Classical Criminology Was an Idea Formed Because Essay

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Classical criminology was an idea formed because there was no formal understanding of what caused criminal behavior. In an attempt to make sense of what was deemed socially irresponsible behavior, Cesare Beccaria was determined to formulate a theory that not only helped explain criminal behavior, but also helped to streamline punishment. Before this theory was developed, crime was not studied and the enforcement of crime was very arbitrary. Many times crime was considered a class issue. People in the lower classes were thought to be prone to crime whereas those in the upper classes were generally upstanding citizens. Of course, this could have been because the gentry were making and enforcing the laws. Therefore, the primary context around which Beccaria based his premises was that of justice which was not a primary concern previously. His theory was based on the fact that people are in control of their own fate.


Classical criminology was founded more as a complete approach to dealing with crime, the courts and punishment than just a theory. The idea was that there was no consistent manner in which crime was dealt with, and it was just as likely that a person would admit to a crime under torture, that they did not commit, than the actual perpetrator of a crime would be found. The theory offers a comprehensive look at how crime should be dealt with by the governing system.

The actual theory was about the choices people have, and the poor ones that are made due to selfish interests. "Crime occurs when the benefits outweigh the costs -- when people pursue self-interest in the absence of effective punishments" (Cullen & Agnew, 2002). The theory was not meant to provide the punishments (that was up to the courts) or to elucidate what a crime is or was (that is the job of the law-making body), but the theory did try to explain why people will act in a lawless manner.

One case in literature that follows the classical precepts closely is Jean Valjean in Hugo's "Les Miserables." His initial crime was that he stole a loaf of bread because his sister and her family were starving. The classical theory would look at the crime and see that Valjean looked at the punishment he would receive vs. The benefit of the crime. The benefit was that his family would survive for another day vs. starving to death. The other side of the coin, the punishment, could have been as harsh as death, but he did receive five years in prison for the theft. His was a classical case of weighing the crime and the outcomes, and making a decision to commit a crime based on the fact that the desire for personal gain (even though it was a selfless rather than a selfish act) was greater than the threat of punishment.


The neo-classical school of criminology follows along the same principles of rights, justice and explanation of the causes of criminal behavior that the classical theory does, but it updates the precepts and puts them in a modern context. In classical criminology the concept of imprisonment for a crime was predominant. Punishments were also harsher because the belief in capital punishment for many crimes now deemed lesser offenses was still in force. The primary thrust of the neo-classical school is the use of other methods of deterrence that may have a greater record of success for lesser crimes. Through the use of alternative punishments such as half way houses and home confinement, theorists hoped that petty criminals could be guided to a licit lifestyle. This school also looked into the rights of the prisoner rather than just the rights of the victim of the crime.


This theory was mainly attractive to the legal authority because it had strict objectives that allowed them to construct a framework for punishment based on the crime. Since crime was previously thought of as the interference in a person's life from some supernatural force, this theory put the onus back in the criminal and took the much of the harshness out of the punishment. People realized that the criminal had to be rehabilitated rather than eradicated because of the evil force which caused them to commit the crime.

The four primary of objectives of the theory were: "1) to prevent all criminal offenses through punishment; 2) when it cannot prevent crime, at least to convince offenders to commit a lesser crime; 3) to insure that a criminal uses no more force than is necessary; 4) to prevent crime as cheaply as possible" (Cullen & Agnew, 2002). These are why the theory is so attractive. The primary goal of any police department and court system is to keep the citizens under their watch safe. By letting anyone who wishes to engage in criminal activity the punishment they will receive for a particular act, it is more possible to achieve the two final goals. Punishment is meant to completely deter crime, but another attractive feature is that it should reduce the cost of the crime on two fronts. First, the individual cost, meaning how crime affects people, is greatly reduced if there is a comprehensive and focused theory of crime. Also, the actual monetary expense should be reduced (at least according to the theory).


Europe as a whole was dominated by the thought that criminal activity could only be controlled through extreme means. Torture to exact confessions was the primary way that people were convicted of a crime. However, England stopped exacting confessions via torture long before other European countries did, but England also went to a more republican governmental system (for the people instead of for the monarch) before any of the other European states. The main problem with England prior to the reformation of their penal and justice systems was the way they treated the families of the convicted. First, most felonies carried a death penalty. This also meant that not only the life but the property of the convicted criminal was also forfeited. This left the family of the felon destitute, and did much more to continue the criminal activity than to punish the felon. It was also difficult for the parents of a convicted felon to give an inheritance to their grandchildren.

The impact of the classical criminology theory was to change the way that people thought about crime. It was seen less as a failing of blood (heredity) than a personal failing. Therefore, there was more of a move to rehabilitation and civil penalties were separated from criminal.


It had become, through the positivist school of criminology, the practice to believe that people actions were somewhat beyond their control. People do act with freewill as the classical school says, but there are other factors that are not accounted for in the classical model. The reason that the classical model made a reemergence is that people started believing that choice was a larger factor in why a person committed a criminal act than outside forces (stressors) that may act on them.


Situational crime prevention is basically using modern methods of data gathering to prevent crime. It is not a method that attacks the criminal or makes any statement about the individual in any way. Instead using this method people try to determine the places that crimes occur the most, and they use policing and community response to diminish its occurrence in those areas. A great example of this is when Rudoph Giuliani changed the way…

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