Classical Criminology And Its Theories: Shall They Be Reviewed Now

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Classical Criminology And Its Theories: Shall They Be Reviewed Now

Written By: Shreem Thite


The classical school of criminology arose in the eighteenth century in response to the punitive types of punishment that were prevalent at the time. Writers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire are seen to have aided the creation of this new “classical” thinking by participating in campaigns for more enlightened responses to crime and the punishments meted out by the legal systems of the day. In addition, the evolution of society necessitated new types of legal regulation due to the requirement for predictability in the system, since technology and property, in particular, need legal protection, and labor required continuous discipline.

Jeremy Bentham and Cesare de Beccaria were the two key contributions to this criminological theory. They are considered the founding fathers of the classical school of criminology and are considered the most prominent enlightenment intellectuals in the subject of “classical” thought. Despite their conceptual differences, they both strove to decrease the harshness of eighteenth-century judicial systems.

Contribution Of Bentham And Beccaria To The Classical Criminology Theory

Bentham’s contribution to “classical” philosophy stems from his being a utilitarian, concerned with the happiness and well-being of the population, and therefore believing that punishment, in the form of infliction of pain, should always be justified in terms of a greater good. The premise that human behaviour is aimed toward maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain was at the heart of Bentham’s writing (the pleasure-pain principle).

Individuals who desire excitement, money, beauty, or anything of worth to the individual, according to Bentham, commit crime from the start.

This is at the heart of criminology’s classical school. Beccaria believed that laws were needed to ensure that punishments were uniform and proportional to the offence. He felt that the success of crime prevention is based on three primary concepts: the certainty of the crime and how probable it is to occur, the brevity of the crime and how swiftly the punishment is administered, and the severity of the crime and the amount of pain given. Beccaria believed that the harshness of the sanctions should be proportionate to the offence done, with no more than is necessary to prevent the perpetrator and others from committing similar crimes.

According to imperialism, criminals make rational decisions and choose to commit crimes for the greatest pleasure and minimal pain. According to the classical school, criminals are rational and weigh the costs, so we should establish deterrents that somewhat outweigh the benefits of crime. This is why classical thinkers like Beccaria and Bentham considered the death sentence to be worthless because there would be no deterrent.

When it comes to manslaughter, however, as Bentham believes, if the severity of the punishment slightly outweighs the crime, then surely capital punishment should be used; there doesn’t seem to be a more powerful deterrent to other criminals considering the same criminal behaviour than seeing another person eliminated as a result of their actions.

Impact Of Classical Criminological Theory

Classical philosophy has influenced criminological thought in general, and perhaps even more so on criminal justice practice. The concept of sanctions that are proportional to the nature of the crime has become a cornerstone of modern criminal justice systems in Europe and America.

The use of capital punishment, torture and corporal punishment has decreased since the emergence of the classical school of criminology and classical philosophy. Except, as Bentham contended, in the instance of murder, neither Beccaria nor Bentham believed in the death penalty.

Many aspects of classical ideas are quite beneficial in current culture, demonstrating the theory’s merits. Deterrence continues to underpin all court systems, and it was one of Sir Robert Peel’s first commissioners’ principles in establishing the Metropolitan Police. Prisons are also utilized as major deterrents and as a means of reducing crime rates.

Criticism Of The Thoery

However, a serious flaw in the classical school of criminology is that the concept that all criminals are rational is neither generalizable to the entire community, nor is it totally correct, because there may be biological characteristics that prevent an individual from thinking and acting logically. As a result, it may not be the individual’s choice because they were born that way or because they are unable to make sensible decisions owing to a mental disease such as schizophrenia. They may be disoriented or even drugged, which alters brain function and, as a result, any behaviours, leading to irrational behaviour.

According to White and Haines (2004), the classical school of criminology has three major issues. To begin, how can such ideas be made to serve the goals of justice and equality when confronted with a specific defendant in court (Not all criminals appear to be acting in a reasonable and free manner.) Second, increasing efficiency in criminal justice bureaucracies such as the police may not always be compatible with a focus on equal justice, as their goal is to reduce crime rates. Finally, there is a power issue: the rationalization of the judicial system may result in a diminution in their influence, which may backfire as a deterrent.

The classical school was criticized in the late nineteenth century by a sort of scientific criminology that arose as a result of Darwin’s big works being published between 1850 and 1870, which had a profound impact on scientific thought and individual perspectives of human behaviour.

The major object of study in classicism is the offence. The offender’s personality was described as free-willed, reasonable, calculated, and typical. The traditional response to a crime was to impose a punishment that was proportionate to the crime.

The Positivist School Vs The Classical School Of Criminology

The Positivist school of criminology, on the other hand, contradicts this classical school of thought, claiming that the criminal is the target of research and that the nature of the offender is influenced by biological, psychological, and psychiatric factors. Their response to the crime is to administer treatment for an indefinite period of time, depending on the circumstances.

Unlike classicism, positivism considers criminal behaviour as irrational and may be owing to an issue that an individual possesses (biological, physical, or psychological), hence they are partially absolved of the crime they did. The distinctions in thought that underpin both the classical and positivist schools of criminology emphasize the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The classical school has fewer biological facts and data to back up its claims, but it has proven to be effective in lowering crime rates and providing deterrence and a means of successfully containing those who rebel against the system.  The social construction of crime has evolved over time, with feudal and religious influences influencing the criminological theory employed.


The Classical school arose during a period of major penological reform; there were many legal reforms at the time due to the French revolution, and the legal system in the United States was developing, which would have influenced the United Kingdom to make a greater effort to enshrine laws on crime in stone.

As modernity has developed, so has the creation of judicial systems; yet, these systems would not exist if positivism were utilized as the major criminological thought because positivism employs treatments to the criminal in order to solve the crime. This could explain why the classical school of criminology has been and continues to be so powerful, as it protects numerous organizations working to eliminate crime while simultaneously providing a solid theoretical foundation on which more modern theories can be built.

Shreem Thite

About the Author

Shreem Thite

4th year

B.A.LLB (Hons.)

Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur, C.G.

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