What is the Classical School of Criminology?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2019
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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.


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Post 6

@Oasis11 - I know what you mean, but we could apply consistent punishment for repeat criminal behavior like drug abuse and DUI’s. This is an area where we do apply consistent levels of punishment that gets progressively more severe with each offense.

I was reading about positivist criminology which would view acts of criminal behavior like this as just testing the limits of what is acceptable and thinking that there is nothing wrong with this. They view criminal behavior as normal and not deviant in any way which I don’t agree with.

Post 5

@SurfNTurf - I agree with the premise that the punishment needs to be immediate in order to be effective, but I don’t think that things are always black and white as to say that the same punishment should be issued every single time the crime is committed.

For example, if you have a law that states that anyone that is caught firing a gun gets an automatic ten years in prison and you have someone that committed an armed robbery and shot someone and missed then most people would agree that this person if convicted should serve out a ten year sentence.

However, if you have a person that fires a gun in order to protect themselves from a home invasion then this person should not get any jail time because this was an act of self defense, so unfortunately there will be gray areas in the law and each case has to be treated with its own merits.

Post 4

@Latte31 - I do agree with the theory of criminology that in order to punish people properly, the punishment should be fast and the same across the board.

This way everyone knows what to expect and when they see criminals being punished, then they will not commit these crimes because they know that they will pay the same price. It does act as a deterrent for future crime.

Post 3

@Abundancer -I agree with what you are saying, but the system that the United States currently has in place is probably as fair as you are going to get. There are flaws like with every justice system but it does give you the best opportunity to be tried fairly.

Our adversarial system of justice allows both sides to develop their case to the best of their ability and be judged by a jury of the defendant’s peers. In other societies, those accused of crimes are tried by a judge who hears both sides and rules his case.

There you have a higher chance of bias because judges are people and they have their own personal opinions of things

. In some cases judges have even been bribed in order to reach a certain verdict. So I don’t think that any system in the history of criminology including the criminal justice system of the United States is without flaws but I feel it is the best system that we have.
Post 2

Very interesting! It does sound like out judicial system was somewhat based on this. Unfortunately, I think we have gotten away from this somehow. You can have several people on trial for the same thing and they can all get different punishments.

I don't know what has created this in our legal system, but it would be nice if it was more like this.

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