The Classical school of criminology is a body of thought about the reform of crime and the best methods of punishment by a group of European philosophers and scholars in the eighteenth century. It took place during the Enlightenment, a movement in Western countries that promoted the use of reason as the basis of legal authority. Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria is considered to be the founder of the Classical school.
Cesare Beccaria and other members of the Classical school of criminology believed that criminal behavior could be minimized using the basics of human nature. The school was based on the idea that human beings act in their own self-interests. They believed that rational people enter into a social contract in which they realize that having a peaceful society would be in their most beneficial to themselves. The school sought to reduce crime through reform to the criminal punishment system, which they felt tended to be cruel and excessive without reason as well as an ineffective deterrent.
The Classical school of criminology argued that the most effective deterrent for criminal behavior would be swift punishment rather than long trials. They felt that criminal actions were irrational behavior and came from people who could not or did not act in their best self-interests or society’s. Members of the school contended that punishments needed to be consistently enacted for specific crimes with no special circumstances in order to demonstrate to people that criminal activity will not benefit them because there are definite consequences.
A major part of the criminal punishment reform that the Classical school of criminology fought for was fair and equal treatment of accused offenders. Prior to the school’s fight for reform, judges could punish criminals at their own wills regardless of the severity of the crime, which led some to view the criminal punishment system as tyrannical. Cesare Beccaria and other members fought for punishments for specific crimes to be set by legislature and not to allow judges unbridled power. They felt that if judges could only apply legislatively sanctioned punishments, trials would be quick and criminals would receive their punishments faster.
The idea behind the Classical school's fight for swift trials and clearly defined punishments was that criminals were more likely to be deterred if they knew what type of punishment they would receive and how quickly. Members of the school believed that preventing crime was actually more important than punishing it, but by having a clear punishment system in place, criminals would use reasoning to deduce that crime would not be in their best self-interests. The classical school of criminology was accepted by European rulers in the late eighteenth century and is considered to have influenced the Western justice system.