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Colonial Period

Eighteenth Century Developments

The influence of religion on criminal justice steadily decreased through the 1700s. Towns grew and their populations became more diverse. Social and technological change brought new issues in addition to moral concerns. The criminal justice system shifted from moral crimes (sin) to crimes against property such as stealing or trespassing.

Another example of eighteenth century change was the increasing importance of the "due process" concept in American courts, a concept not embraced in England. Due process means to protect the rights of the accused and not issue a verdict or penalties without using fair lawful procedures (innocent until proven guilty). The concept decreased the power of the judge and the government in controlling the courts. It required fair trials, arrests, and punishment.

Colonies also added district attorney positions. A district attorney is a lawyer who prosecutes crimes on behalf of the community. No such position existed in England where it was up to the victim to pursue the case and pay for prosecution. Since it usually cost too much money for colonists to pay for prosecutions themselves, the popular notion emerged that it was a government or public responsibility to prosecute criminals. This change in the legal system demonstrated how the colonial system helped common people who were the victims of crime. The use of juries also increased. The duties of professional lawyers, however, were still limited to advising the accuser or defendant. Lawyers did not argue cases before the judge or jury.

One unusual aspect of the colonial criminal justice system was dropped as time passed. A tradition from the Middle Ages gave those who could read lighter sentences than those who could not read. By the late 1700s this rule was eliminated from the colonial legal system.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System