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The Evolution of Crime and Punishment - And What A Trump Presidency Might Mean

Updated on November 29, 2016

In Western society, we like to think we’ve evolved. Looking back through history tells us that we’ve advanced, developed, progressed. Whichever word you want to use, gone are the barbaric practises and brutal superstitions – particularly when it comes to crime and punishment. We accept that our ways of dealing with crime have become increasingly less violent and more tolerant and, on the whole, we’re right.

Looking at the evolution of punishment for theft throughout the ages, the violence of early societies’ justice is stark: the Greek lawmaker Draco – from whom we get the word ‘draconian’ – issued the death penalty for crimes as small as stealing a cabbage; in Medieval India, thieves were trampled on and dismembered by elephants; up until 1832, criminals in England could still be hanged for theft.

As societies advanced, punishments of a physical nature were rejected in favour of imprisonment or fines. Attitudes of tolerance and rehabilitation were fostered in countries around the world. This year, Italy’s Supreme Court ruled that theft of small amounts of food was not illegal if the perpetrator was in “immediate and essential need of nourishment”.

What do the laws of the ancient world have in common with the current criminal justice system? Well, today, perhaps more than we might think. Change is in the air; things that a year ago seemed implausible may become a new reality. We are talking, of course, about crime and punishment under president-elect Donald Trump.


Throughout his successful campaign, Trump made no secret of his tough stance on crime. In his keynote address, he branded himself the “law and order candidate”, later tweeting that the election is a simple choice between “law, order and safety, or chaos, crime and violence.” He critiqued Obama’s “rollback of criminal enforcement” and panned his commutations of some drug offenders’ sentences: “Some of these are bad dudes. These are people out walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”

Trump’s vision of law and order is an echo of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, which played on fears of rising crime and civil unrest. Nixon pushed the vision that the only thing preventing anarchy – the “chaos, crime and violence” that Trump also spoke of – was strong, irrefutable policing and strict prison sentences.

Nixon’s idea of “law and order” wasn’t just tactical; it remodelled crime and punishment not just in his own administration but for the next 40 years. The consequences of such a stance were unparalleled, resulting in an upsurge in incarceration that America still feels acutely. Today, nearly 2.5 million Americans live behind bars. That’s 25% of the world’s prison population.

Trump’s opposition to a more tolerant justice system, one that promotes rehabilitation rather than punishment, is at odds with many other Republicans. After years promoting a zero tolerance policy towards justice, recently many conservatives have embraced the idea of reform. A bipartisan Senate bill aimed at reducing minimum prison sentences and supporting inmates as they re-enter society was widely welcomed, and Speaker Paul Ryan has supported similar House measures.

Under Trump’s presidency, a fundamental counter-reform movement seems likely, where longer sentences and militarised policing are strongly endorsed. When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump asserted his belief that “We have to give power back to the police, because crime is rampant,” later promising to hand police more freedom to “regain control of this crime wave and killing wave.” This is in spite of the falling crime rate.


One obvious way the evolution of crime and punishment can be assessed is from the abolishment of capital punishment. Once a common practise across the globe, it is now increasingly rare, with over half of all countries making the death penalty illegal. Things are different in America, which remains the only western country in the world to still regularly execute its own citizens.

Despite voting this month in Nebraska, California and Oklahoma revealing that these states still support capital punishment, support for the death penalty is at an all-time low. Some opinions have not wavered, however, and Trump remains a staunch and outspoken advocate of capital punishment. Last year, he stated that under his presidency, anyone who killed a police officer would be executed – no questions asked.

“One of the first things I'd do in terms of executive orders, if I win, will be to sign a strong statement that will go out to the country, out to the world, that anybody killing a policeman, a policewoman... anybody killing a police officer: death penalty is going to happen, okay?"

While other countries still use capital punishment, the evolution of crime and punishment can nonetheless be seen in the mode of execution. Gone (generally) are the torturous, protracted ways of killing another human being as more humane methods have been sought out. But while most supporters of capital punishment would agree that finding a humane method of execution is a requisite, Trump – at least in 2000 – disagreed:

“A life is a life, and if you criminally take an innocent life you’d better be prepared to forfeit your own. My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go.”

A main sticking point of America’s criminal justice system seems to be, what is the actual point of punishment? Is it retribution or restitution? Is it incapacitation or rehabilitation? Or is it, despite almost every statistic suggesting the opposite, deterrence?

Most of us would agree that we’ve come a long way from the ancient practices of ‘justice’. But how far is a law in Texas granting homeowners the right to use deadly force against burglars different from a law in Ancient Mesopotamia, where a person caught breaking into someone’s house could be killed on the spot? Perhaps we haven’t come as far as we like to think.

America rejected Hillary Clinton’s ideas of justice reform in favour of Trump’s view of “tough on crime” policing and sentencing. True, Clinton may have won the popular vote, but the very fact that Trump gained enough votes to win the presidency tells us a lot. It suggests that public opinion on crime, justice and punishment has barely changed since the undisputed failures of Nixon’s War on Crime. And in terms of evolution that, surely, is one colossal back step.


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