What are the Penalties for Treason?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Treason is an act of disloyalty or betrayal of trust to a person's own government. Examples include assassination of a state figure, fighting against his or her own nation in a war, assisting enemy combatants, or passing vital government information to the enemy. Historically, this crime has been severely punished, because an act of treason can destroy a nation. In the modern day, a conviction is accompanied at a minimum by a long jail sentence and a heavy fine, and may merit the death penalty under certain circumstances.

Penalties for treason can range from fines and jail time, to the death penalty.
Penalties for treason can range from fines and jail time, to the death penalty.

Traditionally, the families of traitors were punished along with the traitors themselves, to act as a deterrent to committing treason or participating in treasonous acts with family members. In addition to being sentenced to death, all of the traitor's property would be confiscated, and his or her family members might be forced to forfeit property as well in punishment. Traitors could not will property to other family members, and individuals related to someone who had committed this crime faced serious social stigma. Many family members fled to other countries with what wealth they could salvage.

Jail time is one possible consequence for committing treason.
Jail time is one possible consequence for committing treason.

Often, the method of death imposed was also particularly macabre. Traitors were rarely simply hung — they could anticipate being drawn and quartered or tarred and feathered, and gibbeted as an object lesson. Gibbeting refers to the public display of a criminal, alive or dead, usually with a sign detailing his or her crimes. Individuals were hung along roadways and at the entries to towns, so that travelers would constantly be reminded of the punishments in store for serious crimes. Many gibbets were left until the body had decayed entirely, and the family of the criminal was not permitted to bury the deceased in holy ground.

In the modern era, most nations punish the traitor alone, with a sentence of death for serious acts of treason in nations with the death penalty. Lesser acts merit a jail sentence, usually for a minimum of five years, and a heavy fine: in the United States, the fine is $10,000 US Dollars. In nations without the death penalty, like Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, England, and Australia, traitors are usually punished with life imprisonment. Due to refinements of the definition for treason, convictions in the First World are rare, but many developing nations use accusations of it to punish dissidents, suggesting a lack of free expression in these nations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


This definition of treason makes no sense to me. Treason is committed against a commonwealth (the people), not a government.

Betraying a government may be treason, but not always. When it is treason, it is because it hurts the commonwealth. When it benefits the people, however, it is patriotism.

Hypothetically, if a government is infiltrated and occupied by a group of individuals who are not working with the people's interest in mind, would a whistleblower who betrays the government be committing treason? No. Again, they would be patriots in my opinion.

Let's look at the definition of treason in print before, during, and after the American Revolution and the ratification of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States.

"High treason is an offence against the security of the commonwealth...whether by imagination, word, or deed..."

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)


How can anyone be commander in chief of the armed forces if you have never served a day in your life in the military? Make it a mandatory qualification.


Why isn't it considered treason to burn our American flag? At one time it was. And what about Americans who have become terrorists for another country and fight against the USA? Why haven't we declared war against a country who kills Americans and blows up our embassy.

Why does it take so long to do anything to show our strength? We're the laughingstock of so many countries and I, for one, am sick of it. I would take all of our soldiers out of each and every country and bring them home. We don't belong there. .The middle east has been fighting their wars for thousands of years now and no one can change that. Why do we keep giving them money? It's a joke.


The biggest modern day traitor this country (UK) has today is David Cameron. This odious cretin bangs on about democracy and freedoms, but denies it to his own people. The Falkland Islanders will get a referendum on their future, while our brave armed forces members are killed and maimed on a daily basis for other people to be free.

We have fought many wars through the centuries to remain a free and self-determining nation, only to see that sacrifice thrown back into the faces of those killed to protect our country. This piece of filth sells us out to the corrupt European Union without the blessing of the people of the United Kingdom. This is not democracy. Are the people ready for this most important of battles?


As a person with Scots ancestry, I know Edward the 1st was an unlawful heir, and did not have a right to rule.


Actually, according to Article III, Section III of the US Constitution- the federal government cannot allow this to happen: "his or her family members might be forced to forfeit property". Because it specifically says that is only okay when the accused/convicted is still alive.


What we would consider to be everyday freedom of speech today was viewed as outright treason in the olden days. For speaking against a tyrant or king in any way whatsoever, people were often subjected to the cruelest forms of punishment. Such an intellectually oppressive environment allowed for very little free thinking, and often led to frustrated people leading an insurrection.


In the Roman Empire, the more public and gruesome the punishment for treason and rebellion was, the more effective. Romans specialized in various forms of torture and death, the worst of which was crucifixion. When the Romans defeated a group of rebels or conquered a region, they would crucify their enemies on both sides of a main road for miles on end, requiring the inhabitants of the area to pass between the pinnacle of Roman justice and tremble in fear. Romans would usually leave their victims crucified well past their death until they were eaten by birds, leaving a very deep impression on the surrounding peoples.


Treason at sea was known as mutiny, and often was not considered to be on par with outright treason against the crown. The Bounty Mutineers, for example, rebelled against their captain and set him afloat. They settled in the Pitcairn Islands, and to this day they respect the Queen of England. When mutiny was properly dealt with, the rebellious people in question would be speedily punished by "walking the plank" or being shot.


A traitor in one nation may be a hero in another nation. Benedict Arnold was willing to take this risk, because he supposed that the British army might win out and was upset with the leadership of George Washington, who didn't respect him as he felt he deserved. If the British had won, we might see Benedict Arnold today as a hero, but because of his decision, he has lived on in infamy on the pages of history.

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