Unequal Treatment Before the Law

The code of Hammurabi contains one of the earliest and most complete written law codes in human history. It includes provisions for marriage, business, theft, adultery, debt, and personal injury. It gives harsh punishments for the guilty party but also requires that the guilty party be proven guilty. The code gives different punishments for the same offense against people of different social classes. For instance, if a man destroys the eye of another free man, his own eye must be destroyed. However, if he destroys the eye of a peasant, he must only pay one mina of silver. Everyone was not equal before the law. 

Laws in the United States of America are written without distinctions between social class or race. But, the enforcement of laws is often dependent on the socioeconomic background of the accused party. For instance, “blacks are 3 to 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, even though they are no more likely than whites to use or sell drugs. Worse still, blacks are roughly nine times more likely to be admitted into state prison for a drug offense.” (Brookings)

The United States Sentencing Commission found that blacks received sentences about 19.1 percent longer than White males who committed similar crimes and had other similar situations. Crimes involving drug use, violence, and sexual assault are treated differently by judges. The USSC put some measures in place in an effort to mitigate this inequality following The United States vs Booker

The evidence for the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, even with similar frequency of offenses as majority populations, is well established. The data shows that while the laws of the United States of America are written differently than the Code of Hammurabi, the enforcement of them is sometimes strikingly similar. It has been the challenge of governments to treat all parties equally before the law from the dawn of civilization to the present day. 

Non-discrimination laws can do some good in equalizing the treatment of all under the law, but the true change in the way the law is carried out will come as a reflection of a similar change in the way people see and treat each other on a day to day basis. Communities that can acknowledge legitimate differences between individuals and groups while avoiding stereotypes and bigotry will have greater success in treating all fairly under the law. 

Civilizations have struggled to treat those who are poor or different than the mainstream with the proper level of respect and protection in the courts. The Code of Hammurabi makes no effort to hide the way it distinguished between free men and peasants. In fact, it goes out of its way to make specific consideration of the victim or offender’s social status. On the other hand, The United States has the ideal that everyone should be treated equally by the government, regardless of social status, skin color, religion, etc. The United States has likely failed to live up to the ideal more often than it has succeeded in doing so, but it means something that the US even claims to value equality before the law in the first place. It represents progression from civilizations in the past. The United States is certainly better at treating its citizens equally than it was two hundred or one hundred years ago. The United States has a long way to go, but it is on the correct path. 

—Jon Dollahite 

Word Count: 536

Sources: https://www.hamiltonproject.org/charts/rates_of_drug_use_and_sales_by_race_rates_of_drug_related_criminal_justice

Click to access United_States_v_Booker_Fact_Sheet.pdf



Drug offenders in American prisons: The critical distinction between stock and flow

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