Classical versus Positivist Schools of Criminology

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In the study of criminal behavior there are many schools of thought that seek to rationalize what is generally seen as irrational behavior. For the purposes of this paper, only two of the numerous schools of thought will be discussed, compared, and contrasted. The first school discussed is the classical school of criminology, which is founded on the theories of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. The classical school of criminology came about during the Enlightenment and focused on a reform of legislative and judicial practices. The second school discussed is the positivist school of criminology, which is founded on the theories of Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri and Raffaele Garafolo. The positivist school of criminology focused more on the explanation of criminal behavior and in developing preventative measures to reduce crime. While these two schools of thought take very different perspectives on criminology, the both have applications to today’s world of criminal justice policy.

Classical criminology is not concerned with the causes of violent acts and criminal behavior, but rather with the process by which criminal behavior is punished and, hopefully, prevented by presenting strong deterrents. Classical criminology is based on the theoretical orientations of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremeny Bentham. When Beccaria was beginning his work in the 1760’s, he was living in Italy while Europe was going through a transition from feudalism and absolute monarchy to democracy and rational thought (Monachesi, 1955). For centuries Europe had been employing the use of physical force and torture in order to obtain confessions from suspects (Greek, 2005). Justice was known as a brutal process that all feared and few trusted. Capital punishment was the sentence for crimes ranging from murder to felonies and peoples’ land and properties could be seized with very little evidence against them (Greek, 2005). With this history in mind, Beccaria formulated his theories in a time when enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes, Lock, and Rousseau were paving the way for serious changes in society (Greek, 2005). Beccaria did not create a new explanation for criminal behavior, but rather he sought to explain the punishments associated with certain behaviors in the hopes of associating fairness with the criminal justice system (Monachesi, 1955).

One of Beccaria’s most notable movements was the opposition against judges’ free reign to choose punishments for convicts (Monachesi, 1955). Instead of allowing judges to come up with a punishment for a given crime, Beccaria believed that certain crimes should have prescribed punishments that all judges and all people must adhere to within the justice system (Monachesi, 1955). Therefore, the legislation should be the deciding factor in all cases, according to Baccaria (Monachesi, 1955). By creating predetermined punishments for specific crimes, the role of the judicial system, then, was to determine guilt only (Monachesi, 1955). It was Baccaria’s hope that by taking the punishment decision away from judges, judges would be forced to focus solely on the evidence at hand rather than the cost or benefit of a particular punishment.

Originating with Baccaria, “the most important feature of the classical school of though is its emphasis on the individual criminal as a person who is capable of calculating what he or she wants to do” (Lilly, Cullen & Ball, 2011). The classical criminologist believes firmly in free will and that a criminal must calculate the cost and benefit of committing a particular crime (Lilly, Cullen & Ball, 2011). While the cost is generally straight forward – going to prison, paying a fine, suffering the death penalty, etc. – the benefit is more complex. Benefits of crime range from monetary gain to emotional gratification or seeking an adrenaline rush, for instance (Lilly, Cullen & Ball, 2011). The classical school of criminology came out of the age of Enlightenment and “at the core of Enlightenment thinking was the view that individuals are motivated primarily by a desire for pleasure (coupled with a desire to avoid pain)” (Tierney, 2009).

Another tenant that we gathered from Baccaria that is still used in the criminal justice system of America today is the scaling system of crimes. Baccaria believed that crimes should be scaled in terms of first, second, and third-degree felonies (Monachesi, 1955). Then, each particular degree would have a prescribed punishment (Monachesi, 1955). As the seriousness and severity of the crime increased, so did the punishment with which it was associated (Monachesi, 1955). Baccaria also believed that it was the act itself that should be judged, not the individual’s intent (Monachesi, 1955). Therefore, if someone intended to steal money from another person on the street, but the victim ended up dying as a result of injuries caused in the struggle, the perpetrator would be charged with murder and would have an equally severe punishment attached.

While Baccaria’s theories are based in rational thought, facts of the matter, and equality between crime and punishment, there are difficulties associated with employing this theory in practice. It was Baccaria’s goal for the justice system to ensure that the benefits of committing a crime never outweighed the cost of facing the associated punishment (Monachesi, 1955). However, many judges did not appreciate having their rights to determine punishment or creatively shape punishments to the determined crime (Monachesi, 1955). Also, because justice was not always a swift and efficient process, Baccaria witnessed continued crime based on the immediate gratification of benefits of crime and the delayed onset of associated punishments – if a perpetrator was caught, tried, and found to be guilty (Monachesi, 1955). Baccaria opposed the death penalty, as well, due to the disproportionality between felonious crimes and capital punishment, which was also not a popular view during his time (Monachesi, 1955). The debate of capital punishment as fair reciprocation for certain crimes is a debate that Baccaria endured as do citizens in the present day.

Another theorist of the classical school of criminology was Jeremy Bentham, who lived in England during the 18th century (Geis, 1955). When Bentham began the forefront of his work, members of the justice system preferred laws to be uncertain and obscure, which gave prosecutors and judges room to mold and shape the legal system on a situational basis (Swanson, 2005). However, Bentham disagreed with this view and wrote a Complete Code of Laws that reworded laws to be clearer and more explicit (Swanson, 2005). Bentham’s work was met with resistance as the unclear laws were too beneficial for members of the judicial system (Swanson, 2005). When suspects were convicted of even minor felonies, the convicted individual could be put to death and his or her lands seized by the court (Swanson, 2005). This was too profitable an exploit for the judicial system to change, but Bentham sought to alter this corrupt system (Swanson, 2005).

Bentham believed in the quality and purpose of hard work. He once described the purpose of working in industrial labor as “to grind rouges honest and idle men industrious” (Swanson, 2005). Bentham was a man opposed to slavery, in favor of a separation of morality and virtue from law and fact, and fairness of punishment equaling the original crime (Swanson, 2005). With these views, Bentham was a part of the counter-culture in the 18th century and therefore had a long way to go to convince society of his views. To the classical school of criminology Bentham passed on the idea that law should not be used to enforce morality, but, instead, should be applied to cases in which specific and identifiable injury is inflicted on one person by the moral calculations of another's actions (Geis, 1955).

The positivist school of criminology differs from classical criminology in that it seeks to explain the causes of criminal behavior (Greek, 2005). The goal of positivist criminology is first to understand criminal behavior and then progress towards being able to control it (Greek, 2005). Also, unlike classical criminology, positivist criminology takes a hard look at biological and genetic factors that may affect one’s predisposition to criminal behavior (Greek, 2005). One of the leading theorists who contributed to positivist criminology was Cesare Lombroso (Wolfgang, 1961). Lombroso originally believed that criminals were physically inferior and had external physical characteristics that may mark them as such (Wolfgang, 1961). Some proponents of this thought believed that scientists could study individuals using physiognomy – the study of the external physical characteristics of one’s face – and phrenology – the lumps and patterns in the shape of one’s skull – and determine whether or not an individual would be likely to commit a crime (Wolfgang, 1961). Theorists such as Franz Gall and John Spurzheim asserted that by studying certain sections of the skull, a scientist could identify a criminal from a non-criminal (Wolfgang, 1961). However, this belief did not survive long in the scientific world.

Instead, the concepts of biological representations in physical appearance evolved into the study of the biological representations as they occur in human genetics (Wolfgang, 1961). As he continued his work, Lombroso believed that criminals had inferior genetics and inferior intelligence; neither of which can be seen from the outside, but do have a biological foundation (Wolfgang, 1961). Scientists categorized the brain and intellectual processes into three categories that were all said to be controlled by different areas of the brain (Wolfgang, 1961). Behavior and impulses were thought to be controlled by one portion of the brain, moral reasoning by another, and intellectual process by a third portion (Wolfgang, 1961). While this is in line with the knowledge we have today that impulse control and behavior are frontal lobe functions and emotional processes occur in the amygdala of the brain, Lombroso further modified his theory as he came to realize that it was impossible – with the science and technology available to him at the time – to prove that physical abnormalities in the brain lead to criminal behavior (Wolfgang, 1961). Lombroso shifted his focus yet again to environmental and social factors (Wolfgang, 1961).

As positivist criminology evolved, theorists such as Lombroso proposed six basic tenants on which the school is formed. First, positivist believe that habitual (or career) criminals make a conscious choice to commit crimes (Wolfgang, 1961). It was Lombroso’s belief that exposure to organized crime (gangs, the mafia, etc.) or prisons increased the likelihood of one committing a crime due to learned social behavior (Wolfgang, 1961). Other criminals acted impulsively and were called juridical criminals (Wolfgang, 1961). Some crimes were classified as “crimes of passion” and were committed for noble reasons (Wolfgang, 1961). Lombroso coined the term criminaloids to identify individuals who were weak natured and easily followed bad examples of others seen in society. A fifth class of criminals were those who were clinically insane and had no distinction between right and wrong (Wolfgang, 1961). The final class of criminals were those who had other psychological abnormalities and were called hysteric criminals (Wolfgang, 1961).

Part of Lombroso’s theory still exists today in popular criminal justice in that many members of the justice system believe that clinical insanity and certain psychological disorders can explain why someone may seem to act with no moral regard and not understand the difference between right and wrong. Others believe that if someone witnesses a crime, especially a violent crime committed against another person, the witness is then much more likely to commit a crime than he or she was prior to seeing the event. Our current system of criminal justice also allows for some aspect of Lombroso’s category of criminals of passion in that some people who act on behalf of doing something good, moral, or in the protection of someone else may have justification for their actions. Lombroso’s ideas and the concepts of positivist criminology merge the line between criminology and sociology, taking into account numerous environmental and societal factors simultaneously.

Following in Lombroso’s footsteps, Enrico Ferri was quite fond of Lombroso’s work in behavioral and biological determinism (Greek, 2005). However, Ferri was more interested in the statistical data and demographics of crime (Sellin, 1958). Ferri believed that there should be a broader explanation of crime than the six categories of criminals that Lombroso set forth (Sellin, 1958). Instead of following the biological model as Lombroso did, Ferri posited that crime was influenced by social, economic and political factors (Sellin, 1958). In order to develop a more comprehensive explanation of crime, Ferri broke the categorization of types of crime into three categories: physical, anthropological, and social (Sellin, 1958).

Ferri believed that some crimes were caused by physical factors such as the physicality of an individual – his or her race and genetics – while other factors included physical characteristics of the environment – such as climate, geographical location, effects of seasons on individuals, and temperature (Sellin, 1958). Next, Ferri believed that another class of factors influencing criminal behavior stemmed from anthropological sources such as age, sex, and medical or psychological conditions (Sellin, 1958). Ferri’s third category encompassed social factors such as population density, cultural traditions and customs, religion, governmental organization, economic status, and industrial conditions (Sellin, 1958). Evidence of Ferri’s theories can be seen everywhere in the criminal justice system today. Perhaps the biggest issue facing the criminal justice system is the exceptionally high crime rates in highly dense population areas and areas of low socioeconomic status, which is a concept that originated directly from Ferri and has been supported with evidence-based studies for years.

Ferri stood apart from other theorists in that he began the discussion on crime prevention (Sellin, 1958). Ferri was not so much concerned with predicting criminal behavior and waiting to study the outcome of such predictions for the sake of advancing his theory. Rather, Ferri was interested in preventing crime for the sake of a better world (Sellin, 1958). Ferri advocated for individuals to take preventative measures to safe-guard themselves by installing and using deadbolts, posting streetlights that would activate at nightfall, and creating a state department that would monitor the manufacturing and distribution of weapons (Sellin, 1958). Ferri was interested in enhancing government involvement in local issues so as to diminish the crime rates of areas that were greatly suffering (Sellin, 1958). Ferri used his knack for statistics and demographics to prove to government officials that there was a need for government involvement (Sellin, 1958). Some of the individuals who shared Ferri’s ideas were Theodore Roosevelt and Jane Addams (Greek, 2005). Ferri also advocated for improved housing and welfare opportunities for individuals of low socioeconomic status (Sellin, 1958).

Another theorist of the positivist school of criminology is Raffaele Garafolo (Allen, 1954). Garafolo began his career as a judge but eventually left the court room in order to study the causes of criminal behavior (Allen, 1954). Garafolo coined the term “natural crime,” which refers to criminal offenses that violate the basic tenants of what it means to be a feeling, caring human being (Allen, 1954). Garafolo believed that crime occurs when one disregards probity (morals and virtues) and pity (compassion for others and remorse for one’s actions) (Allen, 1954). Garafolo did not believe that criminal behavior stemmed from any biological or genetic components; nor did he believe that crime could be blamed on or even partially attributed to sociological factors such as demographics or socioeconomic status (Allen, 1954). Rather, Garafolo believed that crime was something that stemmed from an abnormal mind (Allen, 1954). By taking the psychological approach to crime, Garafolo concluded that some people are just innately bad and cannot be helped (Allen, 1954). His ideas for punishment were more severe than those of his positivist colleagues in that he advocated for capital punishment for those with permanent and irreparable psychological abnormalities (Allen, 1954). It is Garafolo’s ideas on criminology that sparked the discussion of the mind of a psychopath who has no remorse for his or her actions and who cannot ever hope for rehabilitation (Allen, 1954). The idea that the psychopathic brain exists is a common notion held by members of the criminal justice system, law enforcement, and psychologists alike.

The classical school of criminology has greatly influenced our present judicial system in the United States. From Cesare Baccaria we gathered the notion of scaled crimes and punishments that are befitting of the crime committed. From Jeremy Bentham we gathered the realization that morality and virtue should not play a role in the legal system; but rather crimes should be based on one person’s injurious actions on another. Baccaria and Bentham also originated the concept that punishment for crimes is the primary way of reducing the incidence of crime and that in order for punishments to be an effective deterrent, they must be swift and immediate. Classical theorists operate on the basis that criminals have free will and choose to commit crimes after weighing the costs and benefits. It has fallen to law makers, then, to create punishments that are just and in accordance with the laws we hold the average citizen to, while still making them as severe as possible to create a cost that most criminals will not want to pay in exchange for the perceived benefit of committing a crime. Classical theorists also struggled with the fact that many criminals assume that they will not get caught in their acts. Therefore, classical theorists call for improved detection and police work so that the fear of getting caught for committing a crime makes the punishment associated with the crime a very real reality. Only then will the justice system be able to serve as an effective deterrent against crime as a whole entity working together.

The major difference between classical criminology and positivist criminology is that classical theorists believe that the criminal has free will (Lilly, Cullen & Ball, 2011). There is a decision to be made and the criminal makes the conscious decision to choose an act of crime for the sake of a greater benefit than the comparative punishment. In contrast, the positivist criminologist believes that there is some underlying cause for a criminal decision that does nor resonate with free will, such as survival instinct, lack of capacity for morality, or intellectual or emotional deficiency (Cressey, 1979). Compared to positivist criminology, classical criminology comprises the legislative and executive branches of the judicial system. Classical criminology is used by judges, prosecutors, law makers, and public officials. On the other hand, positivist criminology provides more of the law enforcement and police science framework that is used today.

The positivist school of criminology gives us insight into the “why” of criminal behavior. Positivist theorists introduced the concepts of amorality, crimes of passion, and justification of criminal behavior for moral purposes (such as shooting a man before he shoots a child, for example). These ideas, put forth by Lombroso, have shaped the legal system as we know it today. Another tenant of positivist criminology that exists today is that crime is much more likely to occur in areas with high population density, such as urban areas, and low socioeconomic status individuals. Actions and theoretical ideas from positivist criminologist resulted in government policies and legislature such as welfare, housing projects, and gun control, which were efforts aimed at reducing criminal behavior and making it more difficult for those who still sought to be criminals to succeed in their endeavors. Together, the positivist and classical schools of criminology provide a comprehensive framework on which the justice system and law enforcement entities of the United States operate.


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