Classical criminology is the term applied to the theories on crime and punishment espoused by 18th century European Enlightenment thinkers such as Cesare Beccaria (1738 - 1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832). They believed that crime arose from social conditions; criminals were made, not born, and environmental aspects such as living conditions made rational human beings choose to turn to crime.
Prior to the classical school of criminology, criminal behaviour was often attributed to demonic possession and other supernatural influences, or the belief that some people just had 'bad blood,' and they would commit crime because they were spiritually and morally deficient beings. Classical criminology theory advocated that man committed crime through free will, and he could choose whether or not to commit a crime.
Beccaria's main preoccupation was not with the causes of crime, but establishment responses to it. He posited the idea that there should be a fixed scale of crimes, and that punishments should reflect the severity of the crime rather than the attitude of the presiding judge. Many judges would pass the death sentence for felonies such as stealing, and the possessions of the criminal would also be confiscated, leaving his family destitute.
Beccaria advocated that the punishment should fit the crime, and that the death sentence should be reserved for the most serious offences. Judges should help to determine guilt, rather than impose the sentence, and both trial and punishment should be summary, occurring as soon as possible after the crime. Swift retribution would act as a deterrent from further wrongdoing. For Beccaria, prevention of crime was more important than punishment.
The criminal justice system of the 18th century was a relic of the days of feudalism and absolute monarchy, and the aim of the classical school of criminology was to rationalise crime and punishment. Crime should be based on degrees of severity, rather than intent, and punishment should reflect that severity, although classical criminology took no account of the age of the perpetrator, their mental state, or whether he or she was a repeat offender, or recidivist.
Both Bentham and Beccaria were Utilitarians, who believed that the best course of action was the one which resulted in the greatest good for the most people. Pleasure and pain were the two main human driving forces, and if a criminal's action brought more pain than pleasure, being a rational human being, he would desist from criminality. This gave rise to another theory of classical criminology - that criminals should not profit from their crimes.
In summary. classical criminology is based on the premise that man - the criminal - is rational, and chooses to commit crime. If the crime brings more pain than pleasure, he will choose not to offend. Classical criminology is more concerned with equitable punishment based on a standard system of crimes and punishment. There is no real interest in rehabilitation, or the psychology behind criminal behaviour. The main purpose of classical criminology is crime prevention - the punishment scale should be such that prospective criminals are deterred from offending.