Classical Criminology


I. Introduction

II. Rational Choice Theory and Get-Tough Policies

III. Classical and Rational Choice Theorists and Their Heirs

IV. Recent Studies

V. Further Perspectives on Deterrence

VI. Costs and Benefits: The Economic Mod

VII. Crime, Self-Control, and Patterns of Influence

VIII. Conclusion

IX. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Classical criminology usually refers to the work of 18th-century philosophers of legal reform, such as Beccaria and Bentham, but its influence extends into contemporary works on crime and economics and on deterrence, as well as into the rational choice perspective. The entire range of social phenomena can be understood more or less accurately using models of economic transactions and the assumption that people make rational choices between opportunities to maximize their own utility. This was a foundational assumption of classical criminology. Sociological theory viewed crime through economic models, and this assumption is called rational choice theory. For criminologists, rational choice theory has origins in sociological theoretical thought and in various perspectives on economics and markets, but, more prominently, its influences are found in the classical school of criminology.

II. Rational Choice Theory and Get-Tough Policies

Drawing on the classical contention that man is a calculating creature, rational choice criminology begins with the assumption that behaviors of groups and individuals will reflect attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Theorists in this tradition hypothesize how varying conditions shaping the payoff of an endeavor in combination with varying utilities and desires will contribute to aggregate and individual levels of crime. Most adherents agree that the utilities, or desirability, of activities are varying and subjective, so that crime may have attraction for some people that is not seen by others. There also is widespread agreement that the strength and quality of individual or group preferences can be taken into account in studying the occurrence of criminal behavior. Therefore, in criminology rational choice theory usually is a variant of expected utility theories and portrays the process of considering (or ignoring) criminal opportunities as part of a rational calculation based in part on subjective assessments wherein the expected costs and benefits of actions are considered.

The fundamental assumptions and methods associated with rational choice theory and its classical predecessor undergird a great deal of modern criminology, but its theoretical proponents and defenders have been in and out of fashion throughout criminology’s history. The perspective fell from favor in the eyes of many criminologists in the last several decades in part because of its resonance with audiences prepared to “get tough” on crime through mass imprisonment and in part because it was seen as an attack on sociological, psychological, cultural, and structural explanations. It was often portrayed as a reductionist and simplistic theory due to the fact that proponents often emphasized the most obvious costs and benefits of crime commission, such as monetary payoff versus terms of imprisonment. Moreover, its foundational assumptions sometimes are critiqued for being so broad as to be meaningless. In very recent years, however, the theory has attracted investigators drawn by its potential for making clear sense of why people commit crime and its ability to communicate the theoretical reasons behind research results to any audience. In contemporary forms, it also can conveniently integrate structural and perceptual models of offending, and the perspective easily makes sense of the use of a wide array of variables from multiple levels of analysis. The rational choice framework has great capacity for incorporating knowledge and techniques garnered from across the social sciences, because its central premises are extremely broad and conflict directly with few extant statements from other perspectives. In broad form, the rational choice perspective has as much potential for integrating knowledge from various spheres of criminology as does any other grand theory. For all its shortcomings, which derive mainly from economic assumptions about human and aggregate decision making and the tendency to focus on the most tangible variables, it makes efficient sense of complex questions.

Accompanying a more even-keeled political approach and more rigorous empiricism in criminology than was prevalent in more ideologically combative times has been a realization that there is nothing necessarily punitive in classical or rational choice theory and that therefore the perspectives should not be faulted when it is misapplied or misunderstood. Articles framed by the perspectives usually examine the possibility that punishment reduces crime, and often that is found to be the case in at least some examined conditions. However, for people who would use the perspectives as ideology to support getting tough on crime, the approach has as many inherent inconsistencies as convergences. Contemporary versions of rational choice specify countless complications of simple postulated relationships between increased punishment and decreased crime, for example. There clearly the rational choice tradition acknowledges that there are limited conditions under which one should expect punishment increases to lead to reductions in rates of crime or to impede individual decisions to commit crime.

Indeed, people who would turn to rational choice and classical theory for endorsement of punitive perspectives should know that they have opened themselves to attack from their desired theoretical bedfellows. This is because rational choice theorists and their classical forebears generally demand consistent and logical economic arguments and real evidence for the practicality and efficacy of state practices. Those who follow the tradition would evaluate the net payoff of punitive programs skeptically before determining them legitimate. Moreover, the tradition is closely coupled historically with utilitarian views of law wherein good laws are only those that can be enforced (which usually requires considerable popular legitimacy) and that lead to the general betterment. The latter, of course, is a difficult philosophical and empirical obstacle to surmount for people who argue that more punishment is needed.

The earliest classical theorists postulated that many punishments were necessarily irrational and excessive simply because they would inevitably be ineffective in deterring crime. This fact still exerts significant influence in both rational choice and classical theorizing. Laws that are groundless, inefficacious, unprofitable, or needless are not good laws. If any convenient liaison between the classical, rational choice perspective and get-tough policies existed, it seems to have been temporary and probably not all that important for, properly modified, almost any broad ideology can inspire or be used to defend vengeful approaches to criminal justice.