From the birth of the nation at the time of the American Revolution (1775–83) until the early part of the twentieth century, the various parts of the American criminal justice system, including courts, policing, and prisons, gradually developed at the federal and state levels. These loosely coordinated segments of the criminal justice system have been responsible for apprehending, investigating, determining guilt, imposing sentences, and carrying out punishments of criminal offenders.
Prior to the American Revolution, no distinct American legal system existed. Each colony operated independently. Criminal codes, punishments, and courts varied from colony to colony. By the time of the Revolution, reformers wanted to establish a more unified and professional legal system. With the country’s founders crafting a constitution for the new nation, a unique opportunity was presented to not only provide uniformity, but also to make sure the colonists’ hard won liberties would not be lost to the new federal and state governments.
The U.S. Constitution gave the federal government specific powers. The founders believed that by limiting the powers of the government, individual liberties would be adequately protected. As the various states met to vote on adopting the drafted constitution, people demanded their liberties and protections in the criminal justice process be specifically listed. They feared that as the federal government grew over time, individual liberties would gradually disappear.
To ensure adoption of the hotly debated constitution, it was decided to draft a series of amendments that would spell out the protections for citizens. This document would consist of ten amendments and become known as the Bill of Rights. James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17), a key author of the constitution and later the fourth president of the United States, was an energetic campaigner for its adoption. He joined in writing the Bill of Rights. The first excerpt in this chapter is an address by Madison to the newly formed Congress on June 8, 1789, simply titled “Amendments to the Constitution.” Madison spells out what he envisioned the Bill of Rights should include.
The Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. One key element was the Eighth Amendment protecting citizens from cruel and unusual punishment. Incarceration was becoming the preferred method of punishment rather than public whippings or more brutal measures as branding, cutting off ears, and piercing tongues with hot irons. The growth of new prison systems in the early nineteenth century brought experiments in how inmates should be treated. One form of imprisonment emphasized total isolation. Inmates were placed alone in their cells, often with a Bible, to think about their crimes and hopefully decide to live their lives in a more socially productive manner.
While incarcerated for years, these inmates saw no one—including friends or relatives—and received no news from the outside world. The second excerpt is from a book, American Notes, written by world famous English author and social reformer Charles Dickens (1812–1870). It describes his travels to America in 1842 and his guided tour of the new Cherry Hill Prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dickens was shocked about what he observed and strongly urged change in American corrections.
Another key element of the criminal justice system, policing, slowly developed throughout the nineteenth century. Professional policing did not arrive in most major U.S. cities until the mid-1800s. Despite improvements, policing remained part of the local political process in towns and cities. As a result corruption was rampant and respect for law enforcement was low.
The introduction of Prohibition in 1919, making it a crime to sell, transport, or possess liquor, created a crime wave in the 1920s. Police agencies were overwhelmed and ineffective. By 1929 concern about the U.S. criminal justice system became a national issue for the first time. The third excerpt is a speech by former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham to the Cincinnati, Ohio, Regional Crime Committee on April 16, 1931, titled The Problem of Law Enforcement. Wickersham, who chaired a national commission that became the first comprehensive assessment of the U.S. criminal justice system, reviewed its findings.