What are the differences between colonial criminal law and modern criminal law in the United States? 

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Speaking very generally, the greatest difference in criminal law during the colonial period and today could be found in the punishments people could suffer for breaking the law. The notion of a prison with a mission of rehabilitation did not yet exist, broadly speaking, and most criminal offenses were punishable by fines, corporal punishment like whipping, public shaming, or death. Additionally, criminal law covered many offenses not punishable today, such as blasphemy, idleness, public drunkenness, and sodomy. Many of the forms of the legal process were fairly similar to today. Under English law, individuals were entitled to a trial by jury (though this would have been very uncommon in the seventeenth century), and had the right to both produce and confront witnesses. They did not, however, have the right to an attorney, and it should also be observed that African-Americans, and in some colonies Native-Americans, could not testify against whites. Southern colonies enacted separate legal codes for slaves, who could be punished for a whole gamut of offenses that whites were simply not subject to. One legal innovation in the colonies was the creation of an attorney-general, who assumed the responsibility for prosecuting crimes throughout the colony. Some colonies also had district attorneys appoitned by the attorney general or the Council.