Classical Theory of Criminology


The development of criminological theories is as ancient as human history. Ever since the emergence of the ‘Age of Reason, human behavior has advanced as a subject of interest for scholars to explicate the origin of criminal activities. The development of crime has moved from primeval acts to cutting-edge illegitimate activities of modern society. As a result, many criminologists have attempted to explain the causes of crime in an attempt to derive the best methods of handling such misdemeanors through the development of criminological theories. This essay explores the foundation, application, and significance of the classical theory of criminology in modern society.

History of the Theory

The classical theory of criminology can be traced back to the late eighteenth century when criminologists used the spiritualistic approach to elucidate matters that pertained to crime and criminal behaviors. Advocates of the classical theory of criminology include Cesare Beccaria who was an Italian aristocrat, mathematician, economist, and author of ‘On Crimes and Punishment’, and Jeremy Bentham who was an English Philosopher.

During the eighteenth century, the repercussions of criminal activities were blatantly severe punishments that marked a dark age for felons. According to Burke (2009), irregularities characterized the governing systems of the eighteenth century. In particular, the penal system used vicious and hardnosed means to investigate criminal cases. The situation compelled Beccaria to disagree with rulers of the time in terms of how they managed criminal behaviors at both social and individual levels.

The advancement of the classical school of thought marked a different approach to crime and punishment. Proponents of the theory advanced that hard labor could replace the enforcement of pointless capital punishments on criminals. In addition, they emphasized the need to improve incarceration terms by widening the scope of imprisonment, developing better prisons with better-quality health and physical conditions, and ensuring separation of convicts based on characteristics such as age, gender, and the extent of the misconduct.

The Background of the Theory

The classical theory of criminology is founded on the constructs of utilitarian philosophy. The theory purports that the most significant purpose of life is to capitalize on pleasure whilst minimizing instances of experiencing pain. It holds that people are rational beings who have the free will to express their intrinsic decisions through justifiable actions (Bernard, Snipes, & Gerould, 2009). The development of the classical theory stems from the argument that criminals rationally weigh the benefits and costs of committing a felony before the execution of the act itself. In other words, the criminal makes a free will to get involved in criminal activity.

Therefore, as Beccaria advances, human nature compels people to commit certain actions in an attempt to derive pleasure from such hedonistic actions. Beccaria emphasizes that the administration of punishment in criminal justice systems should just be enough to persuade people to be against the act of crime, but not too blatant and undeserved for vengeance purposes (Skoll, 2009). The author posits that executors should administer punishment that is proportional to the felonies committed by the criminals.

Critics of the Classical Theory

Various identifiable critics of the classical theory of criminology have fired debates amongst its proponents. At the outset, the theory assumes a general definition of crime and deterrence, which varies with time and the scene of the criminal activity. According to Edney (2006), the criminal justice system has adopted a legitimized conceptualization of deterrence rather than theorizing absolute preclusion in an informal context.

Largely, the classical theory suggests that people will most likely deter from crime based on the severity and proportionality of punishment that executors give to other criminals. This conceptualization of crime and deterrence creates an overlap of explicit and general deterrence. The effects of deterrence are most likely equal on both parties. It does not matter whether the punishment is imposed on a criminal or a non-offender (Cooper, Walsh, & Ellis, 2010).

In addition, the conceptualization of the classical theory of criminology entirely depends on the rationale that felony stems from a rational decision that depends on the free will of the individual to commit a crime. Edney (2006) criticizes that the classical theory builds on the construct of the utilitarian philosophy, which holds that individuals assume certain behaviors as they seek pleasure whilst avoiding incidences of pain.

In other words, individuals commit crimes for their benefit whilst ignoring the effects of their activities on others. According to the author, advocates of the classical theory fail to consider different levels of mental abilities that influence the deliberation of rational choices. For instance, a study conducted by Skoll (2009) indicated that about 69-percent of the culprits of crime held in Victorian courts mostly suffered from mental illnesses due to substance abuse that usually affects the ability of an individual to make a rational choice.

Example of the Classical Theory of Criminology

The Australian study conducted by Cooper et al. (2010) to survey the overall deterrent effects of the newly imposed driving laws on Queensland drivers and motorists is an example of a case of the classical criminological theory. The purpose of implementing the newly amended laws was to reduce accidents that resulted from drug-drug driving, over-speeding, and the use of mobile phones behind the wheel. In the survey, Cooper et al. (2010) surveyed approximately 1,049 civilians.

The study revealed that both voluntary and involuntary dodging of punishments elevated the likelihood of driving under the influence of drugs, over-speeding, or using a mobile phone while driving. Nonetheless, the knowledge about the punishment experiences of others materialized as a substantial factor to the dissuasion of breaking the driving laws for a majority of the drivers. In their monograph, Cooper et al. (2010) presented numerous endorsements for the interventions of the classical theory of criminology.

The research evidenced that the urge to drive under the influence of drugs was a choice of almost all drivers who were caught in drug-driving scenarios. In addition, the regulation of speed and use of a cell phone behind the wheel was purely a rational decision of the driver to do so regardless of the possession of knowledge about the imposed driving laws.

However, Cooper et al. (2010) reveal that over 80-percent of the respondent drivers had an inherent fear of being arrested owing to the nature and length of punishment extended by the Australian penal system for violation of the driving laws. The criminologists emphasize that the contemporary penal systems neither deter nor rehabilitate lawbreakers. According to Burke (2009), there is a need to value the importance of the classical hypothesis as a way of enforcing deterrence from criminal activities.

Relevance of the Theory Today

The classical theory of criminology still yearns for identity in modern justice systems. It forms the background in which executors address contemporary criminal behaviors. As the world advances in its multifarious aspects, crime continues to change from one form to another throughout human society. For instance, the knowledge about serial killers remained unknown until the 20th century when the practice extended to sports where serial killers would aimlessly murder people in sports activities (Cooper et al., 2010).

Therefore, crime continues to advance as society moves from one generation to the next. The classical school of criminology has strong relevance in the construction of sound justice systems and criminal laws. Hence, the theory remains an underpinning hypothesis for the development of criminal laws and criminal justice systems, especially in the West. Burke (2009) reveals that the classical theory of criminology continues to shape vital interventions in criminal justice systems of the modern world.

The author explicates that the introduction of the classical school of criminology has significantly curtailed the use of death penalties, blatant brutality, and corporal castigation in modern jails and courts. Undoubtedly, the theory has shaped the role and aptness of extending the punishment to arrested criminals (Bernard et al., 2009). This situation has presented the criminal justice systems with an appropriate rationale for addressing criminal behavior and deliberating on the proper punishments to offenders in an attempt to alleviate crime.


The classical theory of criminology has changed the ancient ideologies of perceiving crimes as activities that deserve brutal and hardnosed punishments. The fact that crime is based on rationalization of knowledge and thoughts supports the theory’s motive that individuals commit crime differently depending on their mental abilities.

Presently, the criminal justice systems extend punishments that are more apt concerning the ancient days. Moreover, the development of crime from generation to generation has led to the advancement of the classical theory of criminology to address the dynamic nature of felonious activities in the modern world. As a result, many criminologists around the globe have used the classical theory as the foundation of knowledge for their criminological laws.

Nevertheless, the classical theory of criminology has omitted the social aspects that perhaps compel individuals to commit certain forms of crime. Taking an example of the American society, social factors and institutions are major determinants of human behaviors that pertain to commitment or deterrence from crimes that emerge from poverty, drug and substance abuse, unemployment, and general destitution among other factors. Therefore, there is still a need for further consideration of the social attributes of crimes in the future.

Reference List

Bernard, T.J., Snipes, J.B., & Gerould, A.L. (2009). VOLDs Theoretical Criminology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Burke, R.H. (2009). An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Portland, Oregon: Willan Publishing.

Cooper, J.A., Walsh, A., & Ellis, L. (2010). Is Criminology Moving Toward a Paradigm Shift? Evidence from a Survey of the American Society of Criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 21(3), 332-47.

Edney, R. (2006). Models of Understanding Criminal Behavior and the Sentencing Process: A Place for Criminological Theory? Journal of Criminal Law, 70(3), 247-271.

Skoll, G.R. (2009). Contemporary Criminology and Criminal Justice Theory : Evaluating Justice Systems in Capitalist Societies. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.