Pointing to the trend of longer prison sentences, some scholars argue that America is on a track of ever increasing levels of harshness in its criminal policies. Many feel that rehabilitation programs have fallen by the wayside, while America pursues a policy of merciless vengeance. In Harsh Punishment, James Whitman concludes that American punishment is cruel compared to other modern industrialized countries.
On the up side, our punishments look like a slap on the wrist compared to those just a few hundred years ago. In Colonial Williamsburg the punishment for stealing food was a good old fashioned hanging. For the crime of failure to attend church in Virginia between 1611 and 1662, the “criminal” received a punishment of deprivation of food for one day. If the naughty parishioner was a repeat offender, the punishment for the second time was a whipping. And for those lost souls who missed church three times, a punishment of 6 months of rowing in the colony’s galleys was likely to keep them praying.
Additionally, the horrific punishment of being drawn and quartered was thankfully abolished in 1870. Although this punishment was usually only reserved for treason, the fact that it ever existed puts a dark stain on humanity. The full punishment of drawing and quartering was a four step process:
First the individual was dragged on a hurdle to the place on execution.
Then they were hanged by the neck and removed from the noose just before death.
Then occurred probably the worst part of the punishment; they were disemboweled and their genitalia and entrails were burned before their eyes.
Finally, they were beheaded and their body was divided into four parts which were often put on public display.
Looking at historical punishments, makes one wonder how modern punishments will be viewed in a few hundred years. Will future Americans gasp in horror as they read about the atrocities committed in our day? Or will they laugh, considering our punishments and our reasoning trivial and silly?