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Early Schools of Criminology

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The Classical School

The formal study of criminology began in Europe during the 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment. During this time, Cesare Beccaria, an Italian mathematician and economist, was recognized as a founding father of the Classical School after dismissing the widely-accepted theories of naturalism and demonology. One of the most important features of the classical school of thought was its emphasis on the individual criminal as a person who is capable of calculating what he or she wants to do, which basically means that individuals know the difference between right and wrong (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015; University of Cincinnati, 2018).

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An offender will weigh the risks and benefits of each and act to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. To be an effective deterrent, any punishment must be swift, certain, and proportionate to the offense (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015; Oxford University Press, 2018).

The classical school of criminology questioned the legal constructions of crime and punishment and the legal protection of individual and societal rights. The school was founded on the belief that human beings have free will, certain inalienable rights, and are rational actors. It also maintains that punishment is justified as a means of preservation of social contracts. The classical school further developed into branches of neoclassical criminology focusing on individual rights and due process, such as conditional sentences, alternative modes of incapacitation that negate the necessity of imprisonment, and deterrence (Oxford University Press, 2018).

The theory of deterrence reflects the ideas of classical theory. Deterrence theorists argue that individuals are rational and pursue their own interests, attempting to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain, and choosing to engage in crime if they believe it is to their advantage. The best way to prevent crime is through punishments that are swift, certain, and appropriately severe in relation to the committed crime. Deterrence occurs when “someone refrains from committing a crime because he or she fears the certainty, swiftness, and/or severity of formal legal punishment” (Essays, 2013; Paternoster & Bachman, 2001).

Deterrence theory makes a distinction between specific and general deterrence. Specific deterrence refers to the idea that punishment reduces the crime of those specific individuals who are punished (punishing an offender for a crime should reduce the likelihood of further crime). General deterrence asks whether punishment deters crime among people in the general population (punishment may deter crime among those who are not punished) (Essays, 2013; Paternoster & Piquero, 1995).

The Positive School

Cesare Lombroso was an early supporter of the Positivist School of Criminology. This school of thought brought scientific evidence into focus as a requirement for conviction due to the desire for empirical facts to confirm the idea that crime was determined by multiple factors. The Positivist view saw human behavior as central to the study of criminology (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). The earliest form of positivism involved an attempt to correlate criminal behavior with certain physiological traits.

Positivists used detailed studies to link personality traits with certain crimes and identify influential experiences that might produce a general susceptibility to law-breaking. Theorists have sought the causes of crime in factors external to the offender, such as poverty, alienation, high population density, and exposure to deviant subcultures (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Lombroso believed that physical features, such as the shape of one’s head or the placement of their cheekbones, could predict an individual’s inclination for criminal behavior. He identified four major categories of criminals: Born criminals, insane criminals, occasional criminals/criminaloids, and criminals of passion. While modern criminology does not judge offenders against physical features, it does take a great deal of the Positivist theory into consideration (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015; University of Cincinnati, 2018).

Opposed to the Classical School of Criminology, the Positive School of Criminology does not seek to punish, but to reform. As biologically oriented theories began to diminish, new approaches argued that the troubles of criminals could be rectified through counseling or by fixing the social environments. Its main goal was to remove criminals from the community to prevent crime, but reformers argued that the system should be arranged to rehabilitate offenders, not punish them.

Some reform ideas included additional indeterminate sentencing, the implementation of parole boards and probation, the treatment of offenders on an individual level, and the establishment of a juvenile court system separate from adults. However, controversy began in the 1900’s with policies instituted in the name of rehabilitation, namely sterilization laws for behavioral traits thought to be determined genetically. These laws questioned whether the criminal justice system was becoming more humane or more repressive (Lilly, Cullen, ; Ball, 2015).

Classical Theory Policy Strategies

Of the eleven policy strategies presented in the Classical Theory, I agree with seven of them. With cameras on almost every corner, individuals lose some of their privacy rights to deter potential crime. As criminal laws place restrictions on individual freedoms, the laws should be restricted as to not eliminate all freedoms. The belief of innocence should be the guiding principle in the distribution of justice, so everyone should receive the same treatment regardless of their actions.

The complete criminal law code should be written to define all offenses and punishments, as this would help deter potential offenders from committing crimes if they already knew the punishment. Criminal punishment should correspond with the seriousness of the crime, especially for mandatory sentencing, therefore the punishment should be the same. I completely agree that punishment must be a certainty and delivered quickly as this would deter others from committing similar crimes. The overall goal should always be to prevent crime rather than instill punishment (Lilly, Cullen, ; Ball, 2015).

I also disagree with several classical theory strategies. According to the theories, punishment should be based on retributive as the offender had attacked another individual’s rights. However, if the punishment was based on deterrence rather than retribution, there is a possibility to reduce potential future crimes. I also disagree with the limited severity of certain punishments beyond what is necessary for crime prevention and deterrence, as serial murderers, drug dealers, and sexual-based offenders will most likely continue their actions once released from custody.

While completing an assignment for my juvenile justice course, I found that, when working with incarcerated juveniles, the goal is to reform the offender and punishments, even if not intended to, could be used to deter other offenders. In some situations, such as with addictions and mental illnesses, an offender would not be able to be viewed as an independent and reasonable person who weighed the consequences of the crime, so they should not be judged as such (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015).

Validity of Positive Theoretical Perspectives

I feel that some of the positive theoretical perspectives should be dismissed when trying to understand or predict crime. The Positive Theory consisted of observing the characteristics of offenders to gain insight into the causes of antisocial conduct or behavior, such as the shape of a person’s head or the placement of one’s cheekbones. As all individuals are genetically different, there is no hard-and-fast way to conclusively categorize potential offenders based on previous offenders.

Other theorists have included environmental factors, such as societal conditions and an individual’s hereditary factors, that could cause individuals to be predisposed to criminal acts. In my opinion, these should be included as everyone is heavily influenced by their environment while growing up. During the developmental years, juveniles learn from what is around them, such as schools, family members, and neighbors. Having negative influences being seen as normal behaviors could influence the chances of offending in the future. Other parts of the theory that should be addressed is the classifications of offenders, such as habitual criminals and the categories between insanity and sanity, and the use of psychology in studying offenders, which would determine the different types of sentences and treatmen.

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