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What is Penology?

Updated on August 28, 2010

Penology is that part of the science of criminology that studies the principles of punishment and the management of prisons, reformatories, and other confinement units. Francis Lieber, the political philosopher and writer on prison reform, is given credit for first using the term.

Theories of Punishment

Five principal theories of punishment have been advocated: (1) retribution or retaliation, (2) expiation, (3) deterrence, (4) reformation, and (5) the protection of society. There is obvious overlapping among these theories. Each of them, for example, may be regarded as a way of protecting society. However, these are the most significant attitudes that society, through the centuries, has expressed toward punishment.

The theory of retribution affords the society or the individual who was wronged the opportunity of imposing upon the offender such suitable punishment as might be enforced. Private vengeance, in which the individual or his social group retaliates upon the offending individual or his social group, is still prevalent in many areas today. One difficulty that arises with this principle is that it offers no way of breaking the chain of feuds, as the last act of retaliation must itself always be avenged. However, the act of retribution can be taken out of private hands and assumed by the society as a whole. One famous example of this is the Code of Hammurabi, in which the judgment is made, not by the individual or his group, but by judges representing the entire society. The medieval Truce of God and the concept of sanctuary are other instances of the limits which society has placed on the right of retaliation. This "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" theory has not been entirely eliminated from the penal law of the 20th century where it finds expression in sentences of undue severity.

The theory of expiation rests on the belief that wrongdoing must be atoned for by a punishment which compensates for the crime. The term expiation is used here—not in the sense of spiritual repentence (which would be a part of the theory of reformation discussed below)—but in the objective balancing of the scales of justice: the degree of severity of punishment balances the degree of severity of the crime. Arnong many peoples, including the ancient Hebrews, a sacrifice was required to remove contamination when a divine law had been broken. To many people, even today, the infliction of punishment to atone for the offending act is necessary even though there may be no predictable advantage to society in so doing. Sentences must be imposed to expiate the crime, in accordance with the principle of compensation, regardless of any special or mitigating circumstances.

The theory of deterrence is based on the principle that the punishment received by convicted criminals prevents others from performing similar actions for fear that they will receive similar punishment. It has sometimes followed from this principle that the severer the sentence the more effectively it deters others from criminal action. The theory rests on the belief that the rational criminal is not apt to risk a major penalty for a minor advantage. Modern psychology, however, in its investigations of criminal behavior, finds that criminal acts are very likely not to be based on such rational considerations.

Penologists know too well, for example, that the vast majority of murderers never weigh the severity of the death penalty in advance of the commission of the crime. The classic illustration of the fallacy of this theory is the fact that, in the days when pickpockets were executed, the scenes of public execution provided a fertile field for yet uncon-victed pickpockets busy plying their trade.

The theory that the essential purpose of punishment is to bring about the moral reformation of the wrongdoer has its roots deep in the Judaic-Christian tradition. True expiation, on this theory, requires some kind of inner or spiritual transformation and not simply a suitable punishment which will wipe the slate clean. However, this concept, old as it is, had little effect on the treatment of criminals until early modern times when the Quakers and other reformers seriously tried to initiate humanitarian changes. In the colony of Pennsylvania, for example, which was for a time under Quaker control, capital punishment was abolished, except for murder, because William Penn believed in the possibility of reforming criminals through hard labor. The Pennsylvania and Auburn systems of prison discipline, both "silent systems" under Quaker inspiration, prevented prisoners from speaking and confined them with their Bibles so that they might ponder the evil of their ways. Other practices, such as encouraging prisoners to study and to master a trade are additional examples of the attempt to rehabilitate.

The theory that the basic purpose of punishment is to protect society has been a supplementary aim of the other theories, at least in some of their forms. However, it is the principal justification in the modern penological systems of the present day. Not only does society incarcerate criminals to prevent them from continuing their antisocial acts, but it further protects itself by rehabilitating the offender.

Development of Modern Penology

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), the first great modern penologist, inspired the classical school of penology in his Dei delitti e delle pene (1764; Eng. tr., Essay on Crimes and Punishment, 1767). He argued that the justification of punishment was to deter potential criminals, and he believed that punishments should be scaled carefully so that the prospective criminal could see that his anticipated gains from the criminal act would be outweighed by the severity of the punishment he would receive if apprehended. No greater punishment than was necessary to achieve this end could be justified. As a true son of the Enlightenment, Beccaria wished to place punishment on a rational and objective basis so that sentences would not be cruel and excessive and so that the offender would not be subject to the caprice of the judge. The British utilitarian philosophers, notably Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), effectively argued similar ideas. In France, the revolutionary penal code of 1791 attempted to apply the classical theories; Beccaria's principle of "equal punishment for the same crime" was its basis.

The neoclassical school arose as an attempt to meet some of the difficulties that were discovered in the classical theory. Particularly, the judge was given some discretion in sentencing so that he might take account of mitigating circumstances. The revised French code of 1819 reflects this more individual approach to the criminal.

The Italian school was established by Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), Enrico Ferri (1856-1928), and Raffaele Garofalo (1852-1934), who are often considered the founders of modern criminology. This school held that the born criminal was an atavistic throwback to a more primitive stage of the human species, and that he could be identified by certain definite physical stigmata (though both Ferri and Garofalo placed an increased emphasis upon social and psychological factors). This school has been of paramount importance in the development of penology especially for its focus upon the criminal as an individual (rather than upon abstract law or justice), its emphasis on science and scientific method, and its formulation of the social protection theory of punishment.

The modern clinical school accepted the social protection theory of punishment. It has drawn heavily upon auxiliary sciences to achieve its purpose of protecting society by rehabilitating the criminal. New developments in psychology, psychiatry, physiology, and sociology, have been of special value in understanding the causes of crime and the best methods of dealing with the criminal.

John Lewis Gillin (1871-1958), the American criminologist, has described the position of the modern clinical school as follows:

The criminal is the product of his biological inheritance conditioned in his development by the experiences of life to which he has been exposed from early infancy up to the commission of the crime. . . . By studying the offender in every possible way, the Modern school promises to throw light on his conditioning and arrive at a diagnosis of the factors entering into each individual case. From the standpoint of penology this school attempts to adapt the treatment of each individual in accordance with the diagnosis obtained by scientific study of the criminal.

In line with this new approach, the term "corrections" is today often used instead of "penology," indicating that the chief concern is to correct antisocial behavior, not to punish it.

Various techniques have been developed since the later decades of the 19th century in refinement of the newer approach to crime and to criminals. Devices such as probation, parole, the indeterminate sentence, individualized treatment of prisoners, and experiments in group living have found a place within the modern clinical school of thought. At one time offenders were committed to prison for punishment; now they are committed as punishment. The prisoner is punished by his loss of liberty, but he is not sent to prison to receive further punishment; rather, it is expected that he will profit from the treatment he receives in prison. Administrators in institutions have been encouraged to develop treatment programs in education, vocational training, physical recreation, religion, constructive correctional industry, and others designed to return the offender to society improved as a result of his confinement.

Probation is the judicial device which gives a first offender an opportunity to demonstrate that he has learned his lesson without going to prison; if society can be adequately protected in this way then no further punishment is necessary. The technique of parole is an administrative process controlled in the United States, generally, by a board of parole appointed by the governor of a state. It permits the conditional release of the prisoner to the free community under constant supervision. It is not a device to mitigate a sentence, nor is it a reward to a prisoner or a pardon. It is not to be confused with what is known in some areas as bench parole, a device used by local courts to release an offender in his own recognizance or in the custody of his family or attorney. Parole, as it is known today, is based upon the old ticket-of-leave system used in England and elsewhere during the 19th century. It is increasingly used today, in the United States, Canada, England, Belgium, France, and many other parts of the world. Another integral part of the modern correctional system is the indeterminate sentence. Although the pure indeterminate sentence (from one day to life imprisonment) is generally not used in the United States, most states do sentence offenders to a term with minimum and maximum limits. At some point between, parole may be offered.

Society has, unfortunately, been slow to accept the principle that penology is a science. It was not until the 1920s that the first serious inroads were made on the long accepted principle that training was not necessary for a penologist. In some areas it is apparent that the influence of politics still prevails and the award of key institutional positions, such as warden, superintendent, and departmental directors, reflects the need for repaying political debts rather than professional competency. Organizations including The American Correctional Association, the National Probation and Parole Association, La Societe Generate des Prisons, and the Canadian Corrections Association, have worked to produce an awareness on the part of the public that penology is a field for trained competent persons serving with a true spirit of dedication to public service.


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