Classical theory saw a resurgence in the late 20th century in the United States, when its central values were applied to the effort to crackdown on juvenile delinquency and crime (Juvenile, 2005, 73). The philosophy which formed the basis of the American criminal justice system switched away from trying to rehabilitate offenders and turned again towards punishment, incapacitation and deterrence. Since classical theory is based on the notion that people have free will and are rational, it is assumed that they know what they are doing and the risks they are taking when they break the law and therefore should suffer the consequences. Any mitigating social circumstances, such as family situation, economic hardship etc., are considered secondary to the individual's decision to break the law.
If the punishment is increasingly harsher as the level of the crime increases, so that the cost of the crime always outweighs the benefits, then punishment can act as a deterrent (Hollin, 2004, 2; Juvenile, 2005, 71-72).
Brief review of sociological explanation of crime. ND. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2005 from
The neoclassical theory endorses most of the classical theory, with two exceptions: a rejection of the rigidity of the classical system of punishment, and a degree of subjectivity (discretion) when assessing criminal responsibility (Brief, 2001). A characteristic feature of the neoclassical system is the plea bargain, which gives the prosecution and defense an opportunity to make a deal in which the accused will plead guilty in return for certain considerations such as a reduced sentence or charge on a lesser crime. Like classical theory, neoclassical theory assumes that the accused calculated the risks before committing the crime and is therefore willing to accept the punishment.