History of the Criminal Justice Profession

Students interested in attending criminal justice school may be interested in the history of the field of criminal justice. The concept of justice for victims of criminals was explored thousands of years ago in the Old Testament, where punishments are explained as necessary and proportionate to the crime committed.

  • For example, the book of Exodus describes the “eye for an eye” idea, which says that the punishment should fit the crime ( Exodus 21:24 ). In Deuteronomy 17:6, regulations regarding testimony are introduced. In ancient civilizations such as those of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, codes of justice were established and followed; and during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe, courts were created to establish rules and regulations regarding criminal justice.
  • The early American criminal justice system was based on English Common Law but was nevertheless also deeply influenced by early Americans’ ideas about freedom and free will. In fact, the early colonists came to America mostly to escape repressive European laws regarding religious practice, so they were careful to separate criminal behavior and individual freedoms when they were establishing communities in the New World.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was a member of the Supreme Court in the nineteenth century, helped to refine and explain America’s criminal justice system. He argued that intent need not be present for a crime to have been committed; simply the fact that a crime was committed proved that a criminal offender was guilty. This idea was in direct contrast to English common law, which required that intent be proven in the consideration of a crime. These legal wranglings and discussions about ideas occur in the criminal justice system even today, as judges interpret the Constitution and laws differently, depending on political bent or personal interpretations.
  • Corrections facilities have changed throughout American history, as well. At first the facilities were simply considered places to separate the criminal offenders from the rest of society. In the 1800s, prison reformers began to advocate for prisons to be places where criminal offenders could be rehabilitated so that they could re-enter society and become productive members of their communities. It was at this time, as well, that prison populations began to be separated according to different requirements or characteristics. For example, juvenile corrections facilities were created to rehabilitate young criminal offenders, and correctional facilities for the mentally ill were created to provide treatment to criminal offenders who were psychiatrically compromised. The growth in crime, as evidenced by the creation of specialized corrections facilities, has led to the creation of criminal justice departments and programs of study throughout the United States.
  • Criminal justice as a program of study is a relatively new option for people who are considering postsecondary educational programs. Most criminal justice programs and schools were not established until the late 1950s or early 1960s. As crime becomes more complex and continues to be a part of daily life in many parts of America, there will most likely be more interest in criminal justice programs and schools.