Strengths and Weaknesses
An obvious weakness within the classical school of thought is the rational choice assumption as discussed above. Another weakness involves the application of restriction of liberty in order to deter. Determinate sentencing has derived from classical ideals of deterrence including the philosophy that punishment must be certain and severe enough to deter the crime. Determinate sentencing calls for a sentence that has a “determined” length of time, with set minimums and maximums that a sentencing judge can impose on the offender. While some praise determinate sentencing, especially those who favor “get tough on crime” initiatives, it can often lead to unnecessarily long sentences for certain offenders. Mitigating circumstances that should be recognized in many cases cannot be given full weight of value as minimum sentence length has already been statutorily imposed. The only justification for punishment is deterrence. (Williams & McShane, 2010). Therefore, if deterrence is the goal, and not punishment per se, then any length of incarceration above what is necessary in order to achieve deterrence is not justified and violates the social contract between the state and the individual. With each case being different, and each individual being different, with different mitigating factors in each case, it is difficult to imagine even the remote possibility that the same minimum sentence is justified for each offender who commits a like crime.
One of the strengths of the classical school of thought, and a benefit that has derived from it in our current criminal justice system, is due process rights. The classical school believes “since government drew its authority from the social contract, all individuals were equal before the law. This meant the operation of criminal justice had to be aboveboard, due process of law had to be followed, evidence had to be obtained from facts, and equality had to be maintained” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 19). Due process rights within our criminal justice system has helped to eliminate some of the injustice and inequalities that once were present in our system, such as coerced confessions and improper search and seizures.
On one level, this has created a weakness, however. While arguing for due process rights, “scholars such as Beccaria suspected judges of following personal whim and not the law when determining guilt. He wanted the discretion of judges limited and the process of conviction and sentencing fully spelled out by law.” (Williams & McShane, 2010, p. 19). It is, of course, of the utmost importance that we have judges in the system who are not following personal whim; however, limiting judge’s discretion is detrimental to our system as without the ability to judge cases on individual merit, the system will become punitive for the sake of punishment as opposed to the classical ideal of punishment only for the sake of deterrence (i.e. like the determinate sentencing argument above).
Finally, the biggest weakness, in my opinion, is the complete lack of belief in the necessity of rehabilitation and treatment. As an advanced society, we have recognized the existence of psychological conditions that control behavior which are just as “real” as physical ailments such as cancer or heart disease. We would never suggest that individuals with any of these physical ailments are culpable for crimes they commit due to the pain or suffering they experience. For example, a cancer patient in extreme pain orders an illegal prescription over the internet to alleviate his pain, or perhaps doesn’t have insurance and can’t afford to purchase the prescriptions he needs so he is caught attempting to steal medications from others in the hospital he is living in. While this is criminal behavior, I sincerely doubt any punitive measures would be taken against this individual. Why then do we punish those who are just as sick, and due to the sickness they commit deviant acts, just because the sickness is psychological as opposed to physical? Yes, we do allow a certain amount of leniency in criminal behavior for the “extreme” cases of mentally ill offenders. But unless an offender is so severely ill that the psychosis is readily apparent, the justice system, and the classical school of thought, will ignore any mitigating factors that could cause psychological strain and impairment in an individual. We need to realize that psychological and emotional impairments do not always manifest themselves as extreme behaviors; just because somebody can appear normal does not mean they are not suffering tremendously internally in a way that is affecting their behavior. The Classical school of thought gives not even a brief glance toward these possibilities and focuses strictly on deterrence in the form of punishment.
(… to be continued)