Cesare Beccaria is known as the founder of classical criminology. Beccaria was an Italian nobleman and jurist who was dissatisfied with the justice system of his time. Born in 1738, Beccaria viewed the Italian justice system as using extreme punishment in a legal system in which laws were arbitrary and unfair. In his efforts to make changes, Beccaria wrote a book entitled On Crimes and Punishment in 1764. In this book, Beccaria explained his belief that people are rational and do things that bring them pleasure and avoid doing things that bring them pain. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that people are responsible for their actions. He advocated certain and swift punishment of appropriate intensity and duration for the offense committed. If this kind of response was used consistently, he theorized, then it would deter people from committing crimes.
The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham lived at about the same time as Beccaria. Bentham is credited with the formation of the neoclassical school of criminology. The neoclassical school of criminology is very similar to the classical school of thought in that both believe criminal offending is a matter of free will choice.
The difference between them, though, is that Bentham’s view is that sometimes there are mitigating circumstances. For instance, children, according to Bentham, shouldn’t be held to the same degree of accountability as an adult. Furthermore, Bentham argued that someone suffering from mental illness should be exempt from criminal liability.
In short, both the classical and neoclassical schools of criminology believed people are rational and that they make free will choices about committing crimes.