The early penal system was highly inefficient and was not based on corrective goals. The system was based on revenge, and prisoners completing their sentences were required to pay a fee for their release. Most prisoners were unable to raise the money and were forced to continue languishing in prison.
John Howard, in his position as the Sheriff of Bedfordshire, noticed some of these challenges and decided to address them. He tried to convince the legislature to pass laws that sought to hold acquittal hearings in open court and the abolishing of the release fees.
Cesare Beccaria introduced scholars to the classical school of criminology and led to reforms of the penal system through his works. He suggested that criminals are capable of change and that punishment should serve as a channel for deterrence and not revenge. He also championed for better prison conditions and offender classification by demographics and the type/level of offenses.
Jeremy Bentham introduced the principle of utilitarianism to the penal system. He suggested that the penal system should ensure that the punishment causes more pain to the criminal than the pleasure they derived from the crime. The situation would, in turn, deter the individual from future participation in the crime. He also pushed for the improvement of general prison conditions.
Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, and John Howard all made contributions to the topic of penal reform. Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher, wrote a document titled On Crimes and Punishment in 1764. In this document, Beccaria argued against the death penalty. He said that what will deter people from committing crimes is the certainty of the punishment, not the severity of it.
John Howard was the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. He visited a prison and couldn’t believe what he saw. He saw prisoners living in horrible conditions. He saw that those who worked in the jails were not paid by the government but by the prisoners. He also saw that some prisoners had completed their jail term but weren’t released because they couldn’t pay the fees to be released. He worked to have prisoners be treated better and to have the release fees eliminated.
Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, wanted to design a prison in such a way that all inmates could be watched in a common area. This prison, however, was never constructed.
All three men had ideas on how to bring about penal reform.
These philosophers made different contributions, but all aimed at establishing a prison system that was more humane, and that focused on reform as well as punishment. Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishment, published in 1764, argued forcefully against capital punishment and torture, and opposed the "cruel and unusual" treatment often administered to people who had committed even minor crimes. John Howard toured prisons and asylums in England in the late eighteenth century, writing a series of accounts of the horrors he saw there, especially the almost total lack of sanitation and the treatment given to women and people who were clearly mentally ill. Bentham proposed a prison system that focused on reforming the morals of prisoners. His famed "panopticon," a plan of architecture that would place all prisoners within sight of a centrally-located surveillance tower, was intended to assist in this process.