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The philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment contributed to the reformation of the judicial system by advocating the banning of torture and making punishments to fit the crime. Two influential writers were Cesare Beccaria and John Howard.


  • Beccaria advocated a new system of punishment that best suited the crime.
  • Howard worked for reform of prisons by making incarceration more humane.

These men and their writings still influence the world today.

The conditions of the justice system of the 18th century were harsh and cruel, even by the standards of the day. Execution was the punishment for most crimes, including theft. Poor houses and prisons housed paupers and debtors.

Local governments ran the prisons and poor houses that did exist during this era. There were no national prison systems because it was too expensive. Transportation to penal colonies, like Australia, was an attempt to remove the burden of housing criminals in local prisons.

The practice of torture and secret trials was also common among the judicial system of the day. Torture was used to extract a confession or information from a suspect. Some countries, Italy for example, held secret trials.

Cesare Beccaria
The Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, in his work ‘Of Crimes and Punishments’ (1764), argued against the practice of torture and secret trials. He also developed the rudiments of the idea of deterrence.

He believed that social injustice was the root of crime, not sin, thus the Church should concentrate on sin and let the State focus on justice. The concept of deterrence is based on the principle that government should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This was the foundation of his theories on criminal justice.

John Howard
John Howard was the appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire (1773). His main criticisms were against the prison system of England. His report ‘The State of the Prisons’ (1777) spurred a sweeping movement to reform the system in England, to make it more humane.

He would travel throughout England and Europe to examine the prisons and reported on the conditions to Parliament. Catherine the Great called upon John Howard to assist in reforming the Russian judicial system.

Further Reference

  • Essay on Crimes and Punishments
    From the Modern History Source Book web site, read the Beccaria essay where he presents his main theories on Punishment.
  • The Enlightenment Reading Guide
    From the University of Adelaide take a look at this guide on the Enlightenment as a reform movement that had international repercussions. The focus is on France. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. maintains the web site.
  • John Howard: Portrait of a Hero
    From the John Howard Society of Newfoundland, read about the life of the man who called for reforming the prison system of England.

The Law and Order Resource Internet section has more information on this subject.