Around the mid-eighteenth century, philosophers began arguing for a more rational, humanistic approach to criminal punishment. They sought to eliminate the cruel, public executions which were designed to deter crime or scare people into submission. In doing so the Classical and Positive Schools, as they pertain to criminal behavior, began to take shape.
The field of criminology basically began with the establishment of the Classical School. According to this school human behavior is rational, meaning individuals have the ability to choose right from wrong and therefore they rationally choose to commit crime. The Classical School was developed by Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher and Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, in response to the cruel European justice system that existed prior to 1789. Eighteenth century Europeans utilized capital punishment as a consequence of crime and deviant behavior. On the other hand, the Positive School, developed by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian surgeon, and two of his students, Enrico Ferri and Raffaele Garofalo, is the study of criminal behavior based upon external factors. According to Franklin P. Williams in Criminological Theory (2014), “He reported that criminals manifest traits of sensory impairment; a lack of moral sense, particularly the absence of remorse; and the use of slang and tattoos” (page 30). Lombroso believes a person is predisposed to a criminal lifestyle because he is born a criminal and not made into one. Each school of thought, Classical and Positive, has impacted the criminal justice system today. Both schools are in force, and both are instrumental in the ending of cruel, inhumane treatment of criminals and to the reformation of the death penalty.
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The Classical School views human behavior as rational in nature; believes that people have the ability to choose right from wrong; and believes that the major factor governing a person’s choice is the desire to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Punishment for crimes should be swift and certain, and must be public, prompt and necessary. It has to be proportionate to the crime and dictated by law.
The primary idea behind the Positive School is that criminals are born as criminals, not made into criminals. It is the nature of the person, not how one is raised, that results in criminal tendencies. The positivist rejects the ideas that humans have a free will, that each individual makes a conscious, rational choice to commit a crime. They believe that an individual’s behavior is determined by various biological (atavism), psychological (faulty personality development) and sociological (social structure) factors. Basically, due to these factors, responsibility for an offender’s actions is reduced. Also, the punishment for crime must fit the offender rather than the crime. Rehabilitation, instead of punishment, is a major part of the “treatment plan” under this school of thought.
Classical and Positive Schools both share the same idea that criminal behavior can be controlled and is a consequence of human nature. The two schools believe the most serious crimes are committed by people who are atavists or who fail to change into a civilized human state. The Positive School is concerned with reforming the offender by isolating the causes of the offender’s criminal behavior, while the Classical School focuses on retribution by creating an environment where crime is based on a person’s free will. The Positive School studies the natural origin of crime and focuses on what factors induce offenders to commit crimes. In contrast, the Classical School believes the offender commits a crime of his own free will knowing a form of punishment will follow.
The Classical School emphasizes that people make a rational decision to commit a crime. This means that the offender will think the crime through considering the positive and negative consequences of the crime. So, if the immediate gain of the crime exceeds to consequences of punishment, the offender will choose to commit the crime and suffer the consequences later. Individuals who believe in this theory, believe the logical way to reduce crime is to give criminals harsher punishments. An example of harsher punishments is the mandatory minimum sentencing laws requiring set prison terms for certain crimes. However, the one-size-fits-all concept may seem like a quick fix, but they undermine justice by precluding judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of the offense as theorized by the Positive School. Also, the “tough on crime” mentality, through mandatory sentencing laws, adds to the billions of dollars spent to incarcerate offenders who may fair better under community supervision programs, such as probation. Mandatory minimums also lead to prison overcrowding, excessive costs to taxpayers and a diversion of dollars for law enforcement.
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Each school of thought, both the Classical and Positive, impacts the criminal justice system today. They are both in force and contribute to the ending of cruel and inhumane treatment of criminals. The United States Constitution is based on these two schools. The classical school concepts of letting the punishment fit the crime is the basis for the sentencing guidelines of the justice system and the positive school concepts make it possible for criminals to acquire the rehabilitative services they need in order to become functioning members of society.
Williams, III, Franklin P., and Marilyn D. McShane. (2014). Criminological Theory, 6th ed.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
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