20 March 2012 Written by  Mrs. Glory Nirmala.k

Early Explanations of Criminology-Schools of Thought

It has been generally accepted that a systematic study of criminology was first taken up by the Italian scholar, Ceasare Bonesana Marchese de Becaria (1938-94) who is known as the founder of modern criminology. His greatest contribution to the science of criminology was that he, for the first time, proceeded with the study of criminals on a scientific basis and reached certain conclusions from which definite methods of handling crime and criminals could be worked out. Thus the ‘theories of criminology’ or ‘the schools of criminology’ are of a later origin.

Meaning of the ‘School of Criminology’

Edwin Sutherland pointed out that a school of criminology connotes

“the system of thought which consists of an integrated theory of causation of crime and of policies of control implied in the theory of causation”.

Therefore, a school of criminology implies the following three important points:

1. The adherents of each school try to explain the causation of crime and criminal behavior in their own way relying on the theory propounded by the exponent of that particular school.

2. Each school of criminology suggests punishment and preventive measures to suit its ideology.

3. And, each of the school represents the social attitude of people towards crime and criminal in a given time.

In an attempt to find a rational explanation of crime, a large number of theories have been propounded. Various factors such as evil spirit, sin, disease, heredity, economic maladjustment etc. have been put forward either singly or together to explain criminality. With the advance of behavioral sciences, monogenetic explanation of human conduct is no longer valid and the modern trend is to adopt an eclectic view about the genesis of crime. However, some criminologists still tend to lay greater emphasis on physical traits in order to justify exclusive resort to correctional methods for the treatment of offender.

Pre-Classical School of Criminology

The period of seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe was dominated by the scholasticism of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The dominance of religion in State activities was the chief characteristic of that time. In political sphere, thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke were concentrating on social contract as the basis of social evolution. The concept of Divine right of king advocating supremacy of monarch was held in great esteem. As scientific knowledge was yet unknown the concept of crime was rather vague and obscure. There was a general belief that man by nature is simple and his actions are controlled by some super power. It was generally believed that a man commits crime due to the influence of some external spirit called ‘demon’ or ‘devil’. Thus an offender commits a wrongful act not because of his own free will but due to the influence of some external super power. No attempt was, however, made to probe into the real causes of crime. This demonological theory of criminality propounded by the exponents of pre-classical school acknowledged the omnipotence of spirit, which they regarded as a great power.

The pre-classicals considered crime and criminals as an evidence of the fact that the individual was possessed of devil or demon the only cure for which was testimony of the effectiveness of the spirit. Worships, sacrifices and ordeals by water and fire were usually prescribed to specify the spirit and relieve the victim from its evil influence.  An ordeal is an ancient manner of trial in criminal cases. When an offender pleaded “not guilty”, he might choose whether he would put himself for trial upon God and the country, by 12 men or upon God only, and then it was called ‘the judgment of God’, presuming that God would deliver the innocent. Examples of such ordeals are, throwing into fire, throwing into water after tying a stone to his neck, administration of oath by calling up God’s wrath, trial by battle, etc.

Trial by battle was common mode of deciding the fate of criminal. The oaths and ordeals played a very important role in the ancient judicial system in determining the guilt of the offender. The justification advanced for these rituals was the familiar belief that “when the human agency fails, recourse to divine means of proof becomes most inevitable”. Though these practices appear to be most irrational and barbarous to the modern mind, they were universally accepted and were in existence in most Christian countries till thirteenth century. The Roman law completely ignored the system of ordeals and it was forbidden in Quran.

The right of society to punish the offender was, however, well recognized. The offender was regarded as an innately depraved person who could be cured only by torture and pain. The evolution of criminal law was yet at a rudimentary stage. Hobbes suggested that fear of punishment at the hands of monarch was a sufficient deterrent for the members of early society to keep them away from sinful acts which were synonymous to crimes. Thus the theosophists, notably St. Thomas Aquinas and the social contract writers such as Donte Alighieri, Machiavelli, Martin Luther and Jean Bodin provided immediate background for Beccaria’s classical school at a later stage. The pre-classical thinking, however, withered away with the lapse of time and advancement of knowledge.

The Classical School

The Classical School in criminology is usually a reference to the eighteenth-century work during the Enlightenment by the utilitarian and social contract philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. Their interests lay in the system of criminal justice and penology and, indirectly through the proposition that "man is a calculating animal", in the causes of criminal behaviour. The Classical school of thought was premised on the idea that people have free will in making decisions, and that punishment can be a deterrent for crime, so long as the punishment is proportional, fits the crime, and is carried out promptly.

Beccaria, the pioneer of modern criminology expounded his naturalistic theory of criminality by rejecting the omnipotence of evil spirit. He laid greater emphasis on mental phenomenon of the individual and attributed crime to ‘free will’ of the individual. Thus he was much influenced by the utilitarian philosophy of his time which placed reliance on hedonism, namely, the “pain and pleasure theory”. As Donald Taft rightly put it, this doctrine implied the notion of causation in terms of free choice to commit crime by rational man seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Main Reforms Advocated by the Classical School

The system of law, its mechanisms of enforcement and the forms of punishment used in the eighteenth century were primitive and inconsistent. Judges were not professionally trained so many of their decisions were unsatisfactory being the product of incompetence, capriciousness, corruption or political manipulation. The use of torture to extract confessions and a wide range of cruel punishments such as whipping, mutilation and public executions were commonplace. A need for legal rationality and fairness was identified and found an audience among the emerging middle classes whose economic interests lay in providing better systems for supporting national and international trade.

John Locke

John Locke considered the mechanism that had allowed monarchies to become the primary form of government. He concluded that monarchs had asserted the right to rule and enforced it either through an exercise in raw power, or through a form of contract, e.g. the feudal system had depended on the grants of estates in land as a return for services provided to the sovereign. Locke proposed that all citizens are equal, and that there is an unwritten but voluntary contract between the state and its citizens, giving power to those in government and defining a framework of mutual rights and duties. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote, "the right of all sovereigns is derived from the consent of every one of those who are to be governed." This is a shift from authoritarianism to an early model of European and North American democracy where police powers and the system of punishment are means to a more just end.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)

In 1764, Beccaria published Dei Deliti e Delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments") arguing for the need to reform the criminal justice system by referring not to the harm caused to the victim, but to the harm caused to society. In this, he posited that the greatest deterrent was the certainty of detection: the more swift and certain the punishment, the more effective it would be. It would also allow a less serious punishment to be effective if shame and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing was a guaranteed response to society's judgment. Thus, the prevention of crime was achieved through a proportional system that was clear and simple to understand, and if the entire nation united in their own defence. His approach influenced the codification movement which set sentencing tariffs to ensure equality of treatment among offenders. Later, it was acknowledged that not all offenders are alike and greater sentencing discretion was allowed to judges. Thus, punishment works at two levels. Because it punishes individuals, it operates as a specific deterrence to those convicted not to reoffend. But the publicity surrounding the trial and the judgment of society represented by the decision of a jury of peers, offers a general example to the public of the consequences of committing a crime. If they are afraid of similarly swift justice, they will not offend.

In his book "On Crimes and Punishments" Beccaria presented a coherent, comprehensive design for an enlightened criminal justice system that was to serve the people rather than the monarchy. According to Beccaria, the crime problem could be traced not to bad people but to bad laws. A modern criminal justice system should guarantee all people equal treatment before the law. Beccaria’s book supplied the blue print. That blue print was based on the assumption that people freely choose what they do and are responsible for the consequences of their behavior. Beccaria proposed the following principles:

Laws Should Be Used To Maintain Social Contract: “Laws are the conditions under which men, naturally independent, united themselves in society. Weary of living in a continual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty, which became a little value, from the uncertainty of its duration, they sacrificed one part of it, to enjoy the rest in peace and security.”

Only Legislators Should Create Laws: “The authority of making penal laws can only reside with the legislator, who represents the whole society united by the social compact.”

Judges Should Impose Punishment only in Accordance with the Law: “[N]o magistrate then, (as he is one of the society), can, with justice inflict on any other member of the same society punishment that is not ordained by the laws.”

Judges Should not Interpret the Laws: “Judges, in criminal cases, have no right to interpret the penal laws, because they are not legislators….Everyman has  his own particular point of view and, at different times, sees the same objects in very different lights. The spirit of the laws will then be the result of the good or bad logic of the judge; and this will depend on his good or bad digestion.”

Punishment Should be Based on the Pleasure/Pain Principle: “Pleasure and pain are the only springs of actions in beings endowed with sensibility….If an equal punishment be ordained for two crimes that injure society in different degrees, there is nothing to deter men from committing the greater as often as it is attended with greater advantage.”

Punishment Should be Based on the Act, not on the Actor: “Crimes are only to be measured by the injuries done to the society they err, therefore, who imagine that a crime is greater or less according to the intention of the person by whom it is committed.”

The Punishment Should be Determined by the Crime: “If mathematical calculation could be applied to the obscure and infinite combinations of human actions, there might be a corresponding scale of punishment descending from the greatest to the least.”

Punishment Should be Prompt and Effective: “The more immediate after the commission of a crime a punishment is inflicted the more just and useful it will be….An immediate punishment is more useful; because the smaller the interval of time between the punishment and the crime, the stronger and more lasting will be the association of the two ideas of crime and punishment.”

All People Should be Treated Equally: “I assert that the punishment of a noble man should in no wise differ from that of the lowest member of the society.”

Capital Punishment Should be Abolished: “The punishment of death is not authorized by any right; for….no such right exists….The terrors of death make so slight an impression, that it has not force enough to withstand forgetfulness natural to mankind.”

The Use of Torture to Gain Confessions Should be Abolished: “It is confounding all relations to expect…that pain should be the test of truth, as if truth resided in the muscles and fibers a wretch in torture. By this method the robust will escape, and the feeble be condemned.”

It is Better to Prevent Crime than to Punish Them: “Would you prevent crimes? Let the laws be clear and simple, let the entire force of the nation be united in their defence, let them be intended rather to favour every individual than any particular classes…. Finally, the most certain method of preventing crimes to perfect the system of education.”

Perhaps no other book in the history in the history of criminology has had so great an impact. After the French Revolution, Beccaria’s basic tenets served as a guide for the drafting of the French Penal Code, which was adopted in 1791.

Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832)

Legal scholars and reformers throughout Europe proclaimed their indebtedness to Beccaria, but none owed more to him than the English legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham had long and productive career. He inspired many of his contemporaries, as well as criminologists of future generations, with his approach to rational crime control.

Bentham devoted his life to developing a scientific approach to the making and breaking of laws. Like Beccaria he was concerned with achieving “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” His work was governed by utilitarian principles. Utilitarianism assumes that all human actions are calculated in accordance with their likelihood of bringing happiness (pleasure) or unhappiness (pain). People weigh the probabilities of present future pleasures against those of present and future pain.

Bentham proposed a precise pseudo-mathematical formula for this process, which he called “felicific calculus.” According to his reasoning individuals are “human calculators” who out all the factors into an equation in order to decide whether or not a particular crime is worth committing. This notion may seem rather whimsical today, but at a time when there were over 200 capital offences, it provided a rationale for reform of the legal system. Bentham reasoned that if prevention was the purpose of punishment, and if punishment became too costly by creating more harm than good, then penalties need to be set just a bit an excess of the pleasure one might derive from committing a crime, and no higher. The law exists in order to create happiness for the community. Since punishment creates unhappiness, it can be justified only if it prevents a greater evil than it produces. Thus, Bentham suggested if a hanging a man’s effigy produced the same preventive effect as hanging the man himself there would be no reason to hang the man.

In this context, the most relevant idea was known as the "felicitation principle", i.e. that whatever is done should aim to give the greatest happiness to the largest possible number of people in society. Bentham argued that there had been "punishment creep", i.e. that the severity of punishments had slowly increased so that the death penalty was then imposed for more than two hundred offences in England (Landau, Norma, 2002). For example, if rape and homicide were both punished by death, then a rapist would be more likely to kill the victim (as a witness) to reduce the risk of arrest.

Bentham posited that man is a calculating animal who will weigh potential gains against the pain likely to be imposed. If the pain outweighs the gains, he will be deterred and this produces maximal social utility. Therefore, in a rational system, the punishment system must be graduated so that the punishment more closely matches the crime. Punishment is not retribution or revenge because that is morally deficient: the hangman is paying the murder the compliment of imitation.

But the concept is problematic because it depends on two critical assumptions:

if deterrence is going to work, the potential offender must always act rationally whereas much crime is a spontaneous reaction to a situation or opportunity; and

if the system graduates a scale of punishment according to the seriousness of the offence, it is assuming that the more serious the harm likely to be caused, the more the criminal has to gain.

In this context, note Bentham's proposal for a prison design called the "panopticon" which, apart from its surveillance system included the right of the prison manager to use the prisoners as contract labor.

Spiritualistic understandings of crime stem from an understanding of life in general, that finds most things in life are destiny and cannot be controlled, we are born male or female, good or bad and all our actions are decided by a higher being. People have held such beliefs for all of recorded history, “primitive people regarded natural disasters such as famines, floods and plagues as punishments for wrongs they had done to the spiritual powers” (Vold, G. Bernard, T. and Snipes, J. 1998). These spiritual powers gained strength during the middle ages as they bonded with the feudal powers to create the criminal justice systems. Under a spiritualistic criminal justice system, crime was a private affair that was conducted between the offender and the victim’s family. However this method proved to be too revengeful, as the state took control of punishment. Spiritual explanations provided an understanding of crime when there was no other way of explaining crime. However, the problem with this understanding is it cannot be proven true, and so it was never accepted.

The main tenets of classical school of criminology why noted below

1.   Man’s emergence from the State’s religious fanaticism involved the application  of  his reason as a responsible individual.

1. It is the ‘act’ of an individual and ‘not his intent’ which forms the basis for determining criminality within him. In other words, criminologists are concerned with the ‘act’ of the criminal rather than his ‘intent’. Still, they could never think that there could be something like crime causation.

2. The classical writers accepted punishment as a principal method of infliction of pain, humiliation and disgrace to create ‘fear’ in man to control his behavior.

3. The propounders of this school, however, considered prevention of crime more important than the punishment for it. They therefore, stressed on the need for a Criminal Code in France, Germany and Italy to systematize punishment for forbidden acts. Thus the real contribution of classical school of criminology lies in the fact that it underlined the need for a well defined criminal justice system.

4. The advocates of classical school supported the right of the State to punish the offenders in the interest of public security. Relying on the hedonistic principle of pain and pleasure, they pointed out that individualization was to be awarded keeping in view the pleasure derived by the criminal from the crime and the pain caused to the victim from it. They, however, pleaded for equalization of justice which meant equal punishment for the same offence.

5. The exponents of classical school further believed that the criminal law primarily rests on positive sanctions. They were against the use of arbitrary powers of Judges. In their opinion the Judges should limit their verdicts strictly within the confines of law. They also abhorred torturous punishments.

Thus classical school propounded by Beccaria came into existence as a result of the influence of writings of Montesquieu, Hume, Bacon and Rousseau. His famous work ‘Essays on Crime and Punishment’ received wide acclamation all over Europe and gave a fillip to a new criminological thinking in the contemporary west. He sought to humanize the criminal law by insisting on natural rights of human beings. He raised his voice against severe punishment, torture and death penalty. Beccaria’s views on crime and punishment were also supported by Voltaire as a result of which a number of European countries redrafted their penal codes mitigating the rigorous barbaric punishments and some of them even went to the extent of abolishing capital punishment from their Penal Codes.

Major Shortcomings of the Classical School

The contribution of classical school to the development of rationalized criminological thinking was by no means less important, but it had its own pitfalls.

  1. The classical school proceeded on an abstract presumption of free will and relied solely on the act (i.e., the crime) without devoting any attention to the state of mind of the criminal.
  2. It erred in prescribing equal punishment for same offence thus making no distinction between first offenders and habitual criminals and varying degrees of gravity of the offence.

However, the greatest achievement of this school of criminology lies in the fact that it suggested a substantial criminal policy which was easy to administer without resort to the imposition of arbitrary punishment. It goes to the credit of Beccaria who denounced the earlier concepts of crime and criminals which were based on religious fallacies and myths and shifted emphasis on the need for concentrating on the personality of an offender in order to determine his guilt and punishment. Beccaria’s views provided a background for the subsequent criminologists to come out with a rationalized theory of crime causation which eventually led the foundation of the modern criminology and penology.

Neo-Classical School

In criminology, the Neo-Classical School continues the traditions of the Classical School within the framework of Right Realism. Hence, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria remains a relevant social philosophy in policy term for using punishment as a deterrent through law enforcement, the courts, and imprisonment

The ‘free will’ theory of classical school did not survive for long. It was soon realized that the exponents of classical school faultered in their approach in ignoring the individual differences under certain situations and treating first offenders and the habitual alike on the basis of similarity of act or crime. The neo-classists asserted that certain categories of offenders such as minors, idiots, insane or incompetent had to be treated leniently in matters of punishment irrespective of the similarity of their criminal act because these persons were incapable of appreciating the difference between right and wrong. This tendency of neo-classists to distinguish criminals according to their mental depravity was indeed a progressive step inasmuch as it emphasized the need for modifying the classical view. Thus the contribution of neo-classical thought to the science of criminology has its own merits.

When crime and recidivism are perceived to be a problem, the first political reaction is to call for increased policing, stiffer penalties, and increased monitoring and surveillance for those released on parole. Intuitively, politicians see a correlation between the certainty and severity of punishment, and the choice whether to commit crime. The practical intention has always been to deter and, if that failed, to keep society safer for the longest possible period of time by locking the habitual offenders away in prisons (see Wilson). From the earliest theorists, the arguments were based on morality and social utility, and it was not until comparatively recently that there has been empirical research to determine whether punishment is an effective deterrent.

The main tenets of neo-classical school of criminology can be summarized as follows

1.Neo-classists approached the study of criminology on scientific lines by recognizing that certain extenuating situations or mental disorders deprive a person of his normal capacity to control his conduct. Thus they justified mitigation of equal punishment in cases of certain psychopathic offenders. Commenting on this point, Prof. Gillin observed that neo-classists represent a reaction against the severity of classical view of equal punishment for the same offence.

1. Neo-classists were the first in point of time to bring out a distinction between the first offenders and the recidivists. They supported individualization of offender a treatment methods which required the punishment to suit the psychopathic circumstances of the accused. Thus although the ‘act’ or the ‘crime’ still remained the sole determining factor  for adjudging criminality without any regard to the intent, yet the neo-classical school focused at least some attention on mental causation indirectly.

2. The advocates of this school started with the basic assumption that man acting on reason and intelligence is a self-determining person and therefore, is responsible for his conduct.  But those lacking normal intelligence or having some mental depravity are irresponsible to their conduct as they do not possess the capacity of distinguishing between good or bad and therefore should be treated differently from the responsible offenders.

3. Though the neo-classists recommended lenient treatment for “irresponsible” or mentally depraved criminals on account of their incapacity to resist criminal tendency but they certainly believed that all criminals, whether responsible or irresponsible, must be kept segregated from the society.

4. It is significant to note that distinction between responsibility and irresponsibility, that is the sanity and insanity of the criminals as suggested by neo-classical school of criminology paved way to subsequent formulation of different correctional institutions such as parole, probation, reformatories, open-air camps etc. in the administration of criminal justice. This is through this school that attention of criminologists was drawn for the first time towards the fact that all crimes do have a cause. It must, however be noted that though this causation was initially confined to psychopathy or psychology but was later expanded further and finally the positivists succeeded in establishing reasonable relationship between crime and environment of the criminal.

5. Neo-classists adopted subjective approach to criminology and concentrated their attention on the conditions under which an individual commits crime.

Thus it would be seen that the main contribution of neo-classical school of criminology lies in the fact that it came out with certain concessions in the ‘free will’ theory of classical school and suggested that an individual might commit criminal acts due to certain extenuating circumstances which should be duly taken into consideration at the time of awarding punishment. Therefore, besides the criminal act as such, the personality of the criminal as a whole, namely, his antecedents, motives, previous life-history, general character, etc., should not be lost sight of in assessing his guilt. It may be noted that the origin of jury system in criminal jurisprudence is essentially an outcome of the reaction of neo-classical approach towards the treatment of offenders.

As to the shortcomings of neo-classical school of criminology, it must be stated that the exponents of this theory believed that the criminal, whether responsible or irresponsible, is a menace to society and therefore, needs to be eliminated from it.


Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05