The Classical School of Criminology

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During the middle of the eighteenth century, Beccaria the pioneer of modern criminology expounded his naturalistic theory of criminality by rejecting the theory propounded by the pre-classical school.

He laid greater emphasis on the free will of the individual, arguing that intelligence and rationality are the fundamental characteristics of man and therefore the basis for the explanation of human behavior whether individual or collective.

Thus, intelligence makes man capable of self-direction and any conduct engaged in will be assumed to have been thought of and rationalized by the individual.  Within this frame of reference, crime and criminals are usually viewed from a strictly legal point of view.  I.e. crime is defined as the commission of any action prohibited by criminal law or the omission of any act required by it.

A criminal is defined as a person who commits a crime.  Crime is seen as the product of the free choice of the individual who assesses the potential benefits of committing the crime against its potential cost.

The rational response of society should therefore be to increase the cost and decrease the benefits of crime to the point that individuals will not choose to commit a crime.

The task for criminology is seen as designing and testing a system of punishment that would result in the minimum occurrence of crime.  Thus, this perspective is concerned with the question of deterrence.

The main tenets of the classical school of criminology are as follows:

  1. Man applies his sense of reasoning as a responsible individual:
  2. It is the act of an individual and not his intent which forms the basis for determining criminality in him. Classical criminologists are therefore concerned with the “act” of the criminal rather than his “intent”.
  3. The classical criminologists are greatly influenced by hedonism – the pain (cost) and pleasure (benefit) theory. Thus, they accepted punishment as a mode of inflicting pain, humiliation and disgrace on the offender so as to create fear in him and thus control his behavior.
  4. The proponents of this school of thought considered crime prevention more important than the punishment for it. They therefore stressed the need for a well-established system of criminal justice.
  5. The classical criminologists supported the right of the state to punish offenders in the interest of public security. Keeping in view the hedonistic principle of pain and pleasure they pointed out that individualization was to be the basis of punishment.  The punishment was to be meted out keeping in view the pleasure derived by the criminal from the crime and the pain caused to the victim there from.  They however advanced the theory of equalization of justice i.e.  Equal punishment for the same offence.
  6. They further believed that criminal law was primarily based on positive sanctions. They were against arbitrary use of power by judges and abhorred torturous punishments.

The greatest achievement of the classical school is the fact that it shifted emphasis from myths and concentrated on the personality of the offender in order to determine his guilt and punishment.  In other words, Beccaria was the first criminologist to shift the emphasis from crime to criminals.

Nonetheless, the classical school has the following shortcomings:

  • Firstly, it proceeded on an abstract presumption of free will and relied solely on the criminal act without devoting any attention to the state of mind of the criminal;
  • It also erred in prescribing equal punishment for similar offences thus making no distinction between first offenders and habitual offenders.