The Classical School of Criminology dates back to the end of the feudal system in Europe. During the Enlightenment, many philosophers (none more than Italian Cesare Beccaria) began to think of crime and punishment in a new way. Under the old system, a felon was often put to death, and his family left penniless. Torture methods and forced confessions (self-incrimination) were common.
Beccaria and His Influence on Classicism
At an early age in Milan, Cesare Beccaria, together with close friends, formed the “Academy of Fists.” This intellectual group embraced the writings of Enlightenment thinkers in France and England, and worked to wage war against “economic disorder, bureaucratic petty tyranny, religious narrow-mindedness, and intellectual pedantry.”
Beccaria wrote on many topics, but is most well known for his work, “On Crimes and Punishments.” Because of its radical approach, the work was first published anonymously, but after gaining widespread (favorable) interest, later included Beccaria’s name.
“On Crimes and Punishments”
The importance of Beccaria’s treatise can be boiled down into three main components. The first is that man has free will, and a man’s choices are based on that notion. Second, that man acts in his own best interest, a theory known as rational thought. Here, the rule of law enters, as man may not always act in ways that uphold the social contract. Because of this, society needs to create laws to prevent or control the “deviant” behavior of criminals.
Finally, the third component is manipulability. Because individuals act in their own best interest, society can create laws and punishment that are likely to dissuade individuals from criminal acts. Here, man is seen to be rational, and therefore, controllable and predictable. A modern-day application of this is the death penalty, which Conservatives believe will deter any rational being from committing criminal acts (such as murder).
A Rational System of Justice
Under a system envisioned by the Classical School of Criminology, the main thrust of the Beccaria’s and others’ thinking was that, to ensure the deterrence of crime, the punishment meted out must outweigh any advantage of committing the crime. As a result, justice must rely on standard sentencing (no broad discretion by judges), on a scale of severity, and should be administered swiftly.
Linking to the modern day thought, the Classical School’s approach would deny judicial activism (that is, ruling from the bench) or taking into account the surrounding circumstances of the crime. Whether a murder occurred in the heat of passion has no role in the Classical School; instead, the end result (the murder) must be punished accordingly.