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Schools of Criminology

Updated on December 22, 2016

Classical, Neo-Classical, & Positivist Schools of Criminology


To understand criminology, a person must first know what crime is. A violation of criminal law, for example breaking the code of conduct set forth by a state, is how Thorsten Sellin defines crime. (Jeffery C. R., 1956) Thorsten also goes on to say that deviant behavior that is injurious to society, but is not governed by the law is inaccurately described as crime [1]. (Jeffery C. R., 1956) Crime is also defined as an illegal act that is considered punishable by the government. (Merriam-Webster, 2014)

Criminology is the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon, behavior of criminals, and the penal treatment of the criminal. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) Criminology studies the non-legal aspects of crime. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) The non-legal aspects of crime include the causes and preventions of crime. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) Criminology includes the study of crimes, criminals, crime victims, and criminological theories explaining illegal and deviant behavior. (Brotherton, 2013) The social reaction to crime, the effectiveness of anti-crime policies, and the broader political terrain of social control are also aspects to criminology. (Brotherton, 2013) Initiated in the 18th century by social crusaders, Criminology was brought to light. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) Social reformers began to query the use of punishment for justice rather than deterrence and reform. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) In 1924, Edwin Sutherland defined Criminology as “the body of knowledge regarding crime as a social phenomenon that includes within its scope the process of making laws, of breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws.” (The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, 2013)

In the 19th century, scientific methods began to be applied to the study of crime. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) Today, criminologists use a plethora of techniques and data to help render results about criminals, their activity, and the punishments being received. Criminologists frequently use statistics, case histories, official archives and records, and sociological field methods to study criminals and criminal activity, including the rates and kinds of crime within geographic areas. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) Criminologists then pass on their results to other members of the criminal justice system, such as lawyers, judges, probation officers, law enforcement officials, prison officials, legislatures, and scholars. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) This information is passed on to these members of the criminal justice system so as a group they can better understand criminals and the effects of treatment and prevention. (Merriam-Webster, 2013)

Criminological Theories are an important part of criminology. "Theory" is a term used to describe an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events. (Merriam-Webster, 2014) Therefore, a theory is suggested or presented as possibly true, but that is not known or proven to be true, as well as, the general principles or ideas that relate to a particular subject. (Merriam-Webster, 2014) Criminological Theories examine why people commit crimes and is very important in the ongoing debate of how crime should be handled and prevented. (Briggs, 2013) Many theories have been developed and researched throughout the years. These theories continue to be explored, separately and in amalgamation, because criminologists pursue the paramount elucidations in eventually reducing types and intensities of crime. (Briggs, 2013)

Classical School of Criminology.

Classical School is Born. The Classical School of Criminology was brought to light in the late 1700s and early 1800s. (Schmalleger, 2014) The legal systems around the 1700s did not work very well. The legal systems were subjective, corrupt, and harsh up to the time of the development of the Classical School of Criminology. (Cullen & Agnew, 2003) These unacceptable conditions led to a revolt against the arbitrary, harsh, corrupt system, thus allowing for new ideas and insight to be put forth. (Jeffery C. R., 1956) Enlightenment is a place where the Classical School set it roots and alleged that humans are rational beings and that crime is the result of free will in a risk versus reward position. (Schmalleger, 2014) There were many people who helped shape the Classical School of Criminology. Two of the most important of these people to shape the Classical School of Criminology are Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. With the principles of Cesare Beccaria and the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham, the Classical School of Criminology was erected and put into effect.

Cesare Beccaria. The Classical School of Criminology was founded by Cesare Beccaria, an Italian theorist. Beccaria was born an Aristocrat in Milan, Italy on March 15th, 1738. (Florida State University, 2013) Being an Aristocratic is simply, being born wealthy or of high social class, usually, having a title. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) He received a degree in 1758. (Florida State University, 2013) Against his parent’s wishes three years later, in 1761, he married Teresa di Blasco. (Florida State University, 2013)

At this time in life, he and two of his friends, Pietro and Alessandro Verri, formed the society called “Academy of Fists.” (Florida State University, 2013) The mission of this group was to wage a relentless war against things such as economic disorder, petty bureaucratic tyranny, religious narrow-mindedness, and intellectual pedantry. (Florida State University, 2013) Encouragement from the members of “Academy of Fists” led Beccaria started to read open-minded authors of England and France and with that Beccaria began writing essays that the members of the “Academy of Fists” had assigned to him. (Florida State University, 2013)On Remedies for the Monetary Disorders of Milan in the Year of 1762 was Beccaria’s first publication. (Florida State University, 2013)

Of the essays written by Beccaria with the help of his friends, On Crimes and Punishments is Beccaria’s most noted essay. (Florida State University, 2013)On Crimes and Punishments was originally titled Dei deliti e delle pene.(Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) As Beccaria wrote, the members of “Academy of Fists” recommended the topic, gave him the information, elaborated on the subject matter, and arranged his written words together into a readable work. (Florida State University, 2013)

There are ten principles that are used to summarize Beccaria’s arguments and ideas that he thought would make the criminal justice system work in a more efficient, effective, and all-around nondiscriminatory way. These principles are outlined in Theoretical Criminology written by George Vold, Thomas Bernard, and Jeffery Snipes. He felt that legislatures should define the crimes and set forth the punishments for the specific crimes, instead of allowing the laws to be vague and left to the discretion of the judicial system. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Because judges had an immense amount of discretion when ruling over proceedings, Beccaria suggested that judge’s only task should be to determine guilt or innocence and then follow the predetermined sentence set forth by the legislature. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002)

Beccaria also implied that all factors except the impact on society were immaterial in determining the seriousness of a crime. Therefore, impact on society should be used to determine the significance of the crime. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) The next principle brought forth by Beccaria was that of proportionality. He felt that that the punishment of the crime should be proportionate to its seriousness. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) In other words, the “time should fit the crime.” Beccaria thought that the purpose of punishment should not be retribution. Instead, he believed punishment should be based on deterrence. (Schmalleger, 2014) He felt that if people saw punishments being carried out, it would allow onlookers to be deterred from criminal activity. (Schmalleger, 2014) When the harshness of the punishment exceeds the necessity to achieve deterrence, Beccaria believed that it was unreasonable. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Beccaria thought torture was inappropriate and allowed for the weak to incriminate themselves and the strong would be found innocent before they were adjudicated. (Schmalleger, 2014) This unjust punishment inflicted on offenders allowed crime to be increased instead of deterred. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Beccaria also called for adjudication and punishments to occur quickly. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) He felt that if a crime was committed and the offender was adjudicated in a prompt manner that the concept of crime and punishment would be associated with each other. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Beccaria thought if a punishment was certain then society would have a better impression of the criminal justice system. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) This allowed potential offenders to know the punishment before making a rational decision to commit crime.

Beccaria pushed for laws to be published so that the public would be aware of the laws, know the purpose of the laws, and know the punishments set forth by the laws. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) He also accentuated torture and secret accusations be abolished or eliminated because they were cruel and unusual punishments. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Beccaria called for imprisonment instead of capital punishment or the death penalty. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) He also emphasized jails becoming more human and the distinction between the elite and the underprivileged be eradicated from the law. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) This was based on the idea of sovereignty lying in the hands of the people and all members of society being seen and treated equally in the application of the law. (Jeffery, 1959)

Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748. (Swanson, 2000) Bentham’s mother died when he was eleven and he never had good relationships with any other women. (Geis, 1955) The women in his family were devout and superstitious. Thus he was raised in an atmosphere of ghost stories and was plagued by "diabolical visions." (Swanson, 2000) He never married, but he did propose to one woman when he was fifty-seven years old, but the lady rejected the proposal. (Geis, 1955)

Bentham started putting together an all-inclusive code of ethics. (Geis, 1955) The issue he came across was he thought the task was too non-utilitarian, so he placed prominence on the real problem of eradicating or at least diminishing crime. (Geis, 1955) Bentham created the concept of the hedonistic calculus, because he believed in the person’s capability to judge the impact of punishment on themselves and their ability to make a choice regarding the pursuance of pleasure and the evasion of pain. (Seiter, 2011) The hedonistic calculus defined as the idea that the main objective of an intelligent person is to achieve the most pleasure and the least pain and that the individuals are constantly calculating the pluses and minuses of their potential actions. (Seiter, 2011)

Since Bentham believed in the hedonistic calculus and a person’s ability to make a rational decision regarding a pleasure versus pain calculation, he conjectured that the punishment for crimes should prevail over the pleasure the person would get from committing the criminal activity. (Seiter, 2011) The free-will idea of the Classical School, therefore, added to Bentham’s idea that the penalties of the criminal actions would be considered before the actions were taken. (Seiter, 2011) That meant that the person would ultimately be deterred from the actions that criminal activity the person would have made had they not be a free-will, rational person. (Seiter, 2011)

What the Classical School did for Criminology. The Classical School of Criminology is known as the first organized theory of crime that links causation to appropriate punishments. (Seiter, 2011) The classical school followed Beccaria’s ideology which focused on crime, not the criminal. The Classical School of Criminology focused on the principle of deterrence instead of punishment. (Seiter, 2011) The Classical School of Criminology came up with important theories for the behavior of criminals that is still commonly used today.

Specific Theories within the Classical School. Many things came about because of the creation of the Classical School of Criminology. One of the most important things that came from the Classical School of Criminology was the theories that arose from it. Three of the theories that came from the Classical School of Criminology are the Rational Choice Theory, Routine Activities Theory, and Deterrence Theory. These theories came from the Classical School of Criminology, but are still used to explain criminal behavior in criminology today.

Rational Choice Theory. Rational Choice Theory is defined as a perspective that holds that criminality is the result of conscious choice and predicts that individuals chose to commit a crime when the benefits outweigh the costs of disobeying the law. (Schmalleger, 2014) Rational Choice Theory is basically a cost-benefit analysis between crime and punishment relying on the freewill decision from the offender. (Schmalleger, 2014) There were two theories that came from Rational Choice Theory. Those two theories are Routine Activities Theory and Situational Choice Theory. (Schmalleger, 2014)

Routine Activities Theory. Routine Activities Theory has three principle elements. (Baxter, 2013) Those three key elements for the Routine Activities Theory are a motivated offender, an attractive target, and a lack of a capable guardian. (Cullen & Agnew 2003) It is said people’s daily routine and activities affect the chances that they will be an attractive target who encounters an offender in a situation where no effective guardian is present. (Cullen & Agnew 2003)Routine Activities Theory has a strong emphasis on victimization. (Schmalleger, 2014) Different changes in routine activities in society can affect the crime rates. (Cullen & Agnew) Some examples of this are working women or college classes starting after a summer break.

Situational Choice Theory. Situational Choice Theory comes from the ideals of the Rational Choice Theory. (Schmalleger, 2014) Situational Choice Theory is known to be an outlook on the view criminal behavior “as a function of choices and decisions made within a context of situational constraints and opportunities.” (Schmalleger, 2014) This means that in certain situations or constraints a person may act one way, but in any other situation, the person would not act in that way. The Situational Choice Theory is largely an extension of the rational choice theory. (Schmalleger, 2014)

Positivist School of Criminology. In the late 1800s, the Classical School of Criminology came under attack, thus leaving room for a new wave of thought to come about. (Cullen & Agnew, 2003) There were three causations for the attack of the Classical School. These causations were crimes appeared to be increasing even though changes in the legal system had taken place, punished offenders were recidivating, and the theory of an offender being a rational, self-interested person who chose to engage in crime was challenged by the biological sciences. (Cullen & Agnew, 2003) Each of these events brought on a new school of criminology that came to be known as the Positivist School of Criminology.

Cesare Lombroso. Cesare Lombroso was born in 1835 and died seventy-four years later in 1909. (Seiter, 2011) Lombroso was an Italian physician who founded the Positivist School of Criminology in the nineteenth century. (Seiter, 2011) Lombroso researched the links between criminality and physical attributes. (Seiter, 2011) Lombroso came up with the “Criminal Man,” which outlined what he studied and deemed to be the traits of a criminal. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) These traits of the “Criminal Man” were: not being developed sufficiently mentally, having long arms, large amounts of body hair, prominent cheekbones, and large foreheads. (Seiter, 2011) In his book, The Criminal Man, Lombroso suggested that criminals were biologically in a different stage in the evolution process than the counterpart non-criminals. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002)

Later on, Lombroso added that it may not be just a physical division on whether or not a person would be a criminal. He believed that there are three major classes of criminals: born criminals, insane criminals, and criminaloids. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Born criminals were thought to be one-third of the criminals which were a more primitive evolutionary form of development. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Insane criminals were the idiots, paranoiacs, and those affected with dementia, alcoholism, hysteria and other types of mental complications. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Lastly, criminaliods are considered a large general class without specificities on physical characteristics or mental disorders, but sometimes tend to be involved in rancorous and criminal behavior. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002)

Out Comes the Positivist School of Criminology. Lombroso did not come up with the Positivist School of Criminology on his own. With the help of Ferri and Goring, the Positivist School of Criminology was created. Lombroso started with the idea that criminals are born, but later recognized other factors are important. (Jeffery C. R., 1959) Ferri is credited with emphasizing the importance of anthropological and social factors along with the physical factors. (Jeffery C. R., 1959) Goring is acknowledged as recognizing that a criminal is physically and mentally deficient to the non-criminal. (Jeffery C. R., 1959)

What the Positivist School did for Criminology. The Positivist School of Criminology linked biological, psychological, and sociological theories to criminal behavior. It brought to light that there are several factors involved in criminality. The Positivist School of Criminology held that crime is caused or determined by the individual. The Positivist School of Criminology used science to determine factors that were associated with crime and criminality.

Specific Theories within the Positivists School. As with the Classical School, the Positivist School of Criminology have several important theories that the scholars of that time and today used to explain the behavior of criminals. The three categories of the theories used in the Positivist School are biological theories, psychological theories, and sociological theories.

Biological Theories. Biological theories are based on a person’s biological and hereditary identity. These theories imply that it is not entirely the criminal’s fault, but their biological make up that makes them identify with criminality. Lombroso suggests what he feels is a typical criminal in his book the Criminal Man, in which he describes traits and characteristics of prisoners that he identifies with criminality.

Psychological Theories.Psychological theories deal with a person’s mental being. In psychological theories the individual is the unit of analysis. (Seiken, 2014) It is believed that crimes are the result of abnormal, dysfunctional, or inappropriate mental processes within the personality of the individual. (Seiken, 2014) Therefore, it is believed that criminal behavior may be purposeful for the individual because it addresses certain felt needs. (Seiken, 2014)

Sociological Theories. Sociological Theories associate a criminal’s behavior with the social constructs surrounding the individual. Sociological theories are structured and based on the environment around the individual. This is the people that are in close or intimate contact with the individual, the environment(s) in which the individual is in constant contact with, and the way the individual has been taught. Social structure and context, as well as sociological theories are an important part of analyzing a criminal’s behavior.

Neoclassical School of Criminology. Following the French Revolution, the Neoclassical School was developed as a compromise to the Classical and Positivists Schools of Criminology. (Seiter, 2011) (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) The French Code of 1789 was founded on the basis of Beccaria’s principles. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Just like Beccaria’s principles, the French Code of 1789 called for the judge being the only mechanism for applying the law, and the law took the responsibility for defining a penalty for every crime and every degree of crime. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) There was a problem with this however since there is a different condition in each situation that was being overlooked. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) This allowed for first time and repeat offenders to be treated in the same manner, as well as children and adults, sane and insane, and so on being treated as if they were the same. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002)

A new set of reformers argues that the treatment of others as the same was unfair and complained about injustice. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) Gabriel Tarde suggested that there was a difference between total free will and determinism and argued that no one has total free will. (Seiter, 2011) He suggested that factors such as age, gender, social and economic environments, nevertheless everyone is still responsible for their actions. (Seiter, 2011) The Neoclassical School of Criminology had a basis on the offender’s character. (Schmalleger, 2014)

Reactions to the impersonal features of no discretion became a point of action to give judges the discretion that was needed to attain a fair course of action and punishments for offenders. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) The judges were able to use discretion in cases where age, mental capabilities, and other justifying circumstances were of issue. (Seiter, 2011) These conditions and revisions came to be known as the Neo-Classical School of Criminology.

Gabriel Tarde. Gabriel Tarde was a French social theorist, who lived from 1843-1904. (Schmalleger, 2014) He discounted biological theories, but believed that people patterned their behavior after the behavior of others. (Schmalleger, 2014) He then formed three laws of behavior, which were an individual’s immediate, intimate contact with one another leads to them to imitate each other, imitation leads from the top down, and the law of insertion. (Schmalleger, 2014) The second law implies that younger people will look up to the elderly, poor to the wealthy, and so on. (Schmalleger, 2014) The third law of insertion means that new acts or behavior tend to emphasize or replace old ones. (Schmalleger, 2014) An example is a middle school pre-teenager hanging out with a high school teenager and the middle school pre-teen picking up the habits of the high school teenager. These habits may include attitudes towards others and their attire.

What the Neoclassical School did for Criminology. The Neo-Classical School of Criminology allowed for mitigating factors to be reviewed by a judge and allowed for discretion to be used. Before the Neo-Classical School, all offenders were treated the same no matter what age, mental condition, gender, and so on. This was seen as unfair and unjust and allowed for change to transpire. The Neo-Classical School called for judged to have discretion which is necessary in some instances. The Neo-Classical School was also able to blend the Classical School of Criminology with the Positivist School of Criminology.

Specific Theories within the Neoclassical School. Some things came into creation because of the Neo-Classical School of Criminology. One of those things is theories. Theory is important because it helps criminologists to explain criminal behavior. One of those important theories to explain the behavior of criminals is the Deterrence Theory.

Deterrence Theory. There are two types of deterrence; general deterrence and specific deterrence. (Schmalleger, 2014) As a general definition, deterrence is a goal in sentencing of hindering the criminal behavior from fear of the punishment or consequence. (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002) A goal in criminal sentencing that seeks to prevent others from committing crimes similar to the one that the offender is being sentenced for is general deterrence. (Schmalleger, 2014) Similarly, specific deterrence has a goal in sentencing that seeks to prevent a particular offender from recidivism or repeat offending. (Schmalleger, 2014)

Reflections. The Classical School. Positivist School, and Neo-Classical School are all considered separate from each other. However, some of the characteristics of each are intertwined in the big scheme of things. The Classical School of Criminology is based on freewill and determinism, while the Positivist School of Criminology is based on the biological, psychological, and sociological aspects of a criminal. The Neo-Classical School, however, is a blend of the two other schools of criminology with a big emphasis on deterrence. The Classical School and Neo-Classical School differed in that the Classical School held that people had complete freewill and the Neo-Classical School felt that if a person had freewill, but not absolute free will. The Neo-Classical School and Positivist School differed in that the Positivist School highlighted a person’s biology and the Neo-Classical School emphasized that there were many other factors associated with criminality. These three are similar in the fact that criminological theories, that are still relevant today, were a major part in shaping criminologists’ theories and research today.

From my research on the three I have come to many conclusions. I feel that each of these schools are relevant although some parts within these schools of criminology are outlandish. I feel that if Beccaria, Bentham, Lombroso, Tarde and others pertinent to these schools would not have had their sometimes radial ways of thinking that criminology would not be as developed as it is today. I also feel as if Lombroso was a lunatic for believing that a person is just born to be a criminal. I know that criminality does “run in the family,” but I also know that there are several other things that factor into the equation, not just biology.

From this research, I feel as if I have a better understanding of the three schools of criminology. I know in my future and in my career as a criminologist it will be and is important to understand where criminal justice and criminology “got its roots.” This allows us to better understand where it is going. Also, I have gained more knowledge in some of the criminological theories that I was uninformed on before now.


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[1] Thorsten Sellin; “Crime,” Dictionary of Sociogy, ed. P. Fairchild, New York: Philosophical Library, 1994, p.73.

© 2014 Katelynn Torrence


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    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 3 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      I've read that anyone who was against the government of the USSR at one time were officially considered mentally ill by government officials and treated as such by being treated with drugs.Even some government leaders were accused of this mental disease called schizoid