History of the Criminal Justice Profession

A study into the history of criminal justice is both long and colorful with some of the earliest recordings from the Greek and Roman times that made criminal justice a family matter. If someone did another individual wrong, it was not the government’s role to step in, but rather it was left up to the victim’s family to decide the punishment of the offender. In many times, a private war might break out where the punishment became more severe than the criminal act itself.

  • Criminal justice in the Middle Ages was often handled by blood feuds, where a vendetta of violence was immediately carried out against the offender and his family, and where the feud would go back and forth between parties, eclipsing even the violence of the original crime. For lesser criminal acts, a form of payment retribution to the victim or to the victim’s family was very common. When the offender could not pay his way, corporal punishment was introduced that included everything from mutilation, to a whipping or flogging, to some form of branding, and even death in some cases. State-administered criminal justice, when enacted, usually took the form of banishment or the exiling of the offender to an island or territory at the edge of the empire. Prison incarceration was not widely used until much later into the nineteenth century.
  • The history of criminal justice in the United States begins during its colonial era that relied upon the English form of justice in the “common law” system. Common Law relied on “precedent” where the law was derived from a judge’s decision in court. The underlying premise to common law is that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions (i.e., precedence of how a law was interpreted in a past case is used to render a decision in the present case). The common law system provided colonial America with a set of guidelines or laws in which to administer criminal justice.
  • History of the Criminal Justice Profession
  • This system also separated criminal acts into two classes, known as “felonies” and “misdemeanors.” The definition for a felony was any serious crime that involved a penalty to the offender’s lands and possessions. All other crimes fell into the category of misdemeanors, where the punishment generally meant a monetary payment. Today, the United States uses the term “felon” to define any crime that is punishable by death or imprisonment of over one year, whereas the term “misdemeanor” is used to imply a jail sentence of less than one year or when a monetary fine is imposed.
  • At the time of colonial America, there were very few lawyers that could be called upon to translate the law with any amount of certainty, thereby allowing many creative explanations or interpretations for the common law system. Criminal justice in the colonies was in fact insufficient to handle much of the early American crime due largely to the unevenness in applying punishments, combined with a lack of law education on the part of those individuals that were given the task of law interpretation.
  • As America went from a group of individual colonies to a series of united states, the criminal justice system took on a much more sophisticated role in protecting society. Law enforcement became one of being a multi-tier and intertwined group of organizations, with local community enforcement overseen by a state government enforcement that was overshadowed on a broader, national scale by the federal government law enforcement.

Today, an individual can work on any one of the three tier levels of the United States criminal justice system. Those seeking to get a Criminal Justice degree have the opportunity to specialize as an investigator, as a protector, as an enforcer, and as one that administers justice in the courtroom. Planning a career in criminal justice means a freedom of choice to work in your hometown, or state, or perform on a much larger stage at the federal level of law enforcement.

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