Free Essay on the Background of Punishment in the United States

Published: 2019-06-20
Free Essay on the Background of Punishment in the United States
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  United States Punishment
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1540 words
13 min read

The United States adopted penal incarceration as a form of punishment from England in the 1700s, adopted simultaneously with the arrival of British settlers in the country (Miller, 2012). Previously, criminal offenders were punished using the ducking stool, public shaming, whipping, branding, and the death sentence for major offenses. Prisons in the 16th and 17th centuries were used as holding places for people awaiting punishment or trial (Miller, 2012). A revolution against the death penalty arose in the 18th century, leading to the need to find alternative punishment means (Miller, 2012). The prisons were seen as a suitable correctional facility for offenders, who were punished with hard labor, and with time, imprisonment was viewed as viable punishment forms for lawbreakers.

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As most prisons were temporary holding places, their conditions were deplorable and wanting, without much effort being put into taking care of them. John Howard, a European philanthropist, led the battle against campaigning for prison reforms (Bernstein, 2012). He described the prison system as being filthy, barbaric, and unsystematic (Bernstein, 2012). He campaigned for hygiene and diet changes in the system, stating that prisoners should be incarcerated, but the punishment should not cause harm to their health. Over the years, several reforms were made for example separation of gender, age groups, the inclusion of rehabilitation programs, and finding alternatives punishment means for people (Bernstein, 2012).

Among the key changes in the justice system included the introduction of parole and probation, as an alternative to incarceration (Bernstein, 2012). Probation is defined as a period in which a person is placed under supervision before being sent to prison (Roth, 2011). It is awarded to offenders as an opportunity to redeem themselves and change the behavior leading to their arrest. It is a form of rehabilitation in which the individuals character is under supervision before a pre-determined hearing or sentence. If the offender successfully avoids trouble within the stated period and indicates a change in behavior, he or she avoids facing jail time. Parole describes the period in which a defendant is granted early release from prison based on good conduct, after a sitting or hearing by a parole board. The board is also tasked with the responsibility of setting release conditions, overseeing supervision during a stipulated time after release, revoking the parole, and discharging the offender. During the probation and parole periods, offenders are given sanctions like intense supervision, restraining orders, fines, community service, correctional boot camps, and restitution.

History of Probation

John Augustus, a former cobbler in Boston, was named the Father of Probation after he successfully pleaded with the court to release a drunkard to his care instead of sending him to prison in 1841 (Roth, 2011). He made similar attempts after that, and also successfully expanded his reach to juvenile children in 1843 (Roth, 2011). In 1847, John bailed out 19 boys, with the agreement that they would show up on a monthly basis to court as part of their ongoing case hearing. At the end of the six-month period, the judge presiding over the case was pleased by the contrast in their appearance, as compared to their initial arrival. His record indicated that he had successfully bailed 1100 people from when he started the movement (Roth, 2011).

Massachusetts was the first state in 1869 to pass a law requiring the presence of a state agent in case a child was to be placed on probation (Roth, 2011). The agent was responsible for investigating the childs case, protecting the kids interests and supervising the child after the case disposition. The state passed its first probation statute instituting a probation system with employed workers and probation officers in 1878. Other states like New York, Vermont, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Illinois passed the probation law after that. By 1930, all American states except Wyoming had passed the juvenile probation law (Roth, 2011).

History of Parole

Alexander Maconochie, a former English soldier, is credited with the development of the parole system in 1840 at Norfolk Island (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000). He was later appointed as governor of Birmingham but was unable to implement his system upon his dismissal in 1851 because it was termed as being too lenient (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000). The American justice system was heavily influenced by the British system because the former was a colony of the latter. In 1854, a former Irish prison administrator known as Walter Crofton attempted to implement Maconochies parole policies, on the belief that prison programs should be directed towards reform more than towards punishment (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000). He transferred offenders to intermediate prisons and assessed them based on education, behavior change, and work performance. Those who indicated improvement received tickets-of-leave and released on parole, but instructed to report to the police on a monthly basis.

In 1865, America learned of the reform systems in European prisons and introduced a paper done by Crofton on the prison reform system ideas during a Cincinnati meeting in 1870 (Abadinsky, 2012). The first parole system in the United States was implemented in 1876 by a penologist known as Zebulon Brockway. He instituted his first parole release system at the Elmira Reformatory prison based in New York (Abadinsky, 2012). He also introduced three different grades, in which the prisoners were supposed to pass for them to qualify for a parole hearing. If a prisoner excelled, he would move from a lower to a higher grade. Upon release, the offender was placed on a 6-month supervisory period and required to report regularly to the police or parole officers to provide an account of their conduct. New York was the first state to adopt the parole system in 1901 fully. Only three states namely Virginia, Florida, and Mississippi had adopted the parole system in their reform centers (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000). All other states gradually joined the board and had adapted this system by 1942 (Roth, 2011).

Comparison between Parole and Probation

These two are viewed as options to imprisonment and other forms of punishment like whipping or hard labor. They also focus on encouraging overall reform as opposed to focusing on punishment (Abadinsky, 2012). In both systems, the parties involved are placed under supervision for a stipulated amount of months to determine whether they are fully admitted or released from prison centers. These two reform structures have been proven to be effective in keeping offenders out of trouble and rehabilitating them (Miller, 2012). In the parole system, they work hard to be granted an early release and maintain good behavior to avoid being thrown back to prison, while, in the probation system, offenders maintain good behavior to avoid being admitted to prison. They are also effective in protecting communities from repeat offenders. In both programs, the law has the right to reverse any decision made to grant probation or parole, based on conduct and progress reports. However, this power is limited to the judge in probation hearings and the parole board in parole hearings. The major difference between the two is that, probation comes before, while parole comes after sentencing.

With the increasing number of inmates joining the prison system in the United States and the lack of facilities to cater to this figure, more judges seek to find alternative means to sending people to prison, while the prison administrators are placing more people on parole. Those who commonly qualify for parole include the elderly who have served several years of their sentence and portrayed good behavior throughout their stay, terminally ill patients who have served most of their sentences and petty offenders.


Before a unified punishment system, law breakers were subjected to various forms of penance, for example, whipping, public shaming, torture, fines, and death. The existing prisons were used as holding areas for offenders awaiting punishment and for that reason, most were in a dejected state. Early reform campaigns started with the protest against the state of prisons, in which prisoners faced various diseases, infections, and bad living conditions. Over time, the revolution spread to campaigning against some forms of punishment like the death penalty. Abolishment of various reform methods led to the reinvention of other forms.

America, heavily influenced by British law and systems, gradually introduced probation and parole into their reform programs. Probation is granted to individuals before conviction while parole is an early release granted to offenders in the prison system. Early American advocates include Zebulon Brockway, who influenced the adaptation of the parole system in 1876, and John Augustus, who was named the father of probation. They initiated change in their states before other states adapting and reforming the working rules of both reform systems. In comparison to previous forms of punishment, parole and probation appear to be more effective in inspiring change and protecting the community. They focus more on the individual as opposed to the crime committed. The United States has recorded immense growth for its adaptation of alternative reform methods for its citizens.


Abadinsky, H. (2012). Probation and parole: Theory and practice. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Bernstein, L. (2010). America is the prison: Arts and politics in prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Blomberg, T. G., & Lucken, K. (2000). American penology: A history of control. Hawthorne, N.Y: Aldine de Gruyter.

Miller, W. R. (2012). The social history of crime and punishment in America: An encyclopedia. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE.

Roth, M. P. (2011). Crime and punishment: A history of the criminal justice system. Australia: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

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