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Criminology: Intellectual History - Classical Criminology

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By the middle of the 1700s, the ideas of the utopian and social contact writers were well known and widely accepted by the intellectuals of the day, but they did not represent the thinking of politically powerful groups. Those ruling groups still held to the spiritual explanations of crime, so that crime was seen as resulting from the fall from an original state of grace and as manifesting the work of the devil. For example, this spiritual and religious thinking about crime and punishment appeared in the Puritan colony on Massachusetts Bay. During the first sixty years of its existence, this colony experienced three serious "crime waves" thought to be caused by the devil. The most serious of these "crime waves" occurred in 1792, when the community was said to have been invaded by a large number of witches. These supposed "witches" were subjected to extreme and horrific punishments.

In direct confrontation with these religious and spiritual views stood the utopian and social contract writers, who advocated rationalism and criticized the prevailing social conditions. Their protests against the abuses of judges, prosecutors, and jailers in the treatment of offenders evolved into the classical school of criminology, whose most outstanding representative was Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794).

Beccaria was an Italian writer who sought to change these excessive and cruel punishments by applying the rationalist, social contract ideas to crime and criminal justice. His small book, Dei deliti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments), was published in 1764 and was well-received by intellectuals and some reform-minded rulers who had already accepted the general framework of social contract thinking. Even more important for the book's acceptance, however, was the fact that the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 occurred soon after this book's publication. These two great revolutions were both guided by naturalistic ideas of the social contract philosophers. To these revolutionaries, Beccaria's book represented the latest and best thinking on the subject of crime and criminal justice. They therefore used his ideas as the basis for their new criminal justice systems. From America and France, Beccaria's ideas spread to the rest of the industrialized world where they have formed the basis for most modern systems of criminal justice.

Beccaria argued that the legislatures should establish a fixed legal scale of crimes, ranging from the least serious to the most serious, and a corresponding fixed scale of punishments, proportional to the offenses, ranging from the least severe to the most severe. Judges should determine guilt or innocence at trials, which should be public and speedy, and then should apply the punishment that has been fixed in law by the legislature. Any other actions by a judge would be considered tyrannical. Beccaria also argued that the prevention of crime is more important than punishment, and the certainty and quickness with which a punishment is imposed has a greater preventive effect than the severity of the punishment. He thought capital punishment should be abolished, and that prisons should be improved, with inmates segregated on the basis of age, sex, and type of crime.

Beccaria did not deal with the causes of crime but rather established a clear and easily administered system for responding to it. On the whole, it worked quite well and eliminated many of the injustices and abuses that had been the focus of protest writers for several hundred years. The major problem was that the fixed scale of crimes and punishments focused solely on the criminal act and not on the intent of the offender or the circumstances of the crime. As a practical matter, this meant that there were no distinctions between first offenders and recidivists, the sane and insane, or juveniles and adults. Eventually, this exclusive focus on the act was modified in the so-called neoclassical school, which retained the essential principles of the classical school but modified the concept of "the same punishment for the same crime." It allowed judges some discretion and individualization, so that the particular circumstances of each case were taken into account. The neoclassicists recognized that an individual's free will could be affected by pathology as well as by other factors. They introduced the concept of premeditation, admitted the validity of physical, environmental, and psychological mitigating circumstances as bases for attributing only partial responsibility, and accepted expert testimony as to whether an accused was capable of distinguishing and choosing between right and wrong. All of these issues later gave raise to what became known as the "positivist" school of criminology.

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