Classical Criminology

III. Classical and Rational Choice Theorists and Their Heirs

Because the intellectual seeds for classical and rational choice criminology were sown in the 18th-century Enlightenment Age, many of the central questions and biases in the approaches were formed then. When the theories are recapped in textbooks, one is as likely to see reference to Beccaria and Bentham as to lesser sociological thinkers on choice and economics of crime of the last half century. Although the mathematics in contemporary applications sometimes are overwhelming to people who are unaccustomed to reading formulas, the thinking in older and newer versions of classical criminology at least is familiar. Much in the U.S. system of justice rests on the same foundations, and we live with the cultural and intellectual legacy spawned by the scholars who inspired classical criminology. The most important historical fact to keep in mind is that classical theorists were concerned primarily with reforming a primitive, irrational justice system that often was based on privilege and vengeful ritualistic traditions with a justice system that drew legitimacy from reason.

Early classical theorists knew that crime required rational management; they intended to calibrate the law and justice system for the task and generally agreed that the state should do no more than required to protect citizens and their property. The law should be pragmatic and effective. Precise visions of the philosophical underpinnings of rights, the law, and justice varied widely, but there was near-universal agreement among classical and enlightened thinkers of the 18th century that the deterrent value of the law should expend the least possible harm to society and to the individual; that is, the law should operate without undue or unneeded cruelty to offenders. According to this perspective, the costs of committing a given crime usually would slightly outweigh potential benefits, in order to tip the decisional scales toward compliance with the law; however, any punishment beyond that needed to accomplish this task is likely cruel and unnecessary. Classical visions eventually came to reflect the utilitarian ideas that balancing private and individual interests against public interest required optimizing liberty; minimizing harm; and, wherever possible, close correspondence between the two objectives. From inception, theorists contended that implementing rational law and legal measures required dispassionate judgment of what would be most effective and scientific evaluation of attempted improvements. Crime control should be measured and its effectiveness evaluated objectively to ensure the proper balance of controllable costs and benefits of crime. Therefore, most evaluation research of legal changes and large-scale policy changes in the criminal justice system can be comfortably placed under the classical/rational choice tent.

The battles between those who rigidly adhered to purist sociological theories of crime (which generally focused on what is wrong with societies or other external social forces producing aberrant-thinking criminals) and those who took the side of a purist economics and rigid classical criminology are fading to intellectual history. As the latest generation of seasoned combatant in the fight leaves the field, one finds that their legacy is empirical support for multiple approaches to the problem of crime. It educates about the pitfalls of stringent and egotistical adherence to a single perspective and rigid defense of boundaries as much as it provides support for competing visions. With resulting invigorated faith in integration and cross-disciplinary approaches in criminology, rational choice and classical perspectives are on the cusp of revitalization and the perspective that may lead the way in sophisticated and integrated crime theorizing that is to come. The form of rational choice perspectives of the future will starkly contrast with the depictions of the school of thought that were presented in academic critiques and textbook accounts over the last several decades; these often pointed out that the theory was elementary and that it offered an unrealistic or artificial depiction of criminal choice as a rational/ economic outcome.