Correctional Theories Research Paper Starter

Correctional Theories

(Research Starters)

This paper looks at correctional theories through the sociological lens. These theories look at the institutions and structures of punishment, how they are justified, and how well they accomplish what they claim. There is an initial look at deviance and crime as part of normal, healthy societies, establishing the need for all societies to have a means to impose social control on members who commit crimes. Explanations of deviance and the resulting response are explored historically. Forms of negative sanction, or punishment, used in the United States are considered. Various studies looking at the success of the current system and some criticisms of mainstream approaches to punishment are also discussed.

Keywords Anomie; Biological Determinism; Criminology; Deviance; Differential Association; Greatest Good for the Greatest Number; Labeling Theory; Sanctions; Socialization; Street Crime; Total Institutions; White Collar Crime

Correctional Theories


Correctional theory studies how and why we punish people in society. These theories look at the institutions and structures of punishment, how they are justified, and how well they accomplish what they claim. The complexity of how we punish people in societies means that this field is very wide and, ideally, requires a general understanding of deviance, social order, law enforcement strategies, and social control. Correctional theories focus mainly on the means of social control, and in the United States these have included monetary fines, incarceration, capital punishment, and the newly developing alternative sentencing programs, including community service and restorative justice programs. Because this arm of sociology is so broad, the thinkers that have contributed to it also include psychologists, anthropologists, historians, and biologists.


For someone to be deviant, there must be a rule to break. Put another way, it is not possible to have deviance in a society if there are no rules (called norms in sociology) to be broken. Structural-functionalist Emile Durkheim, one of the classical theorists in sociology, was careful to point out that all normal, healthy societies have deviance. Norms, and therefore deviance, to a structural-functionalist, have several very important purposes:

• They help us to define what our society is and how to live in it;

• They help us insure sense of cohesion, or common social bonds, because we share certain values and norms; and

• They show us what we should and should not do.

Deviants, those members who break the rules, and the negative sanctions, or punishments, applied to them, have a deterrent effect on the compliant members, reinforcing why they should conform to the dominant norms.

For Durkheim, the level of deviance in a society reflects how cohesive the society is. In complex, industrialized societies, there is often a sense of normlessness and confusion that comes from either unclear rules or members being too individualized or too self-interested to go along with all the rules. Durkheim calls this sense of normlessness "anomie." Many theorists agree with Durkheim that a lack of clear rules contributes to deviance.

Robert Merton, an American functionalist, agreed with Durkheim about the effect unclear rules have on a society and its members. But Merton's ideas differ from Durkheim's in that he recognized that some social structures, in this case capitalism, do not provide the same opportunities for everyone to be successful. Merton points out that in American society, most members value wealth because it is a central element in capitalism, and yet all members don't have the same access to wealth. So, some members engage in deviant behavior in order to fulfill the social expectation of achieving wealth. In other words, the goals are the same for most of the members, but the means to accessing the goals are not equal.

History of Modern Corrections

Every correctional theory makes certain assumptions about why there is deviance in a society, and what to do about. Most current correctional theories hold the assumption that deviants should be punished, but also can be reformed or rehabilitated. This way of punishing people in society is relatively new to the social world, and this is well established by the French historian Michel Foucault (1975) in his groundbreaking book investigating the birth of the modern prison system. In this work, Foucault starts by describing the pre-Enlightenment punishment before the early eighteenth century; often public forms of punishment were designed to shame and terrorize the deviant. There was no attempt to allow the deviant a chance for retribution, or pay back society or the victim, or to rehabilitate or bring the criminal back into society.

The modern prison system, developed in the mid-1700s and fully implemented by the early 1800s, was aimed at creating a more humane system. Its advocates argued that the system of torture and public humiliation that characterized the medieval period was antiquated and did not work, but most importantly, it was cruel and dehumanizing. They wanted to develop a system that reflected new and progressive ideas that were seen in other social institutions, like the enlightened governing bodies, novel ways of thinking about the economy, and the powerful critiques of religion. The American judicial and legal systems are historically embedded in Enlightenment ideals, although recently other influences have been a part of their definitions.

The work of social scientists has, in many ways, been the basis for these systems of negative sanctions applied to criminals. There are, of course, other factors that go into how punishment is meted out, like religion or economics. But, sociological theories have historically dominated, and are still employed, to help determine how to punish whom for what offense.

The earliest modern theories of corrections were determined by the earliest modern explanations for deviance. The classical school in criminology is based in the work of Enlightenment thinkers, mainly, Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. Bentham, a philosopher and social reformer who despised the idea of "natural law" because he said it served those in power, said laws were good or bad based on the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." Rules, he said, should be aimed at making the greatest number of people happy. But individuals want to maximize their own pleasure and minimize pain, so they could deviate if the rewards for doing so outweighed the costs of getting caught. Bentham thought that deviants were people who made poor calculations; they were not immoral. Punishments should be just harsh enough to discourage those who were not rational enough to make a self-interested beneficial calculation, but not harsher than needed to deter crime. Bentham's utilitarian principles were the basis for his famous plans for a penitentiary, called the "panopticon." This was a circular building with spokes coming out from a central guard tower. This meant that the prisoners could not see whether the guard was watching them or not, but would always have the sense of being watched. Only two prisons were built using these plans, one in 1825 in Pittsburgh, and one in the 1920s in Statesville, Illinois (Clear, Cole & Reisig, 2005). The system was not considered further.

Italian philosopher and politician, Cesare Beccaria wrote one of the most powerful and widely utilized critiques of the penal system as it was employed during the eighteenth century. A humanist, he rejected any use of the death penalty because, first, it is not the right of the state to determine who will die, and second, because it is neither useful, nor does it enhance public security. Other aspects of Beccaria's reformist ideas were:

• Punishment should be preventative, not retributive (out of vengeance),

• The punishment should fit the crime,

• Crime prevention is insured by making the punishment a known certainty, not through harshness, and

• Punishment should be prompt (Sitze, 2008).

In the early 1800s, America began erecting institutions of all types, not only prisons, but asylums, orphanages, and reformatories. This was a response to a rapidly growing crime rate explained by the lack of social cohesion, which was due to the huge numbers of immigrants. In other words, so many different types of people had come to the United States so rapidly that there lacked the common bonds that keep people from deviating (Harcourt, 2006). By the mid-twentieth century, the rate of institutionalization (including prison, asylums, reformatories, etc.) was almost 650 per 100,000 (Harcourt, 2006). Bear in mind that the development of institutions to this extent was not considered inhumane, and was an attempt to provide a controlled environment for deviants of different types. Erving Goffman (1961), a Canadian sociologist, defines these places of complete confinement as "total institutions," designed to provide a place to systematically remove certain members and control every aspect of their lives.

Differential Association Theory

In the 1930s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland, who coined the term riminology to describe the study of deviance, developed a theory claiming deviance is a learned behavior, not pathological. Sutherland's theory, called differential association, argues that one is not born deviant; rather one learns to be deviant just as one learns anything else, through socialization. Socialization is a process of coming to understand a culture, and internalizing its norms and values. Sutherland's theory demands a look at the social structure, instead of an individual's personality or genetics. He says that within groups, people learn deviant behavior and this knowledge is used to the extent that there is the opportunity to use it. So, one learns to be a plumber, a lawyer, a bank robber, or an embezzler all in the same way. For example, the best single predictor of drug use is association with friends who use drugs (Spohn & Holleran, 2002). Sutherland also says what motivates the criminal is the same thing that motivates the noncriminal, and in American society that is wealth and status. The strength of Sutherland's theory is found in his work on white-collar crime. Many previous theorists surmised that deviance was due to poverty and that it was rational for those who could not access wealth and status to attempt to do so, even if that meant breaking the rules. But this does not explain white-collar crime, which is crime committed by middle and upper-middle class members, generally through their occupational statuses. Proponents of differential association argue that the best way to discourage deviance is to allow the deviant access to status and wealth and access to a different group association (Gaylord & Galliher, 1988).

Labeling Theory

Related to Sutherland's differential association theory is labeling theory. Howard Becker, an interactionist theorist, developed the theory in the 1960s that our sense of self lies in our interpretation of a collective, social definition of how we define ourselves. Becker said that if a behavior is labeled deviant, those who commit those acts are punished for being deviant, they then see themselves as deviant and, in this way, the greater society has contributed to the creation of deviance. These types of stigmas, or social labels, are applied not only to the criminally deviant, but also to social deviants, such as those defined as mentally ill (Becker, 1997).

Both labeling theorists and proponents of differential association argue that incarceration exacerbates, or makes worse, the problem of deviance. The best way to handle deviance is to make opportunities for conformity to norms available to deviants, as well as allowing them the opportunities to redefine themselves. They advocate for alternative sentencing that keeps the offender from being exposed to other deviants, as well as the greater stigma associated with imprisonment. These were the theories that drove the prison reform movement of the 1960s and 70s, which advocated for rehabilitation and which was supported by local, state, and federal governments through funding for education, mental health programs, drug rehabilitation, and other reforms.


Forms of Punishment

Criminologists call all the programs employed to rehabilitate and reduce recidivism rates, notions of who is deviant and why, and theories of social control, a body of literature called the "What Works" literature (Hubbard, 2006, p. 44). There are four categories of punishment...

(The entire section is 5592 words.)