Deterrence vs. Rehabilitation (Part I of V)

The continuing debate over deterrence vs. rehabilitation is a controversial one.  The reasons behind one individual choosing the deterrence side of the debate over the rehabilitative side, and vice versa, are many and complex; however, one reason that is sure to exist in almost any individual is where they stand in their belief of the causes of crime.  If it is believed that an individual has the ability for rational decision making along with free will to make his or her own choices, that belief will influence one to choose the side of deterrence.  Alternatively, if it is believed that individuals are subjected to negative influences beyond their control that impair their ability to express free will, or create irrational behaviors and thought processes, that belief will reduce the culpability of the offender and will influence one to choose the side of rehabilitation.  The obvious place to start then, in attempting to debate the deterrence vs. rehabilitation debacle, is with the question: What causes crime?  Is it a simple matter of free will and the inherent savagery within all of us that allows an individual to choose to commit a crime when they rationally decide that the risk is worth the reward even in the face of whatever punishment? Or is it the effect of irrational thinking caused by negative internal and external environments that essentially remove an individual’s free will and cause them to “act out” in criminality?  Within these two questions lies the foundation of the Classical and Positivist schools of thought and the differences between them.

The Classical School

The classical school of criminology was the first widely understood theory of criminal behavior largely inspired by the writings of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.  “Among the major ideas that descend from this school are the concepts of humans as free-willed, rational beings; utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number); civil rights and due process of law; rules of evidence and testimony; determinate sentencing; and deterrence.” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 15).  Most of our criminal law is based upon classical ideals as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both penned during heights of popularity with this school of thought.

With the belief that humans have free will and the ability to make rational decisions, it is no wonder that the classical school of thought supports the deterrence side of the debate between deterrence and rehabilitation.  With this perception came an ideology for crime and law where the “chief purpose was to deter criminal behavior” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 18) with the threat of punishment.

The Positivist School

The positivists’ lean towards the rehabilitation side of the debate since they see “behavior as determined by its biological, psychological, and social traits” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 27) and focus on “criminal behavior instead of on legal issues” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 27).  It might be said that the positivist ideals are based more in fact than those of the classical school.  The classical school’s ideology was influenced largely by scholastic and philosophical thought while the positivist school utilizes scientific method focusing on “systematic observation and the accumulation of evidence and objective fact within a deductive framework” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 29); positivists “were more likely to be scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and astronomers” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 27).

What Causes Crime?

As can be seen by the above discussions, the answer to what causes crime is not definitive and depends on which “lens” an individual is more inclined to look through: from behind the classical lens, crime is caused by the punishment associated with crime being outweighed by the reward and is strictly an individual’s choice; from behind the positivist lens, crime is caused by external factors such as poverty, lack of education, etc. and internal factors such as biological predispositions toward criminal behavior, mental illness, inadequate behavioral training, etc..

One might question at this point why there still exists two schools of thought on crime causation when research on crime and its causes has been abundant.  The answer is that research has been inconclusive.  There is evidence that supports the classical thinking and yet there is evidence that supports positivist ideologies.  Similarly, there is evidence that puts classical thinking into doubt, and the same for positivist theories.  Put simply, there has not been enough consistency in research results throughout the years to be able to definitively state that one is wrong and the other is right, or even to definitively state what causes crime, in general.  These facts have led to several theories on crime causation that take a middle ground between the classical and positivist extremes, compiling elements of both into one theory, which creates yet another new “lens” to look through.  Research done on these newer theories, however, much like the research done on classical and positivist theories, is inconclusive; there is evidence to support many of these theories but in general, any sociological research conducted can never be truly “proven” as it does not consist of scientifically accurate measurements.

(see ya tomorrow for Part II)

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