crimes were God's work.

The punishments were still cruel, severe and often inhumane, because they were designed to rid the criminal of the devil's influence. Historical crime and punishment were violent and gory, including a type of punishment designated for situations in which a person's guilt was unclear. 

In a "trial by ordeal," a person would be put into a life-threatening situation, and their survival would reveal whether they were guilty or innocent. 

Knights on horseback

St. Thomas Aquinas

It wasn't until St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his "Summa Theologica," a treatise on law, crime and punishment, that the history of punishment started turning towards secularism. Aquinas explained that there was a God-given "natural law" that existed and that humans were naturally designed to do good. 

When a human committed a crime, Aquinas believed it was both an affront on God as well as society. He claimed that crimes negatively impacted both the victims and the criminals. The victim was negatively impacted because they were the victim of a crime, but the criminal was to be pitied because, by committing a crime, they were moving further away from God and losing their humanness.

It was Aquinas and his compassionate take on punishments that helped create modern laws.

Cesare Beccaria and Secularism

Secularism has popped up and disappeared several times throughout the history of crime and punishment. But the eventual separation of church and state brought around a new way of thinking about crime and punishment — a way that stuck. 

Italian writer Cesare Beccaria wrote a book — called "On Crime and Punishment" — in which he stated that punishments should match the severity of a crime and that it should be a way to scare others from committing crimes. 

statue of Italian writer Cesare Beccaria

This isn't a new idea, of course, but it caught the attention of many, since Beccaria also stated that it was more important to prevent crime than to punish it. He also believed that there should be laws and rules in place that everyone must follow when it comes to doling out punishments. He believed that judges should only be allowed to decide if a person was guilty or innocent and that any punishments that needed to be given should be picked from a pre-approved list.

This meant that judges couldn't simply make up whatever punishment they wanted for a guilty criminal. They now had to follow the legislature that specifically stated what the punishment for certain crimes would be, which made it impossible for any judges who still enjoyed cruel and unusual punishment to torture people.

How Did Criminology Start?

Criminology is the study of crime, including how and why it occurs. It has existed in one form or another for thousands of years, but it's only recently been named and recognized as a legitimate science. 

The timeline of criminology as a practice dates back to the 1700s and 1800s in Europe. At that time, theorists and writers who studied crime and punishment through time made it clear that they believed every person had free will, so when they committed a crime, they were acting on their behalf. The punishment for these crimes should be reflective of the severity of the crime itself and should be used as a way to deter others from committing crimes. 

Criminology, as we understand it today, is a branch of sociology. Sociologists study individuals by examining their behavior and environment to understand why they do the things they do. When that method is applied specifically to crime and criminals alone, it becomes criminology, which was acknowledged as an official branch of sociology around the late 19th century.

evolution of criminology

The Evolution of Criminology

How has crime and punishment changed over time? What is the history of punishment? Why are crime and punishment essential? These and many more are questions that criminology tries to answer. 

In the early days of criminology, theorists aimed to establish ways to punish crimes without being inhumane or cruel. Torture as punishment was rampant throughout history in some form or another, and the early criminologists believed that torture was wrong. They wanted to find new consequences that fit the severity of the crime while still being humane.

Adolphe Quetelet and Crime Statistics

Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet was one of the very first people to study crime statistics, which were first published in 1872. The statistics were for France, where Quelelet lived as an adult, and they helped establish the foundations of criminology. 

Quetelet was able to find commonalities among the criminals, which helped him come up with some ideas of why certain places have higher crime rates than others. He also established the likelihood of crimes based on gender, age and class status.

He found that young men who were uneducated, unemployed and financially insecure were most likely to become criminals. He also discovered that most crimes took place in wealthy neighborhoods that were close to impoverished ones, suggesting that the people from impoverished neighborhoods would go to the wealthy ones to commit crimes. 

The statistics also showed that people who lived in generally low-income areas that weren't next to extremely wealthy areas had little crime, suggesting that people were less likely to turn to crime so long as they could provide themselves and their families with the basics without unintentionally being compared to the very rich.

Quetelet concluded that an increase in moral education was needed, which meant breaking down some of the social conditions that pitted people against each other in favor of an equal society in which no one went without.

Cesare Lombroso and Criminal Characteristics

In the same vein as Quetelet was Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso, who studied the psychological and biological characteristics of criminals. He concluded that there was a hereditary trait that increased the likelihood of a person committing a crime. He also believed that people who committed crimes were less evolved than others, and the act of committing a crime was a reflection on a person's moral character.

Lombroso also discovered that even though educated people were less likely to commit crimes, the crimes committed by educated people were far more gruesome. He concluded that a lack of education wasn't necessarily a big factor in preventing crime.

Cesare Lombroso

His theories on how biology impacts the potential to commit crimes greatly influenced modern criminology. Biology and environment are considered two of the staples of criminology today, and criminologists assist governments and law enforcement by studying biological, psychological and environmental characteristics of criminals to provide advice on legal policies. 

How Has Crime and Punishment Changed Today?

The biggest change in how we deal with crimes and criminals today is in the types of punishments that are legally allowed. We no longer punish criminals as an act of revenge, and we have, thankfully, done away with torturous punishments, designed to humiliate and inflict pain. Instead, we now focus more on responding to crime with reform. 

gavel in front of bookshelf

We also don't have public punishments anymore — while public executions and floggings used to be typical, we now understand that those punishments were less for the sake of rehabilitation and more a way to publicly humiliate a person. Eventually, punishments for crimes became less public and more private.

The Rise of Prisons

Before the 18th century, prisons were mostly used to hold prisoners before their trial or before their public corporal punishment. They weren't considered to be very good at deterring criminals from becoming repeat offenders or a legitimate way to punish a person.

However, as lawmakers began to outlaw public punishments, prisons started to become popular. As a result, 18th-century prisons were extremely overcrowded. Prisoners would often fall ill and die because they were crammed together in small, filthy spaces.

Prison overcrowding was so bad that Britain began banishing criminals to isolated lands, like Australia and the Americas. Plus, prisoners were not separated by crime or even by gender — so a murderer and a petty thief were thrown into the same room with hundreds of other criminals without a second thought. 

Corrupt jailers and a lack of staff to help keep the prison safe and secure made for even worse circumstances — and many times, people would stay in prison for longer than their sentence because they couldn't afford to pay the jailers to let them out.

People began suggesting the need for prison reform, but it wasn't until the 19th century that it truly began.

How Did Prisons Change in the 19th Century?

The 19th century saw prison reform in the way of individual cells. Advocates like Elizabeth Fry worked to improve the conditions for women in prison and took it upon herself to teach imprisoned women certain skills.

Men's prisons often had cruel practices, such as forcing prisoners to remain isolated — not even allowed to talk, in some cases — and inactive. Corporal punishment, like flogging, was still the norm, just done inside prison walls now — this resulted in many prisoners killing themselves, supporting Fry's claim that prisons were inhumane and uncivilized. 

19th century man in isolation

She advocated for improvements for the lives of prisoners and helped change society's attitude about prisons and prisoners — mainly that prisoner rehabilitation was a better use of taxes.

How Did Prisons Change Over Time?

From the early 20th century through today, prisons have changed and been improved as we become more and more aware of how humanity functions. The cruel and unusual punishments that still hung around in prisons in the 19th century began to be phased out, once it was understood that they were ineffective. 

Instead, we now focus more on rehabilitation and reform. Improvements in the prison system include better food, sanitary conditions and the opportunity for inmates to take classes and learn useful trade skills they can use once freed. Instead of focusing on how to punish people for crimes they've committed, we now work to understand what led them to commit the crime and find ways to prevent others from following similar paths.

We also have started to understand the importance of prison as a place in which to rehabilitate the person, so they can return to society with new skills and education that may not have been available to them before. 

Visit the Crime and Punishment Museum at Volo

Knowing the historical background of crime and punishment and the evolving timeline of criminology allows us to change how we treat our fellow humans. Some people believe that prisons are no longer a good way to deter crime or to rehabilitate prisoners. Some believe that prisons are too comfortable to be adequate punishment. 

Bonnie and Clyde car shot up

Perhaps these people have forgotten the days when chopping off tongues or stretching limbs until they dislocate was the norm for petty crime. The Crime and Punishment Exhibit at the Volo Auto Museum hasn't forgotten. Check out the haunting and macabre history of crime and punishment — or if that's too scary for you, explore one of our other 38 exhibits, featuring cars and props from history and entertainment.

Spend a whole day at our 35-acre museum, which also features a pizza parlor and mini theaters. You can even check out some of our special events and attractions. 

For more information about the museum or Volo Museum Auto Sales, call 815-385-3644.


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