Classical Theories in Criminal Justice

By Bryan Schatz - Updated March 19, 2018
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The classical theory in criminal justice suggests that an individual who breaks the law does so with rational free will, understanding the effects of their actions. As a response to a criminal's action, the classical theory of crime postulates that society should enforce a punishment that fits the crime committed. Classical theorist writing helped shape and influence the United States system of justice.

Idea Behind Classical Theory

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The basic idea behind classical theory in criminal justice is that humans are rational beings and that behavior can be controlled by human will. Cesare Beccaria, the 18th-century Italian aristocrat who wrote "On Crimes and Punishments," suggested that the punishments placed on criminal acts therefore, must be rational as well. Depending on the severity of the crime, a punishment should be in direct proportion to the crime and serve the greatest public good.

The classical theory of crime views criminal acts as immoral human behavior that weakens society. It believes punishment can help deter criminals and provide examples of what can happen when you violate the law.

Features of Classical Theory

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In Beccaria's writings, he believed that rather than the judiciary being the ultimate source of law, the legislative branch should serve that role. In addition, he suggested that the judiciary role was not to assess punishment but to determine guilt on a case by case basis. Classical theory brought to the table the emphasis of a criminal justice system that included police and courts, as well as correctional facilities. It postulates that more prisons and stricter laws with stiffer penalties are the best ways to combat and reduce crime.

Impact and Considerations

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Classical theories on criminal justice, and in particular the writings of Beccaria, influenced the framers of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. It helped to solidify the concepts of a right to a speedy trial, and rules against cruel and unusual punishment. It also aimed to eliminate torture as a form of punishment.

In the 19th century, a response to the classical theories in criminal justice arose: the positivist theory. The positivist theory expressed the belief that not all individuals are subject to rational thinking. Rather, they are predisposed to criminal acts based on various psychological, experiential and genetic factors, and thus, require special treatment in some cases. Unlike the classical theory of criminology, the positive theory says that crime is not a choice, and that there are some genetic predispositions and other factors that come into play.

About the Author

Bryan Schatz began writing in 2009. His articles appear on eHow and LIVESTRONG.COM, where he specializes in travel, wood and metal craft and fitness topics. Schatz holds a Master of Arts in education and a Bachelor of Arts in community studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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