Classical Theory Approach to Explaining Crime


Understanding crime forms the basis of understanding criminal justice. As a result, it is important to understand criminological theories because any decision or policy made depends largely on these theories, regardless of whether people know them or not. The criminology arena has changed drastically over time with many criminologists opting to address crime from a legalistic rather than a normative perspective. Legalistic point of view is a practical way of addressing crime based on the law while normative perspective defines crime as a violation of social standards defining human thoughts and behavior (Coser, 2004). This fact throws in the issue of over-criminalization characterized by too many laws and under-criminalization characterized by insufficient laws. Fundamentally, there are thirteen criminal theories inexistent. However, this paper focuses on classical theory in explaining crime as opposed to the positivist approach in dealing with crime. What is a classical theory in criminology? Does this approach explain and deal with crime sufficiently?

Classical Theory

It is important to note that every theory in criminology has several assumptions concerning human nature and principles of causation among other issues. This includes a description of the theory under study, which entails several facts about the theory concerning crime and an explanation of the phenomena. Coser (2004) posits that the assumptions address debates like consensus versus conflict, or free will versus determinism. The description deals with facts about a phenomenon and this happens through the presentation of a statistical profile or table of numbers among other materials that correlate well with a form of crime which is taken as the most appropriate example of crime. On the other hand, the explanation entails variables that can be changed, fine-tuned, or arranged in an orderly manner to give some statistical and substantive information. Classical theory, like any other criminological theory, contains all these components and primarily deals with the etiology of crime. In other instances, these theories give insights to actors involved in criminal justice, which includes the victims, police, judges, and correctional officers (Coser, 2004).

Marchese de Beccaria, the father of classical theory on criminology, believed that free will determines one’s decision-making and biological or environmental factors have nothing to do with one’s decisions about crime (Merlo, 2007). This theory holds that people commit crimes because they choose to. Adherents of this theory claim that people are pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. Given the fact that human beings are intelligent and rational beings, it becomes easy to conclude that people understand themselves and consequently act to promote their interests (Misha, 2005). Classical theory is formed on the basis that, people control their fate hence; crime is a matter of choice. The classical theory holds that, before committing a crime, the victim weighs the merits of the potential benefits and the demerits, that is, the costs of committing a crime. According to Gonzalez (2008), the classical school of thought seeks to establish a justice system that would reduce the benefits of committing a crime while increasing the demerits. This translates to reduced crime rates because people will not see the importance of committing a crime if it will work against them finally. This approach integrates both legal and social strategies to deal with crime.

The emergence of psychological hedonism backs classical theory largely. Regarding psychological hedonism, people pursue crime as a matter of ethical pursuit and the justice system should tame this notion. Gonzalez (2008) concurs that people commit crimes from an internal urge of dominance coupled with the shortcut of acquiring something for nothing. People reason fantasize and act according to underlying beliefs. What is the view of the justice system according to classical theory?

The classical theory seeks to control crime before it happens. It seeks to make unaccepted behaviors painful. The approach in dealing with crime here is direct where punishment is central. In this context, deterrent and moral requital substitute rehabilitation, and individuals go through a painful learning process (punishment) to learn that undesirable behaviors like crime are counterproductive. According to Merlo (2009), classical theory has four objectives to deal with crime. The first one is to discourage and decimate crime through punishment. If eliminating crime becomes insurmountable, then criminals will commit lesser crimes for fear of the potential punishment and pain. The other strategy is to ensure that offenders do not use excessive force when committing a crime. Finally, this theory seeks to use the cheapest way possible to prevent crime. Human beings are rational and intelligent; therefore, if the punishment is too severe, they will not commit crimes. The exponents of this theory feel that authorities should push for a more classical approach in dealing with a crime because this act is irrational and unacceptable. All people should understand the law and its requirements in a bid to maintain consistency in sentencing criminals in a classical way.

Positivist Theory

As aforementioned, classical theory is only one of many criminological theories. Positivism is the other theory handled in this context. What does it state? How does it fare compared with classical theory? Positivists do not agree with the classical theory that, logic and choice rule in committing a crime. Positivists argue that social, psychological, and biological traits contribute largely to one’s behavior (Brohm, & Haley, 2007, p. 62). They hold a determinist view of crime as opposed to a legal view and proposed that crime should be prevented through treatment that is, reformation of criminals as opposed to punishment. To prove this point of view on crime, several scientists carried out research work to disqualify and replace free will and rationality with determinism. Adolphe Quetelet was among the pioneers of positivism and he established that some individuals had more probability of committing some crimes than others (Brohm, & Haley, 2007, p. 63). It became clear that young, poor, uneducated, and unemployed people especially males, were more likely to commit crimes.

Quetelet observed that young males had a high probability to commit crimes regardless of the circumstances. Moreover, he realized that the hapless and unemployed were inclined to commit crimes against wealthy and employed people. The motive to commit a crime may thus come from opportunity as opposed to free will (Gonzalez, 2008). The economic disparity between rich and poor may fuel passions and provoke temptation to steal from the rich and this has nothing to do with free will. The prevailing environment pushes an individual to commit a crime. Positivists, therefore, hold that the tendency to perpetrate crime is an expression of moral character. Crime, therefore, results from moral defectiveness, which is under the direct influence of biological, sociological, and psychological influence. Cesare Lombroso supported the biological influence in crime and stated that criminals are victims of biological throwbacks in evolutionary times where some people were more archaic and more criminal than other people who were non-criminal (Brohm, & Haley, 2007, p. 63). This phenomenon has been carried into contemporary times and particular people are more likely to commit crimes than others will. This view proposes that criminals should undergo rehabilitation to correct their behavior. Punishment does not prevent crime, as criminals tend to remain optimistic that authorities will not catch them. Consequently, the potential benefit of committing a crime outweighs the risks and pain hence crime escalates.


Interestingly, even with numerous theories explaining the causes of crime and ways to deal with it, crime rates are still high. There is a dire need to solve the stalemate that stands in the way of making conclusive decisions concerning crime. The classical theory holds that crime is intentional and argues that through severe punishment, people will refrain from crime and this will cut down rates of crime. This model seeks to control crime before it happens. On the other hand, positivist theorists believe that crime results from external factors like environmental, sociological, biological, and even psychological factors. They rule out the possibility of rationality and intelligence in committing a crime. One would then ask, what is the way forward? The way out of this stalemate is to adopt the classical approach in dealing with crime. The writer does not agree with the claims that external factors contribute largely to crime. Before any criminal decides to commit a crime, the idea is borne in mind and at this step, criminals have the free will to decide whether to commit a crime or not. The positivist approach emphasizes values instead of objectives and it overlooks the significance of purpose and beliefs. Human beings are rational and by setting severe punishment measures, crime rates will decrease.

Reference List

Brohm, R., & Haley, K. (2007). Introduction to Criminal Justice 5th ed. McGraw-Hill.

Coser, L. (2004). Crime Theories. Web.

Gonzalez, R. (2008). A Classical View – Why Do People Commit Crimes? Web.

Merlo, G. (2007). Criminology Theory – Classical Theory. Web.

Misha, L. (2005). Theory on Crime: An Individual Choice or Societal Responsibility. Web.

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