What Is Classical Criminology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2018
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Classical criminology is an approach to the legal system that arose during the Enlightenment in the 1700s (18th century). Philosophers like Cesare Beccaria, John Locke, and Jeremy Bentham expanded upon social contract theory to explain why people commit crime and how societies could effectively combat crime. The concepts continue to play a large role in the legal systems of many nations today, although the approach in the modern world tends to be a bit more flexible.

It is important to understand the context in which classical criminology was developed. During the Enlightenment, Europe was changing radically, with many nations emerging from feudal monarchies and radically reforming their laws. Across Europe, the law was wildly inconsistent and applied even more inconsistently. Judges and other legal officials often lacked extensive training, and prescribed punishments totally out of proportion to some crimes while ignoring others. Many people recognized the need for a more uniform and effective justice system, and this approach was the result.

According to the theorists, human beings are self-interested animals, but they are also extremely rational. While people will tend to do things that are in their own self interest, they also understand that some actions actually conflict with this, and many societies develop a social contract that dictates human behavior, with humans mutually agreeing to refrain from activities that hurt each other or society.


People also have free will, which means that they can opt to violate the social contract. For example, someone might steal or murder to accomplish a self-interested goal. By having consistent punishments in place that are proportional to the crime and applied rapidly, classical criminologists argue, the legal system will create deterrents to crime. Rather than committing a crime with a degree of uncertainty about the punishment, people in a nation with a clear and concise legal system will be well aware of the consequences of violating the law and the social contract, and they may think twice before committing crime.

One of the big problems with classical criminology is that it does not allow for extenuating circumstances. Someone who robs a business for profit is treated exactly the same as someone who robs a business in order to eat, and some people feel that this is inhumane. Others feel that the assumption of free will is also somewhat questionable, as people may be forced into making decisions as a result of their circumstances or socioeconomic class.


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Post 9

@anon997961-- I think you mean 18th century. Remember, when talking about centuries, the period ends with that number. So 18th century = 1701 -1800. So the article is correct when it says 1700s.

Post 8

So did this take place in the 1700s or the 1800s? Other sources have the date as 1800s.

Post 6

@Oasis11 - I guess you have a point, but many states have capital punishment laws and we still have people committing murders so not everyone is deterred by punishment like the classical school theory of criminology would have you believe.

You would think that the threat of death would eliminate all murders but it obviously does not. There must be some explanation as to why some people still commit a crime like this despite the possibility of death. I guess some people are willing to take chances that others won’t.

Post 5

@Anamur - I agree that the classical criminological theory works because punishment is a deterrent to most crime. Many people might not commit crime because of moral issues, but I think that are others that won’t commit crimes because of the consequences. This is why classic criminology is so important to understand because I think that more people would actually commit crimes if the consequences were not so severe.

Post 4

The article touched a great point. In order to understand where classical criminology came from and why, you have to understand how things worked at that time. The system that Europe had in place at that time was pretty cruel. Punishments were too harsh for what was committed. And like the article said, some were not punished at all.

So this concept emerged to create more justice and fairness in the system. It doesn't matter whether it is the right concept to use or not now. The point is that the emergence of classical criminology greatly improved the justice system and really started a new way of looking at and understanding crime.

Post 3

I actually think that when it comes to reducing crime, classical criminology is the way to go. It ties in closely with the rational choice theory we studied in economics. People always act in a way that gives them pleasure rather than pain.

If in a country, there are not well established criminal systems where criminals are caught, tried and punished for their crimes, that means that criminals experience little or no pain from committing crime. In contrast, they gain something out of it, so they will keep doing it.

But if someone who commits a crime is punished for it, and if that punishment is above what they gained through the crime, it won't give them reason to do it again.

See, it all makes sense. Reduce the pleasure and increase the pain of committing crime.

Post 2

I wish that things really worked the way that classical criminology describes. But I have seen and heard of many examples that fall out of this scope.

I do believe that humans are rational and usually make decisions thinking about the consequences of those actions. But not every single time. There are exceptions like when someone with an unstable psychology or mental illness commits a crime. We cannot expect such persons to have acted rationally, when they cannot think or act like healthy individuals.

If everyone were rational individuals, classical criminology would be enough to stop crime. You would establish deterrents and crime would end.

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