In colonial America, punishments were severe. The Massachusetts assembly in 1736 ordered that a thief, on first conviction, be fined or whipped. The second time he was to pay treble damages, sit for an hour upon the gallows platform with a noose around his neck and then be carted to the whipping post for thirty stripes. For the third offense he was to be hanged. But the implementation was haphazard as there was no effective police system and judges wouldn't convict if they believed the punishment was excessive. The local jails mainly held men awaiting trial or punishment and those in debt.
In the aftermath of independence most states amended their criminal punishment statutes. Pennsylvania eliminated the death penalty for robbery and burglary in 1786, and in 1794 retained it only for first degree murder. Other states followed and in all cases the answer to what alternative penalties should be imposed was incarceration. Pennsylvania turned its old jail at Walnut Street into a state... Read More