Essay Sample on Classical Criminology: An 18th-Century Legal Reform Philosophy

Published: 2023-11-30
Essay Sample on Classical Criminology: An 18th-Century Legal Reform Philosophy
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Law Criminal law Philosophy Criminal justice
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1554 words
13 min read


Classical criminology refers to the eighteenth-century philosophy of legal reform; championed by Bentham and Beccaria. The study began when there was a need to create a good, better criminal justice system (Sutherland et al., 2012, p. 68). The laws had to change to bring an end to the cruel acts which were facilitated by the system. Classical criminology responds to the arbitrary and brutal justice system in the eighteenth century. Classical criminology emphasizes on the role of government in punishing and regulating government behaviour while guiding the actions of individuals. Classical thinkers derive their core ideas from the enlightenment period.

Trust banner

Is your time best spent reading someone else’s essay? Get a 100% original essay FROM A CERTIFIED WRITER!

Cesare Bonesao and Jeremy Bentham

Cesare Bonesao was on the frontline in championing the classical criminology. He advocated for equality before the law and standardization of specific crimes by the legislature. Jeremy Betham and Englishman agreed with Cesare. According to Cesare, people have free will to make choices, to receive confusing pleasure and avoid pain. According to Cesare, crime and punishment should be governed by the greatest pleasure for most people. This doctrine also championed by Jeremy Bentham is known as utilitarianism, which requires that punishment should be based on its practicality, utility and usefulness (Clear, 2018 p. 34). This philosophy asserts that evil which inflicts from crime should exceed advantages derivable from the crime. Bentham further discussed that punishment should include pain which is greater than the pleasure gained from committing the crime. Further, Cesare's philosophy requires that violence should not be against a private citizen, but the punishment must be necessary, prompt and public.

Key ideas and Principles of Classical Criminology

The key ideas of the classical school of thought are, humans are hedonistic and have free will. They tend to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Human behaviour is mainly controlled by fear, especially the fear of pain. To control human behaviour, punishment is introducing as a necessary influence on human will, which operates to create fear. Therefore, any system of criminal law requires punishment to control crime. Controlling crime and deterrence are the main goals of a criminal justice system (Clear et al., 2018, pp. 34-38). An excellent example is that a criminal will decide against committing any crime with the fear that the punishment they are likely to face is too costly.

The main principles under the classical school are that humans are self-seeking hence more likely to commit a crime. The classical school asserts that punishment should not rehabilitate the offender, but should fit the crime. According to this philosophy, the freedoms of people are controlled by the state, and for them to live in harmony, they have to give up certain freedoms. Additionally, they argued that the state has the prerogative to punish crime to promote deterrence. Additionally, they viewed the law as limited, which should ensure that due rights are observed. Also, everybody is responsible for their criminal actions without excuses.

Rational Choice Theory

Classical criminology has influenced contemporary works on economics and crime on deterrence and rational choice perspectives. These social phenomena can be understood through economic transactions model and the assumption that people make rational choices between opportunities in maximizing their utility. The rational choice theory assumes that people choose to commit a crime based on their calculations and rational thinking. Perpetrators usually think logically on how to minimize losses and maximize profits. Such reasoning is not the only reason for committing crimes; other factors come into play as well. Other factors contributing to committing crimes include substance abuse, mental illnesses, family factors, biological factors and opportunity.

The rational choice theory was developed during the enlightenment age. Critical approaches characterized the era to philosophical, religious and social matters; to repudiate systems and beliefs not justifiable by logic. Other individuals in this era stopped believing in God, and through reasoning and logic sought other answers in trying to uncover the universe. Consequently, the philosophers concluded that crime was driven by rational choice. It is safe to conclude that rational choice theory was a minimalist rejection of theism. Before enlightenment, there was a perfectly moral, omnipotent, all-powerful God who controlled all creatures unless corrupted. Therefore, by stating that humans had free will and they could do as they please, the rationality theory seems to be correct. The problem with this theory is that people more often than not fail to examine causes in crime.

Classical Criminology and Crime control

Classical criminology modelled the justice system; through liberalism and conservatism. In the conservative model for crime control, classical criminology emphasizes more on protecting citizens form crimes more than their civil liberties (Gibbons, 2014, p. 412. The goals of the justice system should be to repress crimes by any means. The system is more concerned with public safety more than the rights of individuals. In such a criminal justice system, criminals should not be released on account of technicalities. On the other hand, the liberal model leans towards freedom of people rather than imprisoning innocent individuals. This liberal view is based on the assumption that the criminal justice model is prone to errors throughout. Unlike the liberal model, this model advocates for the protection of human rights throughout the process.

New Ideas and practices introduced by Classical Criminology.

In early history, supernatural explanations dominated the explanations of criminality. The criminal world was dominated by theological explanations where a criminal was seen as a person who is possessed by demons and damned by worldly forces. The fate of humankind was seen to be at the hands of supernatural beings, furies and spirits. Felonies were regarded as mortal sins which manifested through evil, showing a person's allegiance to the prince of darkness. The worldview of the time perceived the actions of the violator as being controlled by forces deterministically beyond them. The classical criminology shifts from this; their point of view is based on logical reasoning and rational thinking. Earlier concepts were based on theism, but the classical approach introduced a more logical justice system away from theism and traditional beliefs.

In the middle age, the feudal lords of Europe established various methods of determining innocence and guilt. When a person won a trial, it was an indication that God had shown who was innocent or guilty. Later, they introduced a trial by ordeal, where a person was exposed to dangerous encounters, ad survival meant God protected them. The theological approach to crime dominated the criminal justice system in that era. The classical criminology was also more concerned with individual rights and a social contract between the government and the governed. Previously, the rights of human beings were not factored when giving punishment and punishment targeted inflicting of pain to a person. The classical criminology shifts from this approach and advocates for less cruel methods punishment, targeting deterrence.

The Europe system of administration of criminal justice was unpredictable, uncertain and cruel. Death was a common host of penalties, and other cruel punishments included mutilations, cutting of nostrils, whipping and branding were extensively used so that offenders were identifiable to the public. The crime rate in England rose, and jails were overcrowded. Despite using the different form of punishment, the crime curve went upwards. Consequently, social activists and Western scholars began to engage in a sweeping re-conception on the nature of society and enlightenment was born.

During the age of enlightenment, came the classical criminology philosophers. Their ideas were different because they emphasized on the importance of human rights while placing limitations on the government replacing traditional assumptions (Clear et al., 2018, p. 36). The enlightenment provided liberal reaction against monarchial and feudal tradition. The reformation led to an end of the religious monopoly held by the catholic church. The writings of protestant thinkers like Martin Luther King led to an emphasis on individualism and a social contract between the government and those who are governed.

Further, the revolution led to a liberal society. Besides, advancement in science led to the questioning of attitudes, emphasizing technological development, observation and experiments. The use of reasoning power led to questioning established institutions and the need for reform. The classical criminology emphasized on rational thinking in deterring punishment for any crime. The views encouraged punishment equal to the crime committed. Further, they advocated for the limitation of government powers, proposing a system of crime deterrence as opposed to the punishment era in the mediaeval times (Lanier, 2018). Practices in the correctional systems moved from inflicting pain to the offenders' body to methods which set an individual to a path of right living and honesty.


The systematic study of criminality and crime is of a recent origin. During early modern periods and mediaeval times, many ephemeral and unorganized explanations of crimes were stated and accepted. Such explanations included depravity and the devil. The classical criminology philosophy led to many changes in the legislations and approach on the criminal justice in England. This led to a justice model which supported human rights and the social contract as we know it today. Many changes have taken place since then, but classical criminology has hugely shaped the criminal justice system.


Clear, T. R., Reisig, M. D., & Cole, G. F. (2018). American corrections. Cengage learning.

Gibbons, D. C. (2014). Talking about crime and criminals: Problems and issues in theory development in criminology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lanier, M. M. (2018). Essential criminology. Routledge.

Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., & Luckenbill, D. F. (2012). Principles of criminology.

Cite this page

Essay Sample on Classical Criminology: An 18th-Century Legal Reform Philosophy. (2023, Nov 30). Retrieved from

Request Removal

If you are the original author of this essay and no longer wish to have it published on the SpeedyPaper website, please click below to request its removal:

Liked this essay sample but need an original one?

Hire a professional with VAST experience!

24/7 online support

NO plagiarism