Classifying Crime: Major Schools of Criminology

The formal study of criminology began with Cesare Beccaria, an Italian jurist who in the late 18th century took a systematic approach to crime and criminals. He was the first person to study crime scientifically. The plea made in his treatise, “On Crimes and Punishments,” helped eliminate corrupt and inhumane practices of criminal law administration at the time.

One of the biggest questions in criminology, or the study of crime and punishment, asks why people commit crimes. Many criminology theories are rooted in certain schools of thought, which help explain criminal behavior and enable the criminal justice system to appropriate punishment. The current American criminal justice system is based on the interplay among the major schools of criminology.

Schools of Criminology

Classical School

The classical school developed during the Enlightenment in response to excessive and cruel punishments to crime. Beccaria argued for more humanitarian forms of punishment and against physical punishment and the death penalty. He believed that punishment should fit the crime and not be excessive.

A primary premise of the classical school was the fundamental equality of all people, which meant that every person should be treated equally under the law. Criminal behavior would be subject to similar punishment, and people had to know what categories of conduct were punishable. Punishable conduct would only be that which encroached on someone else’s freedom in violation of the social contract. No longer would status be a factor to receiving favorable treatment or more favorable punishment.

Central to the classical school was the presence of free will. All people act within reason; conduct results from the conscious operation of a person’s will after reflection and choosing among alternatives of action. People know the difference between right and wrong.

Awareness of right and wrong combined with crime as a choice played into how the classical school thought of punishment. Because crimes are chosen through free will, they should be punished swiftly and proportionally to the crime. This is the most effective deterrent to crime.

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Positivist School

The positivist school opposed the classical school’s understanding of crime. All people are different, and thus vary in their understanding of right and wrong; this needed to be a barometer for punishment. The person and not the crime should be punished.

“Positivism saw its role as the systematic elimination of the free will ‘metaphysics’ of the classical school—and its replacement by a science of society, taking on for itself the task of the eradication of crime,” Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young wrote in “The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance.” This new, deterministic movement was consolidated by Enrico Ferri, who championed the approach then being employed by an Italian military physician, Cesare Lombroso.

The “positive” method consisted of carefully observing the characteristics of criminals to gain insight into the causes of antisocial conduct or behavior. Ferri did not endorse all of Lombroso’s conclusions, such as that some people are born criminals and that some physical features, like the shape of a person’s head or the placement of one’s cheekbones, can predict criminal behavior. However, Ferri adopted the inductive method and set out to create a science that would explain the causes of crime within society and the individual offender.

The school started by considering crime a product of heredity and environment. Instead of criminal “conduct,” criminal “behavior” became the focus. Environmental factors such as societal conditions and pressures interact with hereditary factors in a person to cause that individual to be predisposed to criminal acts. The deterministic school was more concerned with the actual or would-be criminal rather than criminal conduct.

Positivism’s focus on the individual may have been the greatest contribution to criminology and the criminal justice system. It led to classifications of offenders, such as habitual criminals, as well as categories between insanity and sanity. It also led to the use of psychology in studying offenders, opening the way for different kinds of sentences and treatments that fit the criminal and not the crime.

Neo-Classicist School

The neo-classicist school emerged, in large part, to remedy some of the problems created by the classical school.

According to Taylor, Walton and Young, contradictions in classicism presented themselves in universal penal measures and in day-to-day practice. “It was impossible in practice to ignore the determinants of human action and proceed as if punishment and incarceration could be easily measured on some kind of universal calculus: apart from throwing the working of the law itself into doubt (e.g. in punishing property crime by deprivation of property) classicism appeared to contradict widely-held commonsensical notions of human behavior.”

Classicism concentrated on the criminal act and ignored individual differences between criminals. Neo-classicism still held that free will is important, but that it can be constrained by physical and environmental factors. Thus, neo-classicists introduced revisions to account for problems presented in classicism:

  • Allowing for mitigating circumstance by looking at the situation (physical and social environment) in which the individual had been placed.
  • Some allowance was given for an offender’s past record. A court needs to take into account an offender’s criminal history and life circumstances when making a decision about someone’s sentence.
  • Consideration should be given for factors like incompetence, pathology, insanity and impulsive behavior. Also, certain individuals, such as children and the mentally ill, are generally less capable of exercising their reason.

Neo-classicism heavily emphasizes free will and human rationality; it simply refined these ideas slightly so that they would work in the world and in day-to-day operations of the criminal justice system. This model provided a look at possible influences that could undermine volition. Agencies of social control in all advanced industrial societies have adopted this model of human behavior.

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At Southeastern University, current and future law enforcement professionals can enhance their career with a fully online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. This program will prepare graduates to enter into leadership positions in criminal justice.