Once upon a time, before the advent of behavioral scientists and social reformers, the doctrine of accountability had few challengers. A person was held responsible for his behavior. Those who failed to meet society’s standards of conduct were expected to suffer prescribed consequences. Those whose level of performance at work or school or elsewhere was adjudged superior had a right to anticipate recognition; those who were inferior had no cause for complaint if they were penalized accordingly.

The gap between the real and the ideal existed here as elsewhere in the machinery of society. Some persons were held more rigorously accountable than others. But the principle itself was not called into question.

The sweeping application of the doctrine of accountability left many innocent victims in its wake. And so social reformers began pressing for limitations on its applicability. The populace of tender age early escaped some accountability; so did those of conspicuously little intellect, and those considered lacking in sanity.

As the influence of the social sciences became more pronounced, the areas of non-accountability were extended. More sectors of life were involved; more categories of people were held to be exempt from responsibility for their actions. The behavioral sciences, stressing the manner in which human behavior is the consequence of the interplay of hereditary and environmental influences, seemed to many to make notions of free will obsolete. Why should persons who are molded by factors over which they have no control suffer for not meeting society’s standards?

In the newer conception of penology, the purpose of sentencing a convicted person was held to be not punishment but reform. The deviant needed ...

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