The Classical and Positivist Schools of Criminology

The three explanations of crime covered in this chapter are the supernatural, the classical/neoclassical school, and the positivist school. Supernatural explanations developed in early societies and were heavily influenced by religion. The pre-Enlightenment model for dealing with crime is demonology, which suggests deviance is a transgression of the will of the gods. Demonic influence may be manifested through temptation or possession. Severe physical punishments were used to exorcise the devil. The concept of evil fits well into the idea of demonology.

The classical school holds that offenders freely choose to break the law (free will) and that punishment should be only as serious as the offense (proportionality). The concept of the social contract developed out of the Enlightenment period and suggested a relationship between individuals and society based on reciprocal obligations. The concept was further developed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Cesare Beccaria argued that punishment should not be an act of violence but should be public, prompt, necessary, the least possible, proportionate to the crime, and dictated by the law. His views were expanded by Jeremy Bentham, who advocated dealing with crime based upon the concept of utilitarianism. He proposed a hierarchy of punishments with the goal of deterring crime.

The positivist school of criminology suggested that individuals’ behavior is influenced by external forces: biological, psychological, and social. Unlike classical criminology, which emphasized deterrence and punishment, positivism focuses on the causes of crime and the rehabilitation of offenders.

Neoclassical criminology combines elements of classical criminology and economic game theory to explain crime, proposing the concept of soft determinism, which falls between the classical view of free will and the positivist view of hard determinism. Deterrence theory suggests people will not break the law if the benefits of crime fall short of the consequences if they are caught. Rational choice theory suggests offenders make two decisions about an offense: their involvement and the nature of the event. This suggests that if the offender has decided to break the law, although he or she might be deterred from committing one type of offense, he/she may commit a different one if the first looks too dangerous. Situational crime prevention is an extension of rational choice theory that looks at situation factors that can be modified to discourage crime. Routine activities theory is based upon the idea crime occurs when three elements converge: motivated offenders, attractive targets, and the absence of capable guardians.