How the Classical Theory Pertains to Crime Prevention

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The classical school of criminology is a group of thinkers of crime and punishment in the 18th century. The most prominent members, such as Cesare Beccaria, shared the idea that criminal behavior could be understood and controlled. The classical theory insisted that individuals are rational beings who pursue their own interests, trying to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. The following manuscript will cover three key concepts the origins of classical thought, popular forerunner of classical thought, Cesare Beccaria, and how the classical theory pertains to crime prevention. Lastly, the educational material will show that crime is caused by natural forces and the absence of effective punishment allows it to continue. With clearly defined laws, public punishment, and the elimination of judicial discretion crime can be prevented by deterrence.

Crimes and Punishment: How the Classical Theory Pertains to Crime Prevention

Criminology has six theoretical developments in its discipline. This essay will look into the classical school theory. The classical school of criminology has many parts such as the major principles of the classical school, forerunners of classical thought, and policy implications of the classical school. First, I will define classical theory as well as summarize the origins of classical thought. Next, I will explore one of the most popular forerunners of classical thought, Cesare Beccaria. Lastly, I will discuss how the classical theory pertains to crime prevention as well as how deterrence plays apart.

Literature Review

To properly compose a manuscript on how the classical theory pertains to crime prevention, classical theorist Beccaria's work had to be examined. Many of the reforms that occurred in the 18th century can be ascribed to Beccaria (Newman & Marongiu, 1990). Beccaria (1983), discussed that the more promptly the punishment follows the crime the more useful it will be. Martin, Mutchnick, and Austin (1990), states that the classical and neoclassical thought represents more a philosophy of justice than it does a theory of crime causation.

Cohen and Felson (1979), suggested that lifestyles contribute significantly to both the volume and the type of crime found in any society. Thus, Reed and Yeager (1996), examined Gottfredson and Hirshi's theory of crime, with particular respect to its applicability to organizational offending. Moriarty and Williams (1996), discussed the individual choice and a relative disregard for the role of social factors in crime causation, such as poverty, poor home environment, and inadequate socialization. Rational choice theory seems to assume that everyone is equally capable of making a rational decision; however, it depends on the personality of the individual (Tunnell, 1990).

In dealing with punishment and how it deters crime it was necessary to look at studies. Although one might expect study results to show that the death penalty deters crime; however, it was found that the rates of murder committed between states that have eliminated the death penalty and those that retain it had little variation (Bailey, 1979). Sitze (2009), discusses how capital punishment presents a problem for the philosophy of law. Also, Sitze expands on Beccaria thought of how the death penalty is "bad economy of power."


Classical Theory

The classical theory dominated crime theory during the late 1700s and the 1800s. The essential ideas of classical theory include individuals are rational beings who pursue their own interest, trying to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. Unless they are deterred by the threat of swift, certain, and appropriately severe punishments, they may commit crimes in their pursuit of self-interest (Martinetal, 1990).

Classical theory argues that crime is caused by natural forces or forces of this world, such as the absence of effective punishments. Classical theory was developed in reaction to the harsh, corrupt, and often arbitrary nature of the legal system in the 1700s (Vold et al., 2002). Classical theorists were mainly interested in critiquing this system and offering proposals for its reform, but embedded in their arguments is a theory of criminal behavior.

The circumstances of some individuals, then, may lead them to evaluate the potential pains of punishment and pleasures of crime differently than other individuals. Poor people, for example, may be less deterred by the pains of punishment and more attracted by the pleasures of crime (Beccaria, 1983).

Classical theory assumes that people are rational and engage in crime to minimize their pain and maximize their pleasure. Some criminologists, however, argue that many offenders are not rational and that crime is not in their self-interest. Rather, they engage in crime because of forces beyond their control and they often suffer greatly because of their behavior (Vold et al., 2002).

Classical theorists state that whether people engage in crime is largely dependent on the swiftness, certainty, and appropriateness of the punishments they face.

Cesare Beccaria

Cesare Beccaria was an 18th century Italian nobleman and economist. Beccaria was considered to most the "father" of Criminology. Because of Beccaria's work he was the most important figure head of what is known as the Classical Theory. The 18th century was times in history were severe and often extreme punishment was enforced for crimes committed. During such a time in history Beccaria offered the theory of utility. Beccaria examined the causes of delinquent and criminal behavior, and by doing so was able to scientifically determine what causes such deviant behavior. Beccaria rejected the theories of the European Enlightenment which characterized the deviant behavior under the theories of naturalism and even demonology. Beccaria wanted to pass on the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment, by doing so these new theories passed on rationalism and humanitarianism (Martin et al., 1990).

Beccaria set out to make punishment for committing crimes rational. He believed that there should be a hierarchy of punishment a scale determining what punishments is suitable for the behavior and/or intent. The scale of punishment would have set punishments for repeat offenders as well as for the more serious crimes. This would change how the death penalty was imposed. The scale of punishment, Beccaria was working on, would only impose the death penalty depending on the severity of the crime and not the act or acts of committing or involvement. Beccaria also believed that judges had to broad of discretion on which punishment to impose on what act of deviant behavior. Therefore, Beccaria favored specific punishments fitting each crime. He published an historic piece, An Essay on Crimes and Punishment, in 1764, to communicate his observations on the laws and justice system of his time. In the Essay, Beccaria distilled the notion of the social contract into the idea that "laws are the conditions under which independent and isolated men united to form a society." (Beccaria, 1983)

Crime Preventions and Deterrence

Deterrence theory most fully reflects the ideas of classical theory. Deterrence theorists argue that people are rational and pursue their own interests, attempting to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. They choose to engage in crime if they believe it is to their advantage. The best way to prevent crime, therefore, is through punishments that are swift, certain, and appropriately severe. Deterrence theorists, like classical theorists, focus primarily on the impact of official punishments on crime. Deterrence occurs when "someone refrains from committing a crime because he or she fears the certainty, swiftness, and/or severity of formal legal punishment" (Paternoster & Bachman, 2001).

Deterrence theory makes a distinction between two types of deterrence; specific and general. Specific deterrence refers to the idea that punishment reduces the crime of those specific people who are punished. So, punishing someone for a crime should reduce the likelihood of further crime by that person. Studies on general deterrence ask whether punishment deters crime among people in the general population. It has been argued that punishment may deter crime among those who are not punished. Therefore, deterrence through punishment is an effective way to prevent crime (Paternoster & Piquero, 1995).


Throughout the essay classical theory, Cesare Beccaria, and deterrence has been explored in relation with one another. The manuscript disclosed that individuals are rational beings who pursue their own interests, trying to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. Classical theorist Cesare Beccaria determined that if the justice system reformed such as using rational penalties for crimes committed then such behavior could be deterred. The deterrence theory proved that people do refrain from committing crimes because of the fear of punishment. Therefore, the deterrence theory most fully reflects the ideas of classical theory.