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Classical vs. Positivist Perspectives

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For hundreds of years, people have been trying to understand criminals and what causes people to act criminally. Many theories were created and some became more widely accepted than others. In the 1700s, a new perspective into criminality rose; the classical perspective. Father of the classical perspective, Cesare Beccaria, provided theories much different from the previous ideas about why people commit crimes. He and others who believed in the classical perspective focused on the idea of free will, and how people weigh the cost and benefits before committing a crime. Beccaria was also a big promoter of deterrence and how it plays a key role in helping reduce crime in societies.

After the age of the classical perspective, the father of a new perspective came about, Cesare Lombroso and the positivist perspective. Backed up by theories posed by Charles Darwin, the positivist perspective quickly became widely popular. This perspective rejected the classical ideas and in turn said people do not have free will and do not rationally decide to commit a crime. Their criminal actions were based off of many outside biological, sociological, and psychological factors. Given these widely different beliefs, it is easy to set apart these two perspectives. The opposing views of free will and rational choice, the ways in which positivists think they can identify criminals, and the method for stopping crime are all major aspects that differ a lot between these viewpoints.

The Age of Enlightenment greatly influenced the Classical School with regards to the concept of free will and rational thinking. The school focuses on what people are thinking and debating before the crime; if the likelihood of being caught and punished is low and the benefits of this crime appear high enough, people are more likely to commit crime. Simply put, individuals rationally weigh cost and benefits before they go forth with the crime. Thomas Hobbes touched on another important factor of fear that influences persons’ decisions on crime, which will tie into deterrence later. The Positive School however, disagrees with these ideas and claim people have no free will and do not choose their destiny, that it is based on determinism, the factors outside of free will.

Lombroso argued that those who commit more serious crimes were actually born criminals. His theory of atavism described how criminals exhibit a feature or behavior that is not expressed in modern humans. He explained them as having a “missing link” and have not fully evolved with the rest of the world. He also touched on how the psychological environmental circumstances effect those who commit minor crimes, referring to mentally ill offenders and people he termed “criminaloids.” These two groups weren’t singled out like the serious, repeat offenders because their crimes were more minor, and their actions were attributed to either mental problems, low IQ, or environmental factors such as a poor neighborhood. The majority of Lombroso’s work, and other positivist theorists, focused on the physical appearance of criminals and how certain features could identify a criminal.

Stigmata is the specific focus on the physical signs of atavism and how criminals display a biological inferiority. Lombroso compiled a large list of physical characteristics based on observed criminals and claimed these characteristics would identify criminals. The actual study of these bodily aspects, physiognomy, was used to determine several developmental problems, and this included criminality. Since these ideas are based on biological problems, the free will factor is clearly not accepted among positivists. Along with physical appearances, intelligence was believed to play a part in criminality. Those with lower intelligence levels are thought to struggle with school work and will eventually turn to criminal actions. They will become frustrated and possibly give up on success in school or college aspirations, could befriend others in the same IQ range, and influence one another to commit crimes. This idea of low IQ influencing criminal tendencies eventually led to a form of criminal control.

This form of control within the positivist era was known as eugenics, a form of population control. People with lower IQ, many being incoming immigrants, were subjected to sterilization, usually unknowingly, to avoid reproduction. Positivists thought that sterilizing those with lower IQs would lower crime rate then because the dumber individuals could not then produce dumb offspring. Another more modern implication to prevent criminal behavior that is still used today addresses prenatal and early postnatal care. Mothers are encouraged to take proper care of themselves while pregnant to prevent the biological problems that may cause their offspring to become criminal. Also, to properly take care of their children postnatal and if issues such as low IQ arises, to take early measures such as special classes in school or extra help outside of the classroom, to help with learning problems.

Back to the classical theorists, Beccaria brought up a very important idea of deterrence that is also still used today. He emphasized the need of certainty to be caught, swiftness in prosecution, and severity in punishment all influence society to not act criminally. When weighing the cost and benefits, if people believe the punishment for their action is strong and that they will be caught, they are deterred from that criminal act. Beccaria also pushed the idea that too severe a punishment would not deter people and that the death penalty did not help with deterrence either because it is seen as the easy way out, as opposed to life in prison. Though both perspectives had different ways to prevent crime, aspect of both are credible and still incorporated into today’s society.

Like other theories and ideas in society, beliefs change and more research brings about new theories. The classical positivist perspectives are good examples of how views change overtime. These two perspectives could not have been much more opposite in their views of why people act criminally, going from free will and rational thought, to biological inferiority and poor environmental or social influences. Both made credible points in their time and some were carried over throughout the ages. The forms of punishment and governmental structure of classical theory is seen within our society as ways of deterrence are still a big focus today. Although sterilization is not used towards those with low IQ, the positivist theory did bring about new policy implications to instead help those with low IQ. Also, more people are focusing on other biological factors that could influence criminality as well as environmental upbringing and ways to better these aspects. Though the two perspectives differed so severely, important findings came from both to help better society and appear to still be influencing views and policies today.

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