Nature of Crime

                           Dr. Robert E. Ford


Classical Theories of Crime

The classical school is closely associated with the names of Caesare Beccaria(1738-1794) and Jeremy Bentham.

Framing the Debate

     Free will/Determinism?

    Free Will:  Intuitively people accept free will, most believe that humans are free to choose and pick their own life courses…

    Determinism: Assumes that behavior is caused by variables outside the person.  Human behavior is determined by outside forces.

Framing the Debate


    Nature: Extent to which human behavior results from biological factors.

    Nurture:  Extent to which human behavior results from environmental factors

Framing the Debate


    Normal:  Criminal behavior is seen as the normal outcome of those experiences etc.

    Pathological:  Criminal behavior is seen as the pathological output of processes gone wrong.

Framing the Debate


     Person:  Is the focus on the specific attributes of the person involved?

     Situation: Is the focus on the characteristics of the situation?


Classical Criminology

     Classical theory emerges when naturalistic philosophy was challenging the spiritualistic approach.  The spiritualistic approach dominated European thought and law for over a thousand years.

     The most important sources of spiritual explanation for law and crime came from St. Thomas Acquinas(1225-1274).

Classical Crime

      Horrible, severe and arbitrary punishments were common before and during the “Enlightenment”.  The rise of the Classical Approach is linked to revulsion at the sadism of this punishment.

      In Eighteen Century England over 200 crimes carried the death sentence.

      Crime was poorly defined, due process was non existent.

      Corruption of officials was common.

Classical Theory (origin 1764)

alCore Ideas: People choose to commit crimes after weighting the benefits and costs. People have "free will" to choose. Crime can be deterred by certain, severe and swift punishment.

    Modern Thinking: Rational Choice theory, Deterrence theory, Incapacitation

      Been characterized as legal and administrative criminology (Vold,1958:23)



The Natural Law

     Aquinas argued there was a God given Natural Law, revealed by observing through the eyes of faith people’s natural tendency to do good rather than evil.

     The criminal law was based on this natural law.  Crime was not only against the law, it was a sin.

Emergence of Hedonism

      The religious tradition argued for punishment as penitence for sin.  The penitence was often in the form of torture.

      Acquinas’ spiritual law gradually evolved in Thomas Hobbes(1588-1679) to a naturalist perspective

      Hobbes argued that people pursue their own interests without caring whether they hurt one another.  Hobbes introduces the theme of self seeking hedonism.

Hobbes’ War of All Against All

            Hobbes argued that humans were selfish creatures who would do anything for position. Left on their own, people would act on evil impulses. People should not be trusted to make decisions. Hobbes felt that nations also were selfishly motivated. Each country was in a battle for power and wealth. To prove his point, Hobbes wrote, "If men are naturally in a state of war, why do they always carry arms and why do they have keys to lock their doors?"


Hobbes’ War of All Against All

      Governments were created to protect people from their selfishness and evil. Hobbes believed in the rule of a king. He felt a country needed an authority figure for direction and leadership. Since people were interested in their own self-interests, democracy would never work. Hobbes wrote, "All mankind [is in] a perpetual and restless desire for power... that [stops] only in death." Giving power to the individual would start a "war of every man against every man" and make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."



The Social Contract

     Hobbes social contract was an agreement by people to stop the war of all against all.

     The social contract needs to be enforced and this was the duty of the state.

     By the social contract the state secures the right to use force to enforce the contract.

     Other naturalist philosophers included Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire & Rousseau

The Classical School
(18th and early 19th Century)

      The Classical "School"  believed that criminal behavior was an outcome of a "human nature".  Human beings were hedonistic, acting in their own self-interest, but rational,  considering courses of action in their self-interest.  A well-ordered state would construct laws and punishments to assure that peaceful and non-criminal actions were in people’s self-interest--through strategies of punishment based on deterrence.


Classical School of Criminology

     The Classical School’s most prominent members were Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.

     The Classical School serves as the model on which criminal justice in the United States is presently based. (Bohm,1997)

Jeremy Bentham

   Founder of the school of utilitarianism, and traditionally considered a member of the Classical School of criminology.   Like Beccaria, Bentham believed that human nature was hedonistic and that punishments ought therefore to be based on deterrence, but he rejected Beccaria's social contract theory.  


Jeremy Bentham

     Close ties to contemporary ethics, Bentham was a major figure in the development of Utilitarianism.

     Bentham and the works of other Utilitarians form an important part of the basis of a major approach to ethics today.

Jeremy Bentham: An Ethical Aside

    Bentham thought that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."

    Bentham supposed that the whole of morality could be derived from "enlightened self-interest," and that a person who always acted with a view to his own maximum satisfaction in the long run would always act rightly.


Introduction to the Principles of Morales and Legislation (Bentham)

"It was the dread of evil, not the hope of good that first cemented societies together." (xviii., 17 note.) 

     "The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society by punishing and rewarding." (vii., 1.) 

     "The State has two great engines, punishment and reward." (xviii., 18.) 

     "Punishment cannot act any farther than in as far as the idea of it is present in the mind." (xvii., 7.)

     "Force can accomplish many things which would be beyond the reach of cunning." (xiii., 2.)

Caesare Beccaria 1738-94

     Stimulated penal reform throughout Europe

     Published (1764) Essay on Crimes and Punishments.

     The book was one of the first arguments against capital punishment and inhuman treatment of criminals.



      Beccaria protested the cruel and excessive punishments imposed by the spiritualistic dominated legal proceedings of his day.

      Applying rationalist and social contract to crime, Beccaria developed a rational approach to crime and criminal justice.

      After finishing school, joined a group of intellectuals who met to discuss literary and intellectual topics in Milan.


     Attending the meetings was Allessandro Verri, a prison official. Beccaria was assigned to write an essay on penology.

     Dei deliti e delle pene (1763)

     In this work he protested many of the practices of the time. Sought reform to make the system more rational and logical

Beccaria’s Writings

      Need for punishment and the social contract

      The function of the legislature in determining punishments

      The function of judges

      The seriousness of crimes

      On proportionate punishments

      On the certainty of punishment

      On preventing crime

Beccaria’s Writings

     The laws should be published

     Torture and secret accusation should be outlawed

     Capital punishment should be abolished and  those convicted imprisoned.

     Jails should be made more humane

     Law should not distinguish between poor and wealthy.

Beccaria’s Writing

      A person should be tried by a jury of their peers.

      When there are class difference, then the jury should be half and half.

      His book due to the radicalness of his ideas was published anonymously.  The preface was a defense that he was not a revolutionary or a non believer.  The Church condemned the book in 1766 for its rationalist ideas.

Beccaria’s Writings

     Beccaria’s brief summary read:

     In order for punishment not to be, in every instance an act of violence of one or of many against a private citizen, it must be essentially public, prompt, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crime, dictated by laws.

Beccaria’s An Essay on Crimes and Punishment

     Enthusiastically accepted by thinkers of the time.  Voltaire wrote a commentary on it.

     Beccaria’s principles were used as the basis for the French Code of 1791 (French Revolution)

     His influence can also be found in an earlier revolution that occurred in 1776…

Neoclassical School

     Once the French Code of 1791 was in place it was clear that modifications were needed in Beccaria’s model.

     Everyone could not be treated alike, there was need to treat the young and the insane differently

     First offenders needed to be differentiated from previous offenders.

Neoclassical School

     Reformers felt that Judges needed more discretion to take into account subjective intent, extenuating circumstances.

     The Neoclassical adherents still accepted the rational model, just felt it needed to take into account a few other variables.

Neoclassical School

     The Neoclassical School is “the major model of human behavior held to by agencies of social control in all advanced industrial societies…” (Taylor et al.,1973:9)

Assessing Beccaria’s Theory

     Classical theory was attractive to legal practitioners, based on social contract theory it supported uniform enforcement of the law without questioning whether the law was fair or just.

     Beccaria to be fair did realize that bad laws sometimes contributed to crime.


Assessing Beccaria’s Approach

     Generally most that followed Beccaria took a social contract position that most crime is a violation of the social contract and hence irrational…

Classical Theory and Deterrence

      The basic premise of classical theory is that actions and decisions are made by persons in the exercise of free will.  People chose to obey or violate the law by a rational calculation of risk of pain versus the potential pleasure of reward.

      Their calculation is based on their perceptions, experience and awareness of what has happened in the past.


Classical Theory and Deterrence

     In order to control crime, reasonable penalties are needed that are applied in a reasonable manner to deter future crime.

     No room for vengeance

     No discretion for the judge, that would reduce deterrence

     Punishment must fit the crime


Classical Theory and Deterrence

     Assumption that the amount of gain or pleasure is the same for everyone.

     The more serious the crime the more to gain hence the more should be the penalty

Review of Classical Position

      Key points are:

       (1) Humans are rational actors,

      (2) Rationality involves end/means calculations,

      (3) People choose all behavior, both conforming and deviant, based on rational calculations,

      (4) Choice involves a cost benefit analysis: Pleasure versus Pain,

      (5) Choice, all else equal, will be directed towards the maximization of individual pleasure,

Classical Theory’s Key Points

      (6) Choice can be controlled through the perception that potential pain or punishment will follow a violation of the social good

      (7) The state is responsible for maintaining order and preserving the common good through laws

      (8) Swiftness, Severity, and Certainty of punishment are the key elements in a law's ability to control human behavior. (Keel, 1997)



Certainty and Celerity of Punishment

     Classical theory argued in order to deter punishment for crime must be swift and certain.

     Certainty involves the probability of apprehension

     Celerity involves the swiftness of the punishment after apprehension.

Specific and General Deterrence

     Specific:  apprehended offenders once sufficiently punished will refrain from committing that act again based on rational decision.

     General:  The punishment of the offender also sends a message to others in society and they are deterred by witnessing the punishment of the apprehended offender.

Classical Theories Modern Representatives

     Modern Outgrowths

    Rational Choice Theory

     Routine Activities Theory

    General Deterrence Theory

    Specific Deterrence



Deterrence Theory; Research

     Certainty, severity and celerity of punishment remain at the heart of deterrence theory today. (Wright, 1993)

     The first tests of deterrence theory started in the 1970s with analysis of states with and without the death penalty.

     These studies found no effect on the homicide rate (Chiricos and Waldo, 1970)

Do Criminal Sanctions Deter?

      If no penalty, some would still obey due to moral persuasion.

      The effect of punishment vs. no punishment has been termed absolute deterrence (Wright, 1993)

      The law has non deterrent impacts upon behavior, through education, socialization, and moral persuasion.

      The impacts of punishment beyond these non deterrent effects, is called marginal deterrent effect

Does Punishment Deter?

      “The best answer seems to be yes, but not very much.”(Akers, 1997:20)

      Negative correlations between perceptual and objective deterrence and crime are found but the correlations are low.

      Severity of punishment has an even weaker effect on crime whether among the main body of offenders, or special groups.  (Akers, 1997)

Deterrence and Crime

      Paternoster et al.(1983,1985)  found that people with little prior experience in committing an offense had higher estimates of certainty of punishment than those who had committed these crimes previously. He argued that this failed to support deterrence theory. Or did it?

      Paternoster (1989) found in study of school children that certainty of punishment had more impact than severity. (found no impact for severity)

Deterrence and Crime

      Side Note:  The “Brutality Effect” homicides increased the month after an execution (Forst, 1983).

      Side Note: Research has found that crimes are reduced when more citizens are carrying concealed weapons (Lott,

      Ehrlich (1975)….not enough to have a law have to actually enforce it…his research showed that for each actual execution there were 7-8 fewer homicides.  A replication by Bowers and Pierce (1975) disputed Ehrlich’s findings and suggested that executions actually increase homicides.

Deterrence and Crime

     There is a correlation between certainty and deterrence but it has generally been weak.

     Most of the evidence on the death penalty has not been supportive.

     Akers has argued that the empirical validity of classical deterrence theory is limited (Akers, 1999).




Some Caveats

      Tipping: Certainty may not be purely lineal in effect. Rather than increasing the deterrent effect with each incremental increase in certainty of apprehension, a certain , consistent level of certainty must be reached for a desired consequence. For some crimes this level is placed at 30%. It appears this level varies with type of behavior. The problem is compounded since few crimes are reported (30-50%) and police are apprehend only a fraction of offenders reported.

Some Caveats

      Overload is another problem. As crime rates increase, police resources are stretched and the certainty of apprehension decreases. As crime rates decrease, police activity intensifies and certainty of apprehension increases. The causal mechanism is what is questioned here. Does certainty of apprehension deter crime or does the low level of crime increase certainty?


Some Caveats

      Finally, questions as to the effectiveness of deterrent strategies, and the appropriateness of incapacitation and retribution bring up ethical and institutional concerns. How far do we wish to go in punishing individuals? Is incapacitation a practical use of social resources? What about “aging out”? Aging out is a significant element of the deviance/crime process, the older a person becomes, the less likely it is that they will engage in criminal/deviant behavior. Why keep them behind bars?


Some Caveats

      What crimes are susceptible to deterrence? Does general deterrence work? Research on capital punishment indicates general deterrent effect may not be present. Rates of capital crimes drop off following a an execution only to rise again to higher levels before tapering off to "normal."  There is little difference in rates of capital offenses between states with the death penalty and those without.  An inverse correlation occurs; when states abolish the death penalty a corresponding drop in capital crimes is reported (Pfohl,1994)


Some Caveats

     Most studies of deterrence rely on official statistics concerning deviant and criminal behavior and official control activities. Problems of reporting practices, bias, the organizational interests of relevant agencies, and the differential effects of official versus informal control activities confound the study of deterrence.


Economic Modeling of Deterrence

     Over the past three decades econometricians have addressed deterrence.  Following Jeremy Betham’s and Adam Smith’s lead they have used the methodologies of economic modeling to study deterrence. (Becker, 1968; Polinsky & Shavell, 1984)

     They have been searching for an Optimal Punishment Model.

Rational Choice Theory

     Rational Choice Theory has been brought to criminology by economists.

     Becker (1968) argues that individuals choose to engage in crime because they believe in their own particular case that the benefits of crime outweigh the costs.


Rational Choice Theory

     “offenders seek to benefit themselves by their criminal behavior, that this involves the making of decisions and of choices, however rudimentary these process may be; and that these processes exhibit a measure of rationality, although constrained by the limits of time and ability and the availability of relevant information.” (Cornish & Clarke,1986:1)

Rational Choice Theory

      Decisions are based on the offenders perceptions of the offenders expected effort and reward compared to the likelihood and severity of punishment and other costs of the crime. (Cornish and Clarke, 1986)

      Rational Choice Theory does not claim perfect rationality. It does not claim that offenders systematically collect information and carefully weigh the costs and benefits of criminal actions.

Rational Choice Theory

      It claims that offenders give some consideration to costs and benefits when contemplating crime, even thought this consideration may be hurried and based on inaccurate and incomplete information.

      The benefits of crime include both monetary and non monetary factors (the thrill etc.) Rational Choice Theory has been brought to criminology by economists.


Rational Choice Theory

     The costs of crime include as well both informal and formal sanctions (disapproval of family, guilt)

     Cornish and Clarke argued that this theory even has applicability to “pathologically motivated and impulsively executed” Crimes.


     How does your personal view of life square with this theory?

     Agree 7                               Disagree 1

     You are an expert!

     How well does this theory square with your experiences with offenders?

     Agree 7                               Disagree 1



     Does this theory explain all offenders or does it work better with some offenders than others?

     Works with all offenders

     Works with specialized groups of offenders.

Rational Choice Theory

      Do offender calculate ?

      Repeat property offenders report that they do not plan their crime well and that they were not very concerned about the probability of being caught and if caught they thought the sanctions would be minimal. (Tunnell, 1990)  Offenders tend to fool themselves.

      Prison is not threatening to many offenders

      Try to avoid capture but risk assessment unrealistic.

Rational Choice Theory

     Factors constraining choice:

     Individual traits

     Attitudes toward crime

     Extent to which offenders have been reinforced or punished for crime (Cornish and Clarke, Chapter 26)

Rational Choice Theory

     When rational choice theory talks about constraints it begins to integrate with other theories which address specific constraints.

     Rational Choice theory diverges from Classical Theory in the degree of rationality posited.

Rational Choice Theory

      Cromwell et al. (1991) finds burglars engage in only a partially rational approach to their crimes.

      On the other hand burglars generally target unoccupied homes. Overall, the data suggests that some consideration is given to cost benefit analysis.(Birkbeck & LaFree, 1993; Clarke & Felson, 1993; Meier & Miethe, 1993, Cornish & Clarke, 1986)

Rational Choice Theory

     There have been supporting findings but they incorporate sociological and psychological variables into their analysis and we wait them for a later discussion.


Routine Activity Theory

      “people make choices, but they cannot choose the choices available to them.” (Felson, 1986:119)

      Some people are more likely than others to confront situations where the rewards of crime are high and the risks are low.

      For a crime to occur: a motivated offender, must come into contact with suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians.

Routine Activity Theory

      Takes motivated offenders as a given.

      Explains variation in crime as a function of availability of suitable targets.

      Suitable targets are the benefits of crime

      Capable guardians are the costs of crime

      Discuss changes in routine activities as either increasing or decreasing suitable targets or increasing or decreasing capable guardians.

Routine Activity Theory

     Routine Activities (family, work, leisure, consumption etc.) the way we do them impacts the number of suitable targets.

     Changes in crime rates are a function in changes in our routine activities.

Routine Activity

     Quite different from other theories.  Most theories focus on the factors that motivate offenders.  Routine Activity suggest that motivated offenders are a given and focuses on opportunities for crime.

     Findings are generally supportive of this perspective.

Routine Activities Theory

     In order for a personal or property crime to occur there must be at the same time and place, a perpetrator, a victim and an object or property.

     The crime can be facilitated by another person who assists or deterred by another person present who can deter it.

Routine Activities Theory

     Cohen and Feldman (1979) define routine activities… “recurrent and prevalent activities which provide for basic population and individual needs…formalized work, as well as the provisions of standard food, shelter, sexual outlet, leisure, social interaction, learning, and childbearing.” (593)

Routine Activities Theory

     In addition to guardians such as police there are informal social controls.

     Change in any of the elements effects crime

     Have researched suitable targets and absence of capable guardians

     Cohen 1981 renamed it Opportunity Theory.

Routine Activities Theory

      Messner and Tardiff (1985) use the routine activities approach to interpret their findings on Manhattan homicides and their correlations with time and place.

      Sherman’s hot spots (1989) also tends to correlate.

      Findings from Hurricane Andrew (Cromwell et al.,1995)

      Jensen and Brownfield (1986)…deviant or non deviant activity. Many victims are engaged themselves in crime.

Routine Activities Theory

      Does not address the offender, he is just there.

      Not fully supported but does receive a sympathetic assist from the data.

      Not been full testing of the theory, research has not used direct measures.

      How does Routine Activity Theory deal with recent and extensive decrease in crime..COPS More???

Final Comment

     Routine Activity Theory and Rational Choice Theory are essentially extensions of Deterrence Theory.