The History of Crime and Punishment

The history of crime and punishment is a story mainly based around the death penalty, as criminals were severely punished at a certain time.

What is Death Penalty?

It is a penalty provided by law. It deprives a person of his life, after a trial that concludes that this person has committed a capital crime. Definitions and methods of execution vary over time, political regimes and beliefs. Today there are still seven forms of execution: lethal injection, electrocution (electric chair), hanging, shooting, gas asphyxiation, decapitation and stoning.

Currently, in the world, 92 countries have completely abolished the death penalty, 10 have abolished it for ordinary crimes and 36 have not been executed for more than 10 years or applying a moratorium on this sentence. The abolition of the death penalty is progressing in the world: from 16 abolitionist countries in 1977 to 92 in 2008. However, 59 states still practice it. In 2008, according to Amnesty International, at least 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries and at least 8864 people were sentenced to death in 52 countries around the world.

Since antiquity

From a historical point of view, the existence of the death penalty has been documented since Antiquity, where it appears in certain legal texts (the Code of Hammurabi among the Babylonians, about 1750 years before our era). It has always represented the maximum penalty of the state judicial system. As such, it should not be used too frequently. For the Greeks and Romans, it had several functions: to expiate the condemned, protect society, satisfy the victim and deter criminals.

First abolitionist

In 1764, Cesare Beccaria, jurist and philosopher, publishes “Offenses and punishments”, which is a landmark in criminal law. It recommends proportioning crime and eliminating torture and the death penalty considered as barbaric. This book, translated throughout Europe, inspires judicial reforms and contains the first demonstration of the uselessness of the death penalty. Since then, the death penalty has been slowly abolished in Europe, with a trend that has accelerated in the last 30 years.

In the world, few democracies apply it, but executions have resumed after a suspension corresponding to questions about abolition. It remains very present in the United States, where more than 1000 convicts have suffered for 40 years. China, the most populous country in the world, executes more people than all the other countries combined. According to Amnesty International, in 2008, 1,718 people were executed in China out of a total of 1,838 executions worldwide. China, therefore, accounts for 93% of global executions. In the United States, Texas wins, accounting for almost 40% of the country’s executions.

UN and death penalty

At the international level, the United Nations Charter defined and observed the principle of non-interference in state affairs, which meant that each state could apply the death penalty as it saw fit. Since the end of the Second World War, a number of international texts relating to civil and political rights have emerged. This included the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recent UN resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions (2007). Since the year 2000, admission to the Council of Europe and membership of the European Union has been conditional on the abolition of the death penalty for the candidate states.