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January 8, 2018

How would Thomas Jefferson sentence Richard Graves (or John Thompson)?

One of my favorite documents in the history of US sentencing law and policy is this document authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1778 under the title "A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital."  I recommend a read of the entire document (as well as this historical discussion of its backstory and its rejection by one vote).  Here I have reprinted the document's preamble and a few provisions proposing a range of different forms of punishment, all of which seem especially interesting as we move from a discussion of the modern death penalty to other forms of modern punishment [MY EDITORIAL COMMENTS ARE IN ALL CAPS AND BOLD FOR ENHANCED READING]:

[STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES AND PROPORTIONALITY:] Whereas it frequently happens that wicked and dissolute men resigning themselves to the dominion of inordinate passions, commit violations on the lives, liberties and property of others, and, the secure enjoyment of these having principally induced men to enter into society, government would be defective in it's principal purpose were it not to restrain such criminal acts, by inflicting due punishments on those who perpetrate them; but it appears at the same time equally deducible from the purposes of society that a member thereof, committing an inferior injury, does not wholy forfiet the protection of his fellow citizens, but, after suffering a punishment in proportion to his offence is entitled to their protection from all greater pain, so that it becomes a duty in the legislature to arrange in a proper scale the crimes which it may be necessary for them to repress, and to adjust thereto a corresponding gradation of punishments.

[STATEMENT ABOUT THEORY OF PUNISHMENT:] And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho' an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

And forasmuch the experience of all ages and countries hath shewn that cruel and sanguinary laws defeat their own purpose by engaging the benevolence of mankind to withold prosecutions, to smother testimony, or to listen to it with bias, when, if the punishment were only proportioned to the injury, men would feel it their inclination as well as their duty to see the laws observed.

For rendering crimes and punishments therefore more proportionate to each other: Be it enacted by the General assembly that no crime shall be henceforth punished by deprivation of life or limb except those hereinafter ordained to be so punished....

[PUNISHMENT FOR MOST SERIOUS CRIMES:]  If any person commit Petty treason, or a husband murder his wife, a parent his child, or a child his parent, he shall suffer death by hanging, and his body be delivered to Anatomists to be dissected.

Whosoever shall commit murder in any other way shall suffer death by hanging....

[PUNISHMENT FOR SEX CRIMES:] Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro' the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least....

[PUNISHMENT FOR SERIOUS ASSAULTS:] Whosoever on purpose and of malice forethought shall maim another, or shall disfigure him, by cutting out or disabling the tongue, slitting or cutting off a nose, lip or ear, branding, or otherwise, shall be maimed or disfigured in like sort: or if that cannot be for want of the same part, then as nearly as may be in some other part of at least equal value and estimation in the opinion of a jury and moreover shall forfiet one half of his lands and goods to the sufferer.

[PUNISHMENT FOR SERIOUS ECONOMIC CRIMES:] Whosoever shall counterfiet any coin current by law within this Commonwealth, or any paper bills issued in the nature of money, or of certificates of loan on the credit of this Commonwealth, or of all or any of the United States of America, or any Inspectors notes for tobacco, or shall pass any such counterfieted coin, paper bills, or notes, knowing them to be counterfiet; or, for the sake of lucre, shall diminish, case, or wash any such coin, shall be condemned to hard labor six years in the public works, and shall forfiet all his lands and goods to the Commonwealth....

[PUNISHMENT FOR LESSER ECONOMIC CRIMES:] Grand Larceny shall be where the goods stolen are of the value of five dollars, and whosoever shall be guilty thereof shall be forthwith put in the pillory for one half hour, shall be condemned to hard labor two years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Petty Larceny shall be where the goods stolen are of less value than five dollars; whosoever shall be guilty thereof shall be forthwith put in the pillory for a quarter of an hour, shall be condemned to hard labor one year in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured....

[PUNISHMENT FOR PUBLIC DISORDER CRIMES:] All attempts to delude the people, or to abuse their understanding by exercise of the pretended arts of witchcraft, conjuration, inchantment, or sorcery or by pretended prophecies, shall be punished by ducking and whipping at the discretion of a jury, not exceeding 15. stripes....

[SPECIAL DEFENDANTS:] Slaves guilty of any offence punishable in others by labor in the public works, shall be transported to such parts in the West Indies, S. America or Africa, as the Governor shall direct, there to be continued in slavery.

What theory or theories of punishment do you think was foremost in the mind of Thomas Jefferson when writing this document?

Would his proposed punishment for male rapists like Richard Graves — "castration" — properly serve his likely punishment goals? Would it reasonably serve the punishment goals you wish to prioritize?

Where would a modern drug offender like John Thompson fit into the schema here for "Proportioning Crimes and Punishment"?

January 8, 2018 in Alternatives to imprisonment, Death penalty history, Theories of punishment | Permalink


TJ seems like he'd probably castrate Mr. Graves. Unless Richard used the old "actually this woman was my physical property and therefore I can have sex with her and actually raise a secret biracial family on the side, and oh by the way somehow sex with a slave is not rape despite the obvious fact that it always (always) is" defense. In that case I assume Tommy J would just shake the dudes hand and go on his merry way. OR he would also castrate himself.

Posted by: joe barton | Jan 17, 2018 1:19:18 PM

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