Punishment in America and Its Historical Evolution


For a functioning society, the people that comprise it must obey sets of explicit and implicit rules. The various existent laws are therefore aimed at protecting peace in the society, such as by protecting people’s property rights and personal security, and to create communities that are efficient and well-ordered. Therefore, when people break these laws, it is only logical that they must get punished. Throughout the years of history, the views on the type and aim of this punishment have changed tremendously. These views range from the support for the death penalty to the belief in reformation. Although there has been a shift in the recent years towards more lenient punishments, there are still local and individual differences in perspective, mainly expressed in the punishment laws.

History of Punishment in the US

When the US was established as an independent country in 1776, there was an overwhelming dislike of the British – hence the Americans striving for independence. Nevertheless, many of the laws, traditions, and values were inevitably influenced by the British. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (“The Justice System,” 2021), most of the US punitive laws, although not unified throughout the country, focus on helping the victims. In the past, corporal and capital punishments dominated the punitive structures of the West (Wodahl & Garland, 2009), which were often public and served as entertainment for the masses, as well as a scare tactic. However, over time the capital punishments began to give way to correctional practices, which are increasingly common today (Wodahl & Garland, 2009). The development of the current punitive and criminal justice is a results of centuries of changes in the social paradigm.

Today, many of the imprisoned, even those that are pre-trial, opt for a hunger strike to protest the judicial and punitive system. However, as a result of their protests they are often subjected to force-feeding, such as in the case of Evgenii Ivanov (Clegg, 2020). Although the justification for such measures is the prevention of the possible harm to the imprisoned, it causes vomiting and other bodily harm (Clegg, 2020). This sort of inhumane treatment of the criminals is common to the US punitive system today. With tens of millions of people in prisons around the country, the US authorities appear to show little consideration for the lives of the incarcerated or for their rehabilitation. As mentioned above, the focus is on bringing justice to the victim rather than on the long-term solution for the society as a whole.

Nevertheless, there are numerous corrective facilities that do strive towards rehabilitation, at least on paper. Today, over two thirds of adults in rehabilitation are parts of correction communities (Wodahl & Garland, 2009), which highlights the criminals’ roles in the society as someone who is still a part of it. Originally, corrective facilities came to existence in the mid-19th century (Wodahl & Garland, 2009), and

Varying Views on Incarceration and Rehabilitation

As previously mentioned, over the recent decades there has been a movement towards more lenient punishments and rehabilitation. According to multiple polls, as of 2018, 67% of Americans do not support the idea that more prisons would lead to less crime (Clarke, 2018). Furthermore, a 2017 study showed that 71% of American participants believed long-term imprisonments to be counterproductive (Clarke, 2018). Other surveys showed similar results, with most of the responders supporting the idea of rehabilitation over imprisonment (Clarke, 2018). It follows that people have started to recognize the advantages of teaching the criminals the ways to re-enter society over their complete isolation from it.

Apart from the abovementioned concern over the criminals re-entering society, there are other considerations that push people into supporting rehabilitation over continuous imprisonment. According to a Marquette Law School Poll (O’Hear & Wheelock, 2016), 51.2% of respondents believe there needs to be a reduction in the amounts of money that go into the prison budget. Furthermore, the same study found that 79% of people believe rehabilitation to be helpful under the right conditions (O’Hear & Wheelock, 2016). Therefore, there is evidently a tendency towards rehabilitation over incarceration.

Goals and Intended Outcomes of Jails and Prisons Arounds the US

Nevertheless, expectantly, there are regional differences in beliefs. Depending on the state and the socio-political affiliation of it, the people are likely to support different views towards crime and punishment. According to Schrantz, DeBor, and Mauer (2018), at the time of their article, Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina decreased the number of incarcerated persons by 14-25% over the decade. This decrease highlights the view of rehabilitation and correction as the primary goal of jails and prisons in these states, as opposed to isolation from society of the criminals. On the other hand, some states, such as Kentucky, South Dakota, and Nevada have increased their prison populations (Schrantz, DeBor, and Mauer, 2018). This difference showcases the varying priorities by region, whether it be harsh war on criminal activity or rehabilitation.


It can be said without doubt that the punitive system in the US has encountered many changes over the past centuries. Starting with a system which was heavily influenced by the British jurisprudence, it has since evolved as the people of the US have evolved into their own culture, traditions, and values. As described in the essay, there are various regional differences in the views that highlight the socio-political differences within the US. Although it is difficult to know which view is the most correct and beneficial one to society, having different policies and views in different areas allows for the monitoring of consequences of each.


Clarke, M. (2018). Polls Show People Favor Rehabilitation over Incarceration. Prison Legal News.

Clegg, B. L. (2020). Force-Feeding Pretrial Detainees: A Constitutional Violation. William & Mary Law Review, 62(2), 683-722.

The Justice System. (2021). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Web.

O’Hear, M. M. & Wheelock, D. (2016). Public Attitudes Toward Punishment, Rehabilitation, and Reform: Lessons from the Marquette Law School Poll. Faculty Publications at Marquette Law Scholarly Commons.

Schrantz, D., DeBor, S. & Mauer, M (2018). Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions. The Sentencing Project.

Wodahl, E. J. & Garland, B. (2009). The Evolution of Community Corrections: The Enduring Influence of the Prison. The Prison Journal, 89(1), 81S-104S.

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