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Classical School of Criminology

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There have always been theories as to why people commit criminal acts. In early periods, the perspectives tended to revolve around religion and that crime was a sin. This pattern stayed in place for a very long period of time. After the Age of Enlightenment, the perspective on crime and criminology began to change. What came out of the Age of Enlightenment was the classical school of criminology. This paper will first analyze the origins of the classical school of criminology, as well as, its response to previous perspectives. The paper will then analyze the assumptions made by the classical school in regards to the nature of human beings and their behaviors. In addition, it will describe why crime occurs in the eyes of the classical school of criminology. Lastly, the paper will take a look at the crime-control implications that came out of this perspective and what should be done to reduce crime.

Prior to the classical school of criminology, the main focus was on the idea that crime was a sin against god and that it needed to be punished. The state would not only punish the person harshly for the crime, but would also punish the person for the fact that they had committed a sin against god. This was the focus for much of the time leading up to the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment created changes including the idea of the social contract. Through this social contract, it was established that in order to gain the safety provided by the state that the citizens would accept the laws imposed by the state. Crime was no longer seen as a crime against god by was instead seen as a moral offense against society which needed to be punished by the state. People were assumed to have the basic rights of life, liberty, and the protection of their property.

For the protection of these rights, citizens gave up control to the state to punish those who committed crimes. So through this came the idea of law and punishment in society at the hands of the state. The classical school got its initial influence from the moral philosophers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The perspective of the classical school was later expanded on by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. The objective of the classical school was to no longer focus on just punishing people for their crimes, but to look into why they were committing their crimes in order to stop further crime.

Both Beccaria and Bentham added new concepts to the classical school of criminology, but those will be discussed after it is established what are the general assumptions of the classical school. The main general assumptions of the classical school are as that people exist in a world of free will to act, that their actions are based on rational choices, and that they typically act towards self-interest. It is believed that the government enacts laws that define how transgressions are to be dealt with and handled, as well as, which behaviors will be deemed illegal. Punishment is only justified to protect the social contract and prevent future transgressions. And all people are equal before the law because all people are equal to their rights. These assumptions were realized and expanded on by Beccaria and Bentham. The first person to really put out propositions in reference to crime for the classical school was Cesare Beccaria in his work On Crime and Punishment. “Beccaria’s On Crimes is best thought of as a collection of principles that an enlightened ruler might use to make the administration of his legal system more systematically rational and therefore, Beccaria would argue, efficient” (Paternoster, 2010:768). Beccaria gave three main assumptions about human nature.

He firstly stated that individuals possess free will and are capable of making their own decisions. He further states that individuals are rational beings. And lastly he implies that individuals can be manipulated and are able to be changed. Beccaria’s idea on crime was that it was a moral offense against society and that law should be enlightened, rational, logical, and should work for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. He was against the idea of the cruel and unusual punishment that was common when it came to the handle of criminals at that time. He also presented the idea that for a law to be credible to the people it needs to be communicated. In this came the idea of deterrence. There was a two-fold idea of deterrence, general deterrence and specific deterrence. General deterrence was based on the idea of deterring the general public from engaging in crime by punishing offenders and using their punishment as an example. Specific deterrence was aimed at deterring previous offenders from committing further crimes. Beccaria believed that in order for punishments to be fair and just it needed to be certain, swift, and severe.

According to Beccaria (1764), “punishments that are certain, severe enough to sufficiently offset the anticipated gains of crime, and arrive immediately after the crime would make for a more effective legal system than the system that existed at the time, which combined great cruelty and the seemingly random exercise of mercy” (58-59). In order to be certain, a crime needed to have a punishment that was going to be administered no matter what. There was to be no ambiguity for what the punishment for a crime was. In order to be swift, a crime needed to be punished as soon after the commission of the crime as possible. In order to be severe, the crime needed to have a punishment equal to the damaged caused by its commission. Beccaria set into motion the beginnings of the classical school through the propositions he presented in his book On Crime and Punishment. He introduced the ideas of free-will and of people acting rationally and in their own interests. He also is the one who started the development of deterrence theory and set about the changes in the criminal justice system to deter crime. Despite all Beccaria did for the classical school of criminology, he was not the only one to contribute greatly to this school of criminology.

Jeremy Bentham brought about more reasoning and the idea of rational choice theory to the classical school. In his work The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham introduced the idea of the two sovereign masters of human nature. These two masters were pain and pleasure. According to Bentham (1789), “”Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do” (1). Bentham introduced the idea of utilitarianism which believes that people should work to achieve the most happiness for the most people in the population. When it came to crime, Bentham believed that people would conduct a moral or hedonistic calculus when it came to committing a criminal act.

“Utility for individuals, then, is the net difference between the benefits and costs of actions; among alternative courses of action, the individual will choose that which has the greater sum of benefits over costs” (Paternoster, 2010:771). If the pleasure of committing the crime outweighed the pain that would come from punishment, then people would commit the criminal act. This idea of the hedonistic calculus builds on Beccaria’s idea of deterrence when it comes to crime. If people see that the pain of punishment outweighs the pleasure of committing the crime, then they will be deterred from committing it. Thus, people make decisions to commit crime based on the rational choice of will pleasure outweigh pain.

When it comes to the perspective of the classical school of criminology, it is believed that crime occurs because the laws are weak. If the laws were strong enough to deter people from committing the criminal acts then we wouldn’t have crime. The argument comes down to a failure to meet Beccaria’s belief that punishment needs to be certain, swift, and severe. Since not everyone is punished for the actions that they commit and because some get away without being charged for the crimes they commit, people are not convinced by the certainty of punishment when it comes to criminal acts. Also since the time of punishment is typically so far down the line when it comes to committing a crime, the hedonistic calculus makes the benefit of committing the crime in the moment that much more appealing to the offender. If the punishment is not always equal in severity to the harm caused by the crime, then people are more likely to commit crimes if they believe the punishment doesn’t match the benefit of committing it. Another point is that many offenders are not aware of the punishment for the crimes they commit, so they do not know the full extent to which their actions may be punished. So the basic point is that people commit criminal acts because they do not feel deterred by the law from committing the acts.

When it comes to controlling crime, through the eyes of the classical school, the idea is to increase mechanisms to deter people from committing criminal actions. This has led to the implication of mandatory minimum sentences so that the criminal justice system can add certainty to the punishment of offenders. If people know they have to serve a certain amount of time they will be better able to apply it to their hedonistic calculus. By increasing the number of police officers out in the streets and by focusing them in high crime areas we can address the problem of swiftness. There will be more eyes and ears on the streets if we have more officers out there, so we will be able to catch offenders more quickly after they commit a crime and can punish them. In order to make the punishment more severe, the implementations of the death penalty for murder and the three strikes laws, which creates a mandatory minimum for those committing their third felony, allows us to punish offenders more severely for their criminal actions. So the objective is to deter people from committing crime and to make the punishment weigh heavier in the offenders hedonistic/moral calculus.

So in conclusion, the classical school of criminology was the first big step out of the religious ideals of punishment. The school brought the focus away from just punishing crime but actually looking into why offenders were committing crimes. Classical school theorists focus on people having the free will to choose to commit crime and that the law needs to deter them from doing so. The law also needs to make the pain of punishment outweigh the pleasure of committing crime in people’s hedonistic calculus. The objective is to make punishment certain, swift, and severe so as to deter the previous offenders, as well as, the public in general from wanting to commit crimes against society.

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