Full version Classical Theory And Its Effects On Criminal Justice Policy

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 what punishments to expect for committing crime.

Sentencing has been a hot topic since about 1970, when get-tough-on-criminals sentiment gave way to a movement to deny judges discretion. Activists in this movement felt that judges were abusing their discretion by failing to impose prison sentences in some cases and by imposing overly brief prison sentences to others.

The movement has led to a massive shift in governmental authority to determine sentences, from the judicial to the legislative branch of government (Rafter & Stanley 1999). This shift was part of the reaction against indeterminate sentencing. Indeterminate sentences (terms with minimums and maximums) were introduced about 1870 as a way to rehabilitate prisoners, and for about a century, no one questioned their advisability.

But around 1970, the public began taking a much harsher stance toward crime. They believed that indeterminate sentences allowed criminals to be released before serving their entire term. As a result of these concerns, some states abandoned indeterminate sentences and replaced them with flat or definite sentences of a set number of years determined by the legislature.

The argument against the death penalty and subsequent research can also be traced back to Beccaria, whom is usually credited with inspiring the abolition movement himself. Research has shown that Beccaria’s attitudes towards the death penalty are noticeable in Supreme Court decisions.

In Furman v. Georgia, Justices Brennan and Marshall expressed their views, which they also articulated in Furman, that the death penalty does not deter crime and that our society has evolved to the point that it is no longer an appropriate vehicle for expressing retribution. Furman is frequently referred to as the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that the death penalty was itself unconstitutional. However, such was clearly not the case. Rather, the application of the death penalty was found unconstitutional on the basis of what amounts to legal technicality (Meyer & Weaver 2006). This holding essentially opened the door for states to rewrite their death penalty statutes to eliminate problems cited in Furman.

Other states imposed sentencing guidelines for the judge and jury when deciding whether to impose the death penalty. These guidelines allowed for aggravating and mitigating factors in determining sentencing. Because these reforms were accepted by the Supreme Court, some states wishing to reinstate the death penalty included them in their new death penalty statutes.

Despite growing European abolition, the U.S. retained the death penalty, but established limitations on capital punishment. Some of these limitations and mitigating factors include issues such as: mental retardation, race, and juveniles. Although support for the death penalty has fluctuated throughout the century, the number of death sentences is steadily declining in the United States, due in part by the principles established by the Classical Theory.


Beccaria, C. (1963). On Crimes and Punishment (Paolucci, H. Trans.). New York:

Macmillan. (Original work published 1764).

Lanier, M. and Henry, S. (1998). Essential Criminology. Boulder, Colo.: Washington Press.

Meyer, R. and Weaver, C. (2006). Law and Mental Health: A Case-Based Approach. New York:

Guilford Press.

Rafter, N.H. and Stanley, D. (1999). Prisons in America: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara,


Williams, F.F. III and McShane, M. (2004). Criminological Theory, 4th ed. Upper Saddle, NJ: