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In the middle of the eighteenth century, criminology emerged as a social science that defined issues of crime and notions of law. It was a period of violent forms of punishment, which were wide-spread at that time.

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Moreover, the progress of society demanded new forms of lawful ruling because there had to be certainty in the law system considering that technology and properties required officially authorized defense, and employees needed to be disciplined in a reliable way (Glick, 2005). Therefore, several schools of scientific thought have evolved. The classical school of criminology was one of them.

The Classical School Created by Bentham and Beccaria

Although many thinkers have demonstrated special interest in criminal behavior for centuries, criminologists have frequently marked the start of criminology with the initiation of the classical school that claims that human beings decide to commit crimes rationally. The classical school was created by Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria in reply to the primitive and extremely violent European justice system, which existed before the French Revolution of 1789.

The eighteenth-century classical school treated human conduct as fundamentally rational. The followers of the classical school felt that humans had the capability to differentiate right from wrongdoings and thought that the key aspect governing an individual's choice of action was the essential human desire to feel pleasure and keep away from pain (Glick, 2005).

Leaders of the classical school proposed lawful and judicial reforms, which embraced the use of penalties severe enough to outweigh any pleasure accomplished through a criminal act. It was believed that humans would willingly stay away from violence if they analyzed that punishment for a crime was severe (Glick, 2005).

In general, the classical school has its origins in the concept that humans who commit crime do it after analyzing the outcomes of their own actions. The classical approach is established on the following suppositions:

  1. All people have free will to make an option among getting what they wish lawfully or against the law.
  2. The fear of penalty may keep an individual away from committing a crime.
  3. Society may control criminal and noncriminal conduct by making penalties more severe (Glick, 2005).

There were two major contributors to the classical school of criminology Cesare de Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. They are the most significant enlightenment philosophers in the sphere of "classical" thoughts, who have both believed to lessen the severity of the eighteenth-century judicial systems, although coming from dissimilar philosophical points of view.

Cesare Beccaria

Cesare Beccaria, the major contributor to the classical school of criminology, was born in Italy in 1738 and passed away in 1794. In 1763, the protector of prisons, Pietro Verri, offered his friend Cesare a task, which finally became the well-known essay On Crimes and Punishments. It was written in 1764 and issued anonymously in July of the same year. The essay caused a sensation; however, not everybody liked it due to the anonymous author and a quite unusual stance presented.

To realize why Beccaria's essay caused such controversy, it is useful to consider the condition of criminal law in Europe at that time. The criminal law in the 18th century was oppressive, uncertain, and extremely violent. It also allowed and even encouraged abusive and subjective practices. The law provided public officials with the limitless power to deprive humans of their freedom, possessions, and even life.

Secret accusations were wide-spread and innocent people were incarcerated with no substantial evidence. Too many crimes were punished by death, and no difference was made between the accused and the convicted. This was the state of criminal law when Beccaria created his article on the issue of crime. Now, it is easy to understand why his work was treated as really humane and ground-breaking.

Beccaria's suggestions covered the spheres of guilt and punishment. Beccaria asserted that only legislators should be creators of laws. He claimed that the authority for "creating penal laws may reside only with the legislator, who represents the society unified by the social contract" (Beccaria, 1986).

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Unless it was meant by the regulations, judges were not allowed to inflict punishment on any individual. The philosopher also made some crucial points concerning the term "guilty", "No human being may be called guilty before a judge has sentenced him, nor can the social order deprive him of public defense before it has been proved that he has, in fact, violated the circumstances under which such defense was accorded him" (Beccaria, 1986). This new notion, "innocent till proven guilty", underlies the existing criminal justice system of nowadays.

Beccaria based his idea of reform on the concept that people and the state have a "social contract" that entitles humans to lawful defense against crime (Beccaria, 1986). Beccaria's plan of reform had its origins in a social contract approach that underlines the idea that humans lived initially without administration. People then developed the state through a "social contract" by which they surrendered many "natural liberties". In return, they obtained the security that the administration could offer "against antisocial acts" (Beccaria, 1986).

Beccaria thought that the penalty has to be based on the pleasure/pain concept. For him, pleasure and pain were single "springs of action" in humans, "If the same penalty is designed for two crimes, which harm the social order in dissimilar levels, there is nothing to determine from committing the greater crime as frequently as it is attended with greater gain" (Beccaria, 1986). Furthermore, the thinker thought that the penalty should be applied to a guilty person consistent with a scale determined by the degree of hazard the given crime possesses for society.

Due to this precise scale of crimes and penalties, humans would realize which punishments were attached to certain crimes. Hence, the question about the purpose of punishment arises. According to Beccaria, the purpose was to avert a criminal from doing any further harm to society. The aim of the penalty was also to avert other people from committing comparable offenses. These aims demanded to set punishments, which would make strong and permanent impressions on other people with the "least torment to criminal" (Beccaria, 1986).

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Jeremy Bentham

Another influential classical theorist was the British thinker Jeremy Bentham, born in 1748. He thought humans had the capability to differentiate right from wrong. He asserted that human beings are essentially hedonistic. Therefore, they need a high degree of pleasure and avoid pain. According to Jeremy Bentham, criminals believed that they obtained more than they lost by committing the crime. Bentham thought that the criminal justice system should keep humans away from making this choice (Glick, 2005).

Bentham based his theories on the concept of utilitarianism that presupposed that all of a person's acts are calculated. Utilitarianism is the concept which presupposes that the aim of all acts should cause maximum happiness for humans. According to Bentham, individuals calculated their own acts by the likelihood of experiencing pleasure or pain. Bentham asserted that an act possessed utility if it "tends to create benefit, pleasure, good or pleasure or to prevent the happening of misbehavior, pain, malevolence or misery to the party whose interest is considered".

The thinker supported the "greatest happiness" principle and the usage of the penalty to prevent crime. Bentham provided the complete code of ethics and put stress on the practical challenge of reducing the crime issue. He aimed at the analyzing system of social control that was an approach of checking the conduct of individuals according to the ethical principle of utilitarianism.

He thought an act has to be judged not by the irrational scheme of absolutes but by allegedly demonstrable notions. Consistent with Bentham, the punishment was a required evil that should be stopped from being inflicted on the social order and, therefore, lessening happiness.

It is important to mention that social control based on degrees of penalty, which both fit the crime and discourage offending, is part of the current system of criminal justice. Jeremy Bentham, Cesare Beccaria, and the classical school of criminology had great influences on the current US system of criminal justice.

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Influences of the Classical School

The American Bill of Rights is rooted in Beccaria's works. Bentham and Beccaria also impacted the evolvement of the current correctional system. Beccaria's ground-breaking work strongly impacted the initial ten amendments to the United States Constitution and played a crucial role in the appearance of numerous present-day penal regulations. It was also of major significance in paving the way to the penal reform for nearly the last two centuries.

Reviewing European history, it makes clear that Beccaria's essay greatly impacted the French penal code accepted in 1791, Austrian law during Emperor Joseph II, Russian law at the time of Catherine the Great, and Prussian law during the period of Frederick the Great (Glick, 2005). Punishment aims to deter criminal conduct in humans; Beccaria reflected Bentham's utilitarian ideas of hedonism and free will. Both philosophers advocated a new system of legal and penal reform.

The classical scholars claimed that the proper objective of the penalty had to defend the social order and its regulations. It was their stance that the penalty should never be inflicted for revenge; rather, the major aim of punishment had to be the reduction of offenses. They asserted that the excessively violent penalties of mutilation and death had to be eliminated, and the penal reforms should be introduced so that the penalty fit offense (Glick, 2005).

Hence, it was their conviction that penalties should be only severe enough to overshadow any possible pleasures, either contemplated or experienced, that could be derived from the commission of the crime. Thus, the hazard of penalty would deter most humans from committing offenses in the first place; real infliction of penalty would deter a criminal from additional crimes.

Furthermore, Beccaria offered persuasive arguments for imprisonment as the type of punishment, declaring that it would become the most efficient approach for performing the punishment. As it happened, more than an adequate amount of prisons were already opened throughout Europe. Before this time period, these constructions were utilized for the provisional confinement of minor crimes and those awaiting trial, and they were easily adapted for implementing Beccaria's and Bentham's approaches (Glick, 2005).

Nevertheless, the classical approach has weaknesses (White & Haines, 2004). The idea coming from classical thinking that all offenders are rational is not applied to all people because there may be biological aspects preventing a person from being capable of thinking and behaving rationally (White & Haines, 2004).

Thus, it may not be the exacting choice of persons as they may have been born that way; they may not have a chance to make a rational decision due to some mental illness, for instance, schizophrenia. They can be disorientated, which affects brain work and any behavior, resulting in a person becoming irrational. Classical thought does not embrace the factors of necessity to survive. As Jeffrey Reiman (1979) asserted "the rich get richer and the poor get prison" (Reiman, 2004).

Despite these drawbacks, it is obvious that the classical theorists impacted the evolvement of the current correctional system. Classical thinking had a crucial influence on criminological thinking on the whole and probably even greater influence on criminal justice practice. In Europe and the USA, the concept of the penalty is appropriate to the essence of a crime has become a basis for existing criminal justice systems. Numerous aspects of classical ideas are used in current society, and this demonstrates the strengths that the theory does have.


The classical school that evolved in the middle of the eighteenth century was established based on utilitarian philosophy. Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria asserted that people had free will to decide how to act, and the prevention was based upon the concept of the individual as a hedonist who looked for pleasure and escaping pain. Therefore, it neglects the likelihood of illogicality as moving aspects. Punishment may deter humans from the offense as the penalties outweigh the advantages, and that harshness of penalty should be in proportion to the offense.

Deterring criminal conduct depends upon the type of sentence. Basically, the classical school came at the period when the main reforms in the penal system happened with prisons emerging as a type of punishment. Additionally, this period experienced a lot of lawful reforms, the French Revolution, and the progress of the lawful system in the United States, which was greatly influenced by the classical school of criminology.

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