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18th-Century Reformers


Penitentiaries were a new idea during the 18th century, and these three activists were instrumental in establishing good practices with which our criminal justice system still struggles, and sometimes fails to even struggle, to adhere.

John Howard (1726-1790) [British]

John Howard
Public domain.
"There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced that there is some great error in the management of them: the sallow meager countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable: many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed to emaciated dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases ... expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox: victims, I must not say to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace."

1773: Appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire; toured county prison. Horrified at conditions there, he became an active prison reformer. Frequently asked to speak before the House of Commons to report on conditions in British prisons.
1777: Publication of The State of the Prisons, Howard's exhaustive report on prison conditions, written after he had toured hundreds of prisons throughout the British Isles.
1778: Began transcontinental tour of European prisons.
1787: Published The State of the Prisons in England, and An Account of the Principal Lazarettos of Europe.
1790: Died of typhus while touring prisons in the Ukraine.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) [Italian]

Cesare Beccaria
Public domain.
"In proportion as punishments become more cruel, the minds of men, as a fluid rises to the same height with that which surrounds it, grow hardened and insensible; and the force of the passions still continuing, in the space of an hundred years the wheel terrifies no more than formerly the prison. That a punishment may produce the effect required, it is sufficient that the evil it occasions should exceed the good expected from the crime, including in the calculation the certainty of the punishment, and the privation of the expected advantage. All severity beyond this is superfluous, and therefore tyrannical ...

"Is it possible without shuddering with horror, to read in history of the barbarous and useless torments that were cooly invented and executed by men who were called sages? Who does not tremble at the thoughts of thousands of wretches, whom their misery, either caused or tolerated by the laws, which favoured the few and outraged the many, had forced in despair to return to a state of nature, or accused of impossible crimes, the fabric of ignorance and superstition, or guilty only of having been faithful to their own principles; who, I say, can, without horror, think of their being torn to pieces, with slow and studied barbarity, by men endowed with the same passions and the same feelings? A delightful spectacle to a fanatic multitude!"

1758: Graduated with a law degree from the University of Pavia.
1764: Publication of Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments), the first comprehensive volume on the philosophy of criminal justice and penology ever printed.
1767: English translation influences American revolutionaries, most notably Thomas Jefferson, and heavily influences development of U.S. criminal justice policy.
1768: Beccaria becomes Professor of Public Law and Economics at the Palatine College in Milan, a position created specifically for him.
1791: Appointed to the Board for Reform of the Judicial Code, which revised Italy's legal system—a process that Beccaria had himself helped to spur with publication of his earlier work.

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) [American]

Benjamin Rush
Public domain.
"In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them."

1760: Graduated with a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh.
1773: Published An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping, in which he made a scientific case for racial equality and advocated the abolition of slavery.
1787: Co-founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, arguably the most influential prison reform organization in U.S. history.
1792: Successfully argued for establishment of a mental health ward at Pennsylvania Hospital, to prevent the mentally ill from unproductive incarceration.
1812: Published Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, the first U.S. psychiatry textbook, in which he defined alcoholism as a disease.
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