Classical Theories

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 Crimesand Punishment in 1764 (1963/1764). 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.

Biological Theories

Dissatisfaction with the classical approach to explain crime first appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, crime was viewed by many as a growing problem, and it was observed by a growing number of people that the harsh punishments of the time seemed to have little effect on criminal offending.

The basic idea of the biological approach to crime causation is that criminal behavior is caused by some aspect internal to the individual. The nineteenth-century Italian physician Cesare Lombroso viewed criminality as a type of degeneracy. He maintained that most criminal behavior was inborn. He contended that criminals had certain types of distinct physical characteristics. Later, other theorists, such as William Sheldon, would classify people based on their body types, with criminals having a specific kind of body type.

By the end of the twentieth century, biological theories had become much more refined as increasing and more sophisticated research in the areas of genetics, chromosomal abnormalities, glandular dysfunction, chemical imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies helped to offer other biological theories.

But, back in the nineteenth century, at about the same time as Lombroso was developing his theories, the emerging use of the scientific method, along with the development of social science, began to change how people viewed social problems and how problems might be solved. Charles Darwin described his theory of evolution through natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species (1859). Emile Durkheim noted differences in rates of suicide in different regions of France. Durkheim employed observations to develop a social theory of suicide in his book Suicide (1897). Both Darwin and Durkheim were pioneers in the scientific method, which was based on observation. Rather than just thinking about problems, both believed that scientific questions were best answered when scientists first gathered facts and data.

This scientific approach gave rise to the positivist school of criminology. The positivist school saw human behavior as based on a combination of internal and external influences, such as biology, psychology, and social factors. While the classical school still saw crime as emanating from free will and choice, positivism believed it was a combination of internal and external forces that shaped behavior.

The Positivists

The early positivists,such as Cesare Lombroso, who lived from 1836 to 1909, considered biological attributes to be the real roots of crime. Lombroso took body measurements of offenders in Italian prisons and concluded that there were “born criminals” (Lombroso-Ferrero, 2004/1911, p. 142).These born criminals had distinctive body measurements and skull sizes.

Positivism, following Lombroso and others, continued to be influential as it played a major role in explaining criminal behavior. But with the development of psychoanalysis in the late nineteenth century and the growth of psychology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the theories of the mind became much more prominent in offering explanations for the causes of crime.

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