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Classical Theory And Its Effects On Criminal Justice Policy

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Classical Theory

Classical Theory and its Effects on Criminal Justice Policy

With the exception of probation, imprisonment has been the main form of punishment for serious offenders in the United States for over 200 years. Americans can be said to have invented modern incarceration as a means of criminal punishment. Although Europe provided precedents, theoretical justifications, and even architectural plans for imprisoning offenders, Americans developed the blueprints for the typical prisons of today and devised the disciplinary routines, types of sentences, and programs that prison systems of other countries subsequently adopted or modified (Rafter & Stanley 1999).

Many Americans tend to disagree about the purposes of prison. Some argue that is should be a form of punishment for those that have broken the law, while others believe that the primary goal is to keep criminals off the streets and to discourage future crimes through rehabilitation. Although these are all valid reasons, I tend to believe that a combination of these issues plays a vital role in establishing goals in the prison system.

To maintain a better understanding of these underlying issues we must first examine the background of the prison system and the theories in which it was built upon. Incarceration of offenders hasn’t always been the penalty imposed on serious offenders.

During the colonial period it was not uncommon for felons to be subject to flogging, branding, mutilation, hangings, public humiliation, and banishments to wilderness areas, but they seldom involved confinement in penal institutions. In short, the colonial period punishments emphasized the infliction of pain, not the deprivation of liberty (Rafter & Stanley 1999).

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, many began to rethink the issues of crime and punishment. The deprivation of liberty became a better alternative to the tradition of physical beatings. The introduction of the book, On Crimes and Punishments, written in 1764 by Classical Theorist Cesare Beccaria, had a dramatic influence on this issue.

Beccaria believed in replacing the harsh physical punishments with confinement and having the length of confinement fit the particular crime. This Classical Theory approach to punishment was very appealing to the community leaders and quickly spread from state to state and into the prison systems. This was the first major step in prison reform as we know it today.

The Classical Theory focuses mainly on the individual and choices. Each individual makes decisions based on cost and benefit. Using Classical Theory, human behavior is explained in terms of the attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain (Williams & McShane 2004) and because the basis is for the concept of deterrence.

Within Classical Theory, the focus was on the law to protect the rights of individuals and society and its purpose was to deter criminal behavior. Classical law assumes it is the duty of the citizen to be moral, act responsibly, and weigh consequences of behavior before acting. This of course, supposes that all acts are rational, and each act committed is done as a result of free will.

When it comes to the issue of crime prevention, Beccaria did not believe that the best way to reduce crime was to increase laws or increase the severity of punishment, since doing so would merely create new crimes and “embolden men to commit the very wrongs it is supposed to prevent” (Becarria [1764] 1963).

Instead, he argued, laws and punishments should be as restrictive as necessary to deter those who would break them by making it not in their interests to do so. To maximize the possibility of justice and deterrence, Beccaria believed that punishments should fit the crime in being proportionate to the harm caused.

General deterrence, which means using the punishment of one individual to discourage others from committing crime, should, according to Beccaria, be replaced by specific or individual deterrence, which encourages each individual to calculate the costs of committing the crime. The level of punishment would be assessed by relating punishment to what an offense deserves (Lanier & Henry 2004).

This is the principle of “just deserts” means convicted offenders deserve punishment equal to the seriousness of the harm they caused through the specific crime they committed. This punishment cannot be for any other reason, such as to teach others a lesson or because they had committed other crimes in the past and so might be more likely to repeat them in the future (Lanier & Henry 2004).

To be an effective deterrent in individual calculations, punishments must also be certain, argued Beccaria. “The certainty of punishment, even if moderate, will always make a stronger impression than the fear of another which is more terrible but combined with the hope of impunity (Becarria [1764] 1963).

Beccaria believed that it was much more important for criminals to know what type of punishment would follow a crime. Even though the severity of punishment is high but the chances of being caught and punishment is low, people are still likely to commit crime.

Beccaria also believed that for punishment to appear as a deterrent for criminals it must take place soon after apprehension. Beccaria ([1764] 1963) wrote, “The more promptly and the more closely punishment follows upon the commission of a crime, the more just and useful it will be.”

Determinate sentences also follow the same principles of the Classical Theory. These sentences are designed to make justice “fair” and to make potential criminals aware as to


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