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Criminal Sentencing in America

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Criminal Sentencing in America

To understand criminal sentencing in America we must first understand the basis of our legal system. The laws and legal procedures which our criminal justice system is based can be traced back to ancient Rome. Written laws and punishment for crimes are noted in many ancient documents from all over the world. The Ten Commandments, the codes of Hammurabi and the writings of Confucius, all list conduct which is forbidden. These same documents also describe the punishment which should be inflicted upon the person who violates these acts against God or man.


To begin with, the Roman legal system became the basis for English common law. Black’s describes common law as “A body of law which is based on custom and general principles and that, embodied in case law, serves as precedent or is applied to situations not covered by statute” (Black, 1991). The United States is a common law country, with the exception of Louisiana, which has its legal system based on the French civil code. Common law is adopted as general law except when statute provides otherwise. Sentences for minor crimes under common law in the 1500‘s included, boiling in oil, drawing and quartering, public beheading and numerous other brutal punishments for small infractions. Under the rule of King Henry VIII the punishment for speaking negatively against a member of the nobility was to publicly have the offenders eyes burned out with red hot pokers.


When the English settlers came to the new world, and established colonies in what would later become the United States, they continued to practice English common law. In colonial America there were over two hundred crimes for which a person could be sentenced to death. As the colonies continued to grow, common law remained the basis of their legal system. In ...

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