Anthem Education Group

History of the American Criminal Justice System

The U.S. criminal justice system is composed of three parts: the police, the courts, and corrections. All have historic roots and influences from English law and custom.

Police Forces—Modern police forces can trace their lineage to Alfred the Great, an English king who ruled in the seventh century. Families that swore their allegiance to Alfred organized patrols in their regions, and appointed an official to oversee them. Later, these patrols grew to large alliances headed by the “reeve” of the shire, later called a sheriff.

A change under William the Conqueror had Kings appoint sheriffs to ensure their allegiance to the monarch.

The system endured, and the early New England colonists appointed or elected sheriffs to maintain the general peace. By 1700, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia established night watches, and Philadelphia formally created 10 patrol areas in 1705.

During the century between the American Revolution and Civil Wars, population growth and industrialization spurred the development of municipal police departments. Philadelphia organized an independent, 24-hour police force in the 1830s, and New York created day and nighttime forces in the 1840s. Meanwhile, the old sheriff system followed the national expansion west, and still exists in many counties today. Today, sheriff and police departments are virtually identical in function. The main difference is that sheriffs are elected while police chiefs are appointed by local governments.

Courts—Pre-Revolutionary courts in America followed the laws of Great Britain. In fact, one of the early causes for rebellion was that in some cases, colonists were not given the same rights as Englishmen under the Magna Carta.

The American court system was mapped out by the U.S. Constitution the states adopted in 1787. Two of the Amendments to the Constitution—the Sixth Amendment and the Eight Amendment—address criminal justice.

  • The Fifth Amendment guarantees due process, which means that a person is given notice that there is an issue concerning him/her before a court, and that the accused will have an opportunity to hear the accusation and prepare a defense. [citation id=”2″‘
  • The Sixth Amendment lists the rights of people who are formally charged with crimes. It guarantees that defendants have a speedy and public trials, are told of all charges they face, and receive a trial by jury. Juries determine the facts in a trial, weigh the truthfulness of sworn testimony, and decide if a defendant is guilty or innocent

Corrections—During Colonial times, the British penal system was used, which relied heavily on punishment and execution.

During the 1800s, more states turned to imprisoning offenders rather than executing them or subjecting them to whipping, pillorying, or the stockade. At the turn of the next century, however, the idea of reforming criminals took hold. Penitentiaries, so named because they were intended to be places where criminals could work and do their penitence, reflected the influence of Quaker thought.

By the mid-1800s, reformers lost patience with the idea of reform and focused on deterrence and rehabilitation. Many penitentiaries became reformatories. Zebulon Brockway, superintendent of a reformatory in New York, created a system of inmate classification and parole. It was thought that criminals could be treated for their criminal tendencies with corrective therapies such as imposing total silence on the prison population and requiring inmates to wear striped uniforms.

Today’s criminal justice programs focus on rehabilitating offenders who will eventually be released. Rehabilitation services ranging from job training to housing assistance are provided to offenders as they near their release dates.

Anthem College Online offers Associate of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees in Criminal Justice. For more information on our online program, visit our Web site.


State of Illinois, 19th Judicial Circuit. “Origins and Foundation of American Courts.” n.d. Web. 4 April, 2011.

Drakeford, William and Friedman, Kristin. “History of the Criminal Justice System.” National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice and the University of Maryland. n.d. 4 April 2011.

“A History of Policing.” All Saints Project. n.d. 1 April 2011.

Sabath, Dan. “The Evolution of American Policing.” American Police Hall of Fame and Museum. n.d. 4 April 2011.

Misis, Marcos. “History of Corrections in America.” History I class notes, University of Southern Mississippi. 2011. 31 October 2011.

New York Correction History Society. “The Evolution of the New York Prison System. 1971. 31 October 2011.

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