The classical theory in criminal justice suggests that an individual who brakes the law does so with rational free will, understanding the effects of their actions. As a response to a criminal's action, classical theory in criminal justice postulates that society should enforce a punishment that fits the crime committed. Classical theorist writing helped shape and influence the United States system of justice.
The basic idea behind classical theory in criminal justice is that humans are rational beings and that behavior can be controlled by human will. Cesare Beccaria, the 18th-century Italian aristocrat who wrote "On Crimes and Punishments," suggested that the punishments placed on criminal acts therefore, must be rational as well. Depending on the severity of the crime, a punishment should be placed that is in direct proportion to the crime.
Features of Classical Theory
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In Beccaria's writings, he believed that rather than the judiciary being the ultimate source of law, he saw the legislative branch as serving that role. In addition, he suggested that the judiciary role was not to assess punishment but to determine guilt on a case by case basis. Classical theory brought to the table the emphasis of a criminal justice system that included police and courts, as well as correctional facilities.
Impact and Considerations
Classical theories on criminal justice, and in particular the writings of Cesare Beccaria, influenced the framers of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. In the 19th century, a response to the classical theories in criminal justice arose: the positivist theory. The positivist theory expressed the belief that not all individuals are subject to rational thinking and are predisposed to criminal acts based on various psychological, experiential and genetic factors, and thus, require special treatment in some cases.