History of Criminology

II. Two Points of Departure for the Beginning of Criminology

A. The Classical School of Criminology

In 1764, an obscure Italian lawyer published a book that was soon to remove his obscurity and become one of the most influential legal treatises of the 18th century.The author was Cesare Beccaria, and the book was Essays on Crime and Punishment (hereinafter referred to as Essays; Beccaria, 1764/1963). Influenced by the Enlightenment philosophers, Beccaria sought to reform the criminal justice system to make it more humane and fair. He argued for punishments other than corporal punishment and death by embedding punishment in an enlightened legal system. Within 10 years of its publication, the book was translated into all European languages, and Beccaria was celebrated as a profound new legal thinker; the work also influenced the governments of numerous countries, including England and the United States. As early as 1775, John Adams referenced Essays in his justification for accepting the unpopular and politically dangerous task of defending the British soldiers who fired on the citizens of Boston who charged the arms depot atop Bunker Hill. Adams (quoted in McCullough, 2001), in explaining this decision, quoted the following from Beccaria:

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and the invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessing and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

Essays challenged the traditional notion that the foundation of the legal system was religion and that the cause of crime was falling from grace (the devil). Instead, Beccaria (1764/1973) offered the notion that crime was a result of choice (the operation of free will) and that crime was selected when the rewards of crime exceeded the pains resulting from the commission of crime. It is obvious that Beccaria, influenced by the moral calculus of Jeremy Bentham (1789), saw crime as a choice, not a compulsion. From this central idea he built a system of justice that specified that punishments should fit the crime (just enough punishment to offset the pleasure of the crime); that punishment was most effective when it was swift and sure but not overly severe; that confessions could not be coerced; and that the death penalty was not warranted, because it was not reversible in the case of error, and no one would agree to the state taking his life if he had a choice. In a series of interrelated chapters, Beccaria described a system of justice that soon became the model for democracies around the world.

As a legal philosopher, Beccaria subscribed to the idea that government exists at the will of the people and that, as such, the laws should restrict freedom only to the degree necessary to guarantee order and freedom.With this foundation, societies establish governments and laws to expand freedom, not to ensure the interests of one group above another. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution were greatly influenced by Beccaria; the sections of the Bill of Rights that address crime and justice in particular reflect his principles and guidelines.

Beccaria also argued that the setting of punishments (the balancing of pleasure and pain) should be done with “geometric precision,” suggesting that the emerging ideas of science and the scientific method should be used to structure the justice system. Although he was not educated in science, his work reflected the growing role of science in all aspects of social life. The science of criminal justice was fully anticipated in his approach to structuring a fair system of laws and justice. Finally, Beccaria knew how dangerous it was to write a treatise that challenged the conventional wisdom that law came from God and that rulers were God’s representatives on earth. As he sought to mitigate the subversiveness of his arguments, Beccaria noted that he was not challenging the church or church law but was simply offering a model for reform of criminal law and justice that was consistent with teachings of the church and the interests of the state. Beccaria clearly understood the tensions between a science of crime and justice and a system of laws and justice that reflected interests and power. Although he called for the former, he recognized the danger in doing so and sought to avoid the pain that others had suffered who challenged the positions of those in power.

So, some refer to Beccaria as the father of the classical school of criminology, the first school of criminological thought. Notice, however, that this approach to defining criminology has as its primary focus the criminal justice system. The theory of criminal behavior in this school is free will, and the definition of crime is behaviors prohibited by the state and punished by the state. Readers will see a very different set of assumptions and foci when the discussion turns to the creation of criminology as an academic field of study. This approach pays little attention to the criminal justice system and focuses almost exclusively on the causes of crime.

B. The Causes of Crime

In 1876, another Italian, this time a physician, published a book that was to transform how we think about criminals. Cesare Lombroso wrote Criminal Man, in which he reported on his observations of criminals while working as a doctor at a local prison. In the first edition of this work (only 252 pages in length), he observed that criminals had physical characteristics that more closely resembled animals lower in the evolutionary chain than man. Writing just 17 years after Darwin’s (1859) On the Origin of Species, which introduced the notion of evolution into scientific and popular thinking, Lombroso explained crime as the behavior of humans who where “throwbacks” to earlier developmental forms. Their physical appearance signaled their inferior intellectual and moral development. Crime was a product of this inferior development. For 30 years, the biological causes of crime heavily influenced thinking about crime causation.Themost forceful rejection of this particular approach to crime causation came with the publication of a large-scale empirical test of it, The English Convict (Goring, 1913/1972). The author, Charles Goring, using the emerging statistical techniques that now form the basis of social science empirical research, tested convicts and nonconvicts and demonstrated that the physical differences that Lombroso described did not differentiate between these groups. In fact, by the time this work was published, Lombroso had published the fifth edition of his book, with each edition getting longer and noting other possible explanations of crime (the fifth edition had grown to 1,903 pages and listed hundreds of causes of crime).

III. Criminology Emerges as a Named Field of Study

The 1800s saw the emergence and growth of the science and the establishment of separate disciplines and research areas. Prior to this time, all sciences were included in faculties of philosophy. It was in the early 1800s that sociology was named and textbooks began to emerge (Spencer, 1874; Ward, 1883), and in 1905, the American Society of Sociology was formed. National organizations promoting medicine (1847), history (1884), chemistry (1875), physics (1899), psychology (1892), and economics (1885) emerged in the later part of the 19th century as these new sciences became part of universities and public discourse. Criminology had a longer period of formation. In 1885, Raffaele Garofalo (a student of Lombroso) published Criminology, in which he used the word criminology to refer to the science of explaining crime (Garofalo, 1885/1968). A series of books written in the late 1800s established criminology as a field of study, but, unlike other social sciences, this did not become reflected in the structure of disciplines in universities; neither did national or international organizations emerge to promote this field of social science. It would not be until the 1940s that these signs of a new science of crime and justice would emerge (the American Society of Criminology was founded as an association of police professors in 1941, and the first American School of Criminology was opened in 1950 at the University of California, Berkeley). What happened during this 50-year period between the time criminology was recognized as a field of study and it became organized professionally and in universities? The answer to this question requires us to explore how explanations of crime developed after Lombroso and how Beccaria became central to the new field of criminology.