Classical School of Criminology: A Foundation of Today’s Criminal Justice System

Classical school of criminology is an important theory in the framework of criminal behavior. Since the beginning, theorist and scholars have attempted to find solutions to crime and deviance. As years progress, crime continues to escalate throughout society. Serial killer was a term that was once unknown, however found definition in the 20th century as people began to murder others in sport, rather than in self-defense. Child molestation was something that was talked about behind closed doors, whispered, or unheard of until recently. With the rise of drug access and availability including drugs approved by the FDA and street pharmaceuticals, crime continues to rise as a result. To better understand the nature of crime, the reasoning behind crime, and how to deter others from leading a life of crime, criminal theorist found the Classical School of Criminology.

The Classical School of Criminology was developed by scholars Jeremy Bentham and Cesare de Baccaria. Bentham was an English philosopher who focused on utilitarianism, (Pelovangu, 2010). He lived through 1748 to 1832. As a believer of utilitarianism, he felt that people have to right to happiness and as a result should lead happy lives. This philosophy set the rules to help deter punishment and create punishment that is appropriate to the crime committed. This is the beginnings of the Classical School of Thought. Beccaria was an Italian philosopher and attorney of law who lived between 1798 and 1894, (Pelovangu, 2010). Bentham and Baccaria were moved by the climate of crime and punishment prevalent throughout 18th century Europe. During this era Europeans utilized capital punishment in consequence of crime and deviant behavior. Criminals would be punished excessively and harshly, unmatched by America’s humane practice of the death penalty, boot camps, or hard labor. As a result, “classical thinking emerged in response to the cruel forms of punishment that dominated the times [as] enlightened approaches to be taken towards crime and punishment”, (Roufa, 2011).

The main theory involved in the Classical School of Criminology is that, “criminals make a rational choice and choose to do criminal acts due to maximum pleasure and minimum pain”, (“Classical”, 2012). Theorist go further to explain that to deter and reduce crime, “the severity of the penalties given should be proportionate to the crime committed and no more than what is necessary in order to deter the offender and others from committing further crimes”, (“Classical”, 2010). This theory and frame of thought make up the whole of the Classical School of Criminology. To understand this theory, one must first dive deeper into the meaning of this thought and frame of understanding. 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. They participate in criminal activity as a form of gratification or for a specific reason. This can be to gain money, sex, monetary objects, and other items desired. Therefore, if the immediate gain of the crime exceeds to consequences of punishment, than the offender will choose to commit the crime and suffer the possible consequences in order to get the temporary gain achieved from the crime.

“Punishment can be used to deter crime and the severity of the punishment must be proportional to the crime itself”, (Roufa, 2011). As was the case in 18th century Europe, many people would receive a punishment that outweighed the severity of the crime. For instance, in the past foreign countries would cut off the finger or the hand of the common thief. This punishment for stealing outweighs the severity of the crime. This can be especially seen if the item stolen was minimal compared to the price or usefulness of a lost limb. This occurred in an era where women were hanged or beheaded for acts such as adultery, when currently adultery is not law breaking or forbidden and some may even argue that adultery is a common practice. Either way, the Classical School of Criminology encourages fairness and better use of the criminal justice system in order to reduce crime and deter criminal activity.

The classical school of criminology is based off four basic principles briefly explained above. The theory suggests that:

  • Individuals have the will and rationality to act according to their own will and desires
  •  Individuals will calculate the rationality of the crime based on the benefits of the crime versus the consequences of the crime
  •  Severity of the punishment should be determined by the severity of the crime to deter others and reduce crime
  •  Punishment must be swift and appropriate to deter others and reduce crime, (Roufa, 2011).

Therefore these classical theories on crime and behavior continue to take shape and play a significant role in criminal justice systems around the world. “Since the introduction of classical school of criminology… the use of capital punishment, torture, and corporal punishment has declined”, (“Classical”, 2012). Researchers suggest that Classical School has changed the scope and range of punishment. Before, criminal justice systems implemented punishment in the form of pain. People were whipped, tortured, hanged, beheaded, had limbs removed, as well as other forms of physical punishment. However as time progressed, the criminal justice systems has moved away from this. This can also be seen when studying and recognizing the American and European practice of punishment and system of criminal justice. Today, individuals are incarcerated and detained by the state. This has helped shape the role and appropriateness of punishment. Also, it is a foundation used to deter others from the life of crime, helping offenders understand the significance of their behavior. As a result, the “growth of prison as a major system of punishment…to take punishment away from the body and instead punish the mind and soul… to changing one’s outlook and views of their criminal behavior”, (“Classical”, 2012). The popularity and use of School of Classical Criminology can be observed in America’s criminal justice system. It is referenced in the United States Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence. An example of this can be found in the 8th Amendment that makes, “cruel and unusual punishment” unlawful and unconstitutional.

Despite its popularity and usefulness across the Western world, there are several weaknesses that can be found within the Classical School of Criminology. This theory suggests that criminals exhibit unlawful behavior because of choice and free will. Although this may be true for some it is not true for all. In this manner, the theory “puts the blame for the crime problems squarely on the shoulders of the individual, and not on society as a whole”, (See, 2004). While many people -even children- understand the difference between right and wrong, not everyone participates in criminal behavior because of free will, choice, or rationalization. Some participate in criminal activities because of irrational thinking and without an option of choice or will. They may have mental instabilities, poor impulse control, low IQ or mental capacity, or may commit the crime out of need and survival. Consider the person who is poor and starving. In this situation, when this individual steals food it is not done out of free will or choice, the stealing of food is done out of survival. As a result, this classical theory can be a weak basis for the nature of criminal behavior. The theory makes no indications or suggestions to the fact that, “there may be biological factors stopping an individual from thinking or behaving rationally”, (“Classical”, 2012).

Once studying and understanding the Classical School of Criminology, one can find the significance of this theory and its application to the modern criminal justice system. It provides rational for criminal behavior and suggestions for punishment and crime control. Although this theory was developed in the 18th century it can still be applied and have successful use in the 21st century. America’s justice system is founded on this theory. Today, individuals serve time that fit the nature of their crime, however this statement can be argued. In addition, the current system does not take into account the social factors that help influence crime and deviant behavior. Outside forces and incidents outside of will, choice, and rationalization can have a strong influence on crime and behavior. These include drug use, mental instabilities, and poverty. Although this theory has relevance and truth, it is lacking in that the nature of the criminal and crime itself. Not everyone is a criminal by choice. Some feel that they are lead to criminal activity due to various social factors and outside influences such as oppression, lack of opportunity, low socio-economic statue, joblessness, and so forth. Especially in America, society, and social institutions, social factors shape the individual and possible deviant behavior.  Without changing issues widespread in American society such as drugs, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, crime will continue to be high in low income areas, amongst minorities, and those addicted to drugs.







Classical school of criminology. (2012). Retrieved from:

Pelovangu, R. (2010, Feb 10). The classical school of criminology. Retrieved from:

Roufa, T. (2011). Criminology: What is it? learn about the study of crime, its causes, and its consequences. Retrieved from

See, E. (2004). Student study guide for criminology theories: introduction, evaluation,application. (4th ed.). Los Angelos, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company. Retrieved from

About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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4 Responses to Classical School of Criminology: A Foundation of Today’s Criminal Justice System

  1. MW says:

    It really helped me.
    God bless you
    Keep it up!

  2. joyce says:

    Thank you Madam. It helped me understand more about my topic for our report. My professor told as to make swot(strength, weakness,opportunity and threat) analysis on classical criminology. Good thing I surf in the internet and found this. =) May the Lord Bless you more!

    P.S. continue to educate the young ones. =)


    Joyce G.

    • I’m glad that I was able to help you with your report. Thanks for the nice words. I hope everything goes well for you and your learning.

      • Muhammad Sahabo says:

        Well, ma I have no word’s to thank you with, this is because almost everyone have said it!
        Ma the only thing I can say is that may you always continue to be our role model.
        And we hope that you will always respond to us when we are in need of!
        Thank you one’s again.

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