Extent of Life-Disposing Punishment in England & Wales Since 1500

face of a prisoner

Absence of persons in punishment (persons executed, transported, and in prison) was much greater in early modern England than in England and Wales since the mid-eighteenth century. The penal death rate in England probably was about 20 per 100,000 from 1530 to 1630, and over 25 per 100,000 in 1600.^ Assuming persons executed had about 30 years of additional expected life, persons absent in punishment through execution were over 600 per 100,000 from at least 1560 to 1630. Men in prison for debt in England and Wales probably reached 15,000 in 1670. Given that the total population of England and Wales was then about five million, men in prison for debt amounted to 300 per 100,000 in 1670. In total, the absence of persons in punishment plausibly could have reached 1,000 per 100,000 persons in England (1%) in the 1600s. Since 1750, the highest absence in punishment in England and Wales has been 464 per 100,000 in 1842.

prevalence of punishment in England and Wales from 1750 to 2010

The prevalence of persons absent in punishment in England and Wales has changed significantly over the past two centuries. From 1815 to 1842, that prevalence rose from about 200 per 100,000 to about 450 per 100,000. From 1840 to the early-1920s, the prevalence of persons absent in punishment continually fell. The prevalence stabilized about 30 persons per 100,000 absent in punishment in the 1920s and 1930s. Post World War II, absence in punishment continually rose to reach 153 persons per 100,000 in 2009. That level is roughly equal to the prevalence of persons absent in punishment at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Historiography of English criminal law has described early-nineteenth-century criminal law as a harsh “Bloody Code.” Criminal law in England and Wales today is less literally bloody, but disposes about the same number of persons in proportion to the total population. Aggregate British criminal-justice statistics are difficult to reconcile with basic social facts and a common-sense understanding of human nature and justice.^ Imprisonment today obscures the bloody extent of punishment.

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