Gavel and Balance

History Of Criminal Law

Gavel and balanceMankind has always sought to define and create structure in society. One way that they have done this is through criminal law. Addressing this, a well-known legal expert said many centuries ago about individuals who were not under a written law code that “they are a law to themselves.” In essence what he was saying is that even in the absence of a written law, people are driven to create laws that regulate their behavior and that of others.  This is also found today in the criminal system with the structure of the legal system including arrests, bail, and parole.

The first example of a written criminal law code dates back to between 2100–2050 B.C. There are earlier examples of civil law, but this is the first time when a clear distinction between laws pertaining to criminal activities and laws pertaining to civil matters was made.

Roots Back to Europe

An early example of written criminal law in Europe can be found just after the Normandy invasion by William the Conqueror, which took place in 1066 A.D. Since that time Europe has continually refined and redefined what criminal law is. By the 18th century, specific courts were in place to try criminals accused of crimes. As the criminal system in Europe evolved, common law began to take hold. Common law is a mixture of both criminal law and civil matters, and it is a long code that is constantly being revised as judges make decisions on matters and those decisions become precedent and set the basis for determining future court proceedings.

As Europeans traveled to the Americas, they brought with them the British Common Law. However, after the Revolutionary War, the United State’s Constitution dictated both civil and criminal law within the country. An important aspect of the U.S. Constitution was the creation of the judicial branch of government.

Judicial Branch in the US

The idea of the judicial branch of government was similar to what was seen in Europe. Decisions made by the judiciary branch of government in the United States of America set the precedent for future decisions on similar cases. Additionally, the law code in the United States can be revised and rules can be set that reflect the opinions and desires of modern society.

The US law code determines what is and what is not a criminal offense, and it also stipulates the punishments that each criminal offense will incur. Criminal activities can be divided into three categories. They are misdemeanors, felonies, or treason.

A misdemeanor is a relatively minor offense that usually results in the offender receiving a fine, losing property, or serving a jail sentence of less than one year. Felonies, which include things like extortion, acts of violence towards others, the sale and distribution of controlled substances, or more serious crimes, will result in prison sentences of one year or more. In some states, serious felonies can result in the death penalty. Treason is the most serious of all crimes. In many places, treason will result in the death sentence or extended prison sentences.

In the United States an individual is innocent until they are proven guilty. This may mean that they are accused of a crime and still have their freedom. Bail bonds are used as a way of guaranteeing that an individual who has been accused of a crime will not flee the country before they can face their day in court.

The criminal law code of the United States is a living, breathing thing. It is flexible and can be changed to meet the feelings and moral values of the people living at a particular time. As with all criminal law codes, the criminal law code in the United States has at its core the desire to protect victims and to punish individuals who willingly and intentionally cause harm to others.

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