Different theories of crime

There are many different theories of crime. It has been proposed that crime is determined by biological factors whereas others are more convinced that environmental factors are more influential to those who commit crimes.

The purpose of this essay is to discusses two of the most major theories of criminology: classical and biological. It will then analyze each of the theories and their main assumptions and comparing and contrasting their approaches to crime.

Classical Criminology originated from Enlightenment ideals at the end of the eighteenth century. The main inspiration of Classicism is the Utilitarian idea that all criminals are subject to free will and that they make a rational choice to engage in criminal behaviour. The influence of the Classical school is apparent in legal doctrine due to the emphasis of the requirement of conscious intent, for example, the notion of mens rea (or ‘the guilty mind’). The classical concept of human nature is easily described by Jeremy Bentham:

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.”

People seek to achieve pleasure and avoid pain and so they weigh up the benefits and costs of doing an act, including committing a crime. Since people commit crime when the benefits outweigh the costs, it follows that crime can be prevented by making sure that the cost, i.e. the punishment, outweighs the benefit. Therefore, the best way to reduce crime is through deterrence. It is also thought that all individuals are equal and so the law should apply equally to everyone.

Taking a more physical approach to criminology, biological theories put forward the idea that criminal activity is genetic and is the result of some defect that can be measured. Criminal acts have been linked with roles taken by heritable characteristics, the biochemical functioning of the brain and nervous system and the impact of things such as nutrition. Furthermore, it has been suggested that “biological harms” like exposure to toxic substances or head injuries can be other contributions to an individual’s predisposition of a criminal lifestyle. The centre of all these theories is that abnormalities which are inherited or acquired throughout life, predispose individuals to criminal behaviour. It is also based on the belief that criminals are physiologically different from non-criminals.

Biological theories are positivistic as they attribute criminal behaviour to internal factors that are beyond an individual’s control.

The idea of positivism assumes that criminal behaviour is caused, but that these causes may be manageable, possibly by rehabilitation.

Biological theorists also tend to have the view that punishment for crime should be less or more harsh depending on the individual defendant. The major change from the Classical theories to the biological theories is the emphasis on reformation rather than punishment.

Furthermore, the methods used by biological criminologists, including that of measuring body parts, represented a remarkable change from the philosophical approach presented by classical criminologists.

There are several differences and similarities between the classical and biological theories of criminology. The biological theories of crime support the idea that an individual commits a crime due to biological or genetic defects. It was also thought that they had criminal tendencies because of certain abnormalities that an individual had and not because the offender rationally chose to commit the crime.

In contrast, the classical theory has the belief that every individual has their own right and ‘free will’ in the way in which they behave, so they commit a crime because they choose to do so, not because it is in their biological make-up.

Furthermore, the Classical theory ignores the possibility of irrationality and unconscious drives as motivational factors – it places entire responsibility on the criminal.

Biological positivism differs in the sense that it places the responsibility on forces beyond control of the criminal and hence, suggests that the criminal is born, not made.

The differences between classical and biological criminology can easily be distinguished by the work of their most prominent theorists.

The most influential theorist in classical criminology is Cesare Beccaria, whose work formed the basis of the classicist theories. Beccaria based his theories firmly on the social contract theories of Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau.

Beccaria only published one essay, On Crimes and Punishments, but it was extremely important and influential. In this essay, he wrote that criminal behaviour could be minimized using the basics of human nature. He argued that the current barbaric system of punishing criminals needed to be reformed into a less harsh, yet more effective one. He states on page 99 the essence of his ideas:

“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 the laws.”

This system, therefore, had two effects. The idea was that it operates as a deterrence to those criminals convicted not to re-offend. But the publicity surrounding the trial gave a general example to potential offenders of the consequences of committing a crime, triggering their rationality so that they will not offend.

Another important leading figure in classical criminology was Jeremy Bentham, who was a huge supporter of Beccaria. Bentham’s ideas were very similar to those of Beccaria. His greatest principle, a basis for utilitarian philosophy, was that there should be ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’

Bentham noted that people are rational and weigh potential gains against the pain likely to be imposed. Therefore, if the pain outweighs any gains derived from criminal activity, then the criminal will be deterred. He also agreed with Beccaria that the punishment should fit the crime, but the law should not be so severe as to reduce the greatest happiness.

Thus, the emphasis of classicism was not the analysis of criminal behaviour but the need of a consensus view of crime - that a crime is an act that violates the basic values and beliefs of society.

These ideas are in complete contrast to those of the biological criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who focused on criminal behaviour and took a scientific approach to this. He linked the criminal man with Darwin’s argument of evolution and disagreed with the concept of free will. In 1876, Lombroso’s On Criminal Man was published and in it he explained that physical differences and mental deficiencies caused crime. Lombroso alleged that physiological traits such as the measurements of an individual’s cheek bones or arm length were indicative of "atavistic" criminal tendencies. This means that that criminals represent a physical type which is distinctive from non-criminals. He classified criminals in four main categories. First, born criminals are simply those who can be distinguished by their physical atavistic characteristics. Second, the category insane criminals includes idiots, imbeciles, paranoiacs, epileptics and alcoholics. Third, occasional criminals who commit crimes in response to available opportunities. Fourth, criminals of passion are those motivated to commit crime because of anger, love or honour.

Lombroso therefore rejected criminality as a result of free will and rational decisions and stated that criminals should be studied in both their biological and social contexts.

Many now consider this approach, influenced by Charles Darwin's theory on evolution, to be simplistic and naïve, but Lombroso is still regarded as the "father" of criminology.

One further difference between these two theories of criminology is that the classical view focuses on the particular act/crime whereas the biological view focuses on each individual criminal.

The classical view believes that the problem of crime should be tackled by concentrating on the crime itself; all criminals who commit the same offence are punished the same, regardless of any mitigating circumstances such as whether they’ve offended before or if it was an act of self defence etc. The central problem involved with these principles was the concentration on the criminal act – Classical theorists had deliberately and completely ignored differences between individuals. First offenders and recidivists were treated exactly the same, solely on the basis of the act that they had committed. Therefore, children, ‘idiots’ and the insane were all treated as if they were fully rational and competent.

On the other hand, the biological view focuses on the actual criminal and not the crime, as it was believed that certain genetic traits predisposed people to becoming criminals. From very early on in the development of biological criminology, studies carried out by biological theorists concentrated on the individuals, many of which were studies of twins and adopted children. There has been research which suggests that identical twins, when compared with non-identical twins, are much more likely to display similar patterns of behaviour, especially criminal behaviour (Christiansen, 1977). This supports the idea that criminal actions are genetic and not learned behaviour.

Studies on adopted children also tend to support this theory. The results from an adoptive children study by Mednick et al showed that there was a stronger relationship between the criminality of the adopted child and their biological parents than there was between the adopted child and their adoptive parents. The percentage of male children convicted when their adoptive parents were not convicted but their biological parents were was 20%, whereas the percentage when their adoptive parents were convicted but their biological parents were not convicted was only 14.7%. This seems to support the idea that biology does have an important role in an individual’s criminal behaviour.

However, there is no recent evidence to show that an individual’s genetics are the sole cause of criminal behaviour. Although many studies that have identified biological correlations of criminal offending, none of these can be seen as evidence for biological causes.

The main problem with these principles is that biological theories tend to be viewed as efforts to shift responsibility away from social factors that cause crime and onto criminal individuals. They completely ignore other external factors that may also play a part in criminal behaviour.

One similarity is that both classical and biological theorists believed that punishment for crime should not be too severe.

In the eighteenth century, before the introduction of classicism, criminal punishment was torturous and barbaric, which only began to change after the ideas of classicism became known. Torture and capital punishment began to decline by the nineteenth century as people began to believe in a more humane way of punishing criminals. As time went on, a penal system for criminal punishment developed in a response to classicist principles. This system meant that the punishment was for the crime and not the individual criminal. They wanted equal rights for all men and everyone should be treated equally under the law. The punishment must always be strictly in proportion to the seriousness of the crime, it must not be any more or less.

Therefore, more severe crimes meant more severe punishments, and this was therefore hoped to act as a deterrent, as the criminal would see that the costs would outweigh the benefits of committing the crime.

Similarly, most biological theorists believed that punishment for criminals should not be extremely harsh and that rehabilitation instead of deterrence was the way to reduce crime. Some theorists, such as Lombroso, thought that criminals should be provided with treatments to change their ways so that they can become a positive member of society. More recently, it has been thought that this could also be achieved by medication and therapy. But there were some who believed that criminals were beyond reform and should be eliminated to ensure the survival of society which could not be possible when there are too many criminals.

One difference, however, is the fact that classical criminologists strongly believed in the power of deterrence when it comes to crime prevention. Deterrence can be achieved because of the natural fear of people; the fear of the apprehension of the punishment they could potentially receive, but also by other methods such as through the use of neighbourhood watch groups, and vigilance of the community by law-abiding citizens. These will make the idea of committing crimes seem rationally less attractive. The biological perspective, however, is that although punishment may be appropriate to protect society, it will not act as a deterrent. Because criminal tendencies are genetic, committing a crime is beyond their control and so trying to deter them from something they cannot control would be useless.

It can also be said that both the classicist and biological theories are similar in that they have both developed over time.

As the Classical theory was difficult to apply in practice and its flaws began to emerge, it was modified in the early 1800s and became known as the Neo-Classical theory. It modified the original classical principles in the light of positivist thinking and stated that the concept of free will is subject to both physical and social constraints and that humans are not always rational.

“In the neo-classical scheme, man is still held to be accountable for his actions but certain minor reservations are made.”

Therefore, it still argues that most crimes are the result of rational choice, but that exceptions can be made for people who are, for example, mentally ill.

Neo-classicists such as Rossi (1787-1848), Garraud (1849-1930) and Joly (1839-1925) modified the rigorous doctrines of pure Classical theory by revising the doctrine of free will and rationality.

Neo-classicism also brings forward the premise of the modern ‘just desserts’ principle, meaning that even if it does not achieve complete deterrence, society needs to see that criminals are punished in the way that they deserve.

Similarly, work in the biological positivist area also developed relatively quickly, mostly after the time of Lombroso as there is a considerable detachment between recent ideas and the earlier attempts at explaining criminality through biology.

Modern work that has developed from previous principles now has the view that biological factors do seem to have some role in the determination of criminal behaviour, but extent of this role is generally very small, as other factors such as socialisation also play an important role. Biological theories now concentrate more on biological factors in relation to the environment, and are less likely to refer to biological defects or abnormalities.

However, even with the new advances of both theories, neither approach adequately accounts for the connections between the conditions of individual choice, or social conditions and criminal behaviour. In addition, both approaches have failed to deal satisfactorily with inconsistent findings that contradict their principles.

In conclusion, there are several similarities and differences between the classical and the biological theories of crime. They were similar in some ways; both encouraged the idea of less harsh punishments and both have developed and improved over a period of time. But, they were different in other ways; biological theories focused on the individual criminal whereas classical theories focused on the actual crime. Plus, the former encouraged the idea of rehabilitation and the reformation of criminals while the latter believed in deterrence to try to reduce crime.

To some extent, classical criminology may still have relevant importance in the modern day. For example, Classical thought had a great impact on modern justice and ideas such as punishments being appropriate to the crime, which became foundational ideas for ‘modern’ criminal justice systems. In addition, elements of classical principles can be seen in many of the ideas, such as deterrence, that continue to be introduced into our systems especially after the positivist ideas of rehabilitation did not seem to work.

Also, the classical school of criminology still has key significance in the criminal justice system due to the ‘get tough on crime’ policies of the government and the police. However, there are criticisms; criminals rarely think of the consequences when committing crimes, especially ‘crimes of passion’ and so using tougher punishments may not act as a deterrent at all. Therefore, classicist ideology is still used in modern day criminology, even if it has been modified from the original principles, which was mainly because the idea of the rational criminal is rarely heard in the 21st century.

The use of classical ideals can be seen as an advantage for several reasons. First, it simplifies the search for the reasons for crime by assuming that self-interest guides all criminal behaviour. Second, it set up a system that was easy to administer; the sole function of the court is to determine guilt, then an exact penalty was easily given and the reasons or causes of behaviour were mostly ignored.

However, critics noted that treating all people as being able to make rational decisions independent of the influence of others. For example, many decisions to offend appear to be made on impulse without any apparent rational calculations. The classical approach also fails to appreciate the significance of individual differences and dismisses the possible prospect of rehabilitation as well as punishment.

On the other hand, biological theories have less importance in modern criminology, due to many of its assumptions being disregarded.

Biological criminology has been criticised as a poor theory due to the fact that it explains single biological traits as being the direct cause of criminal behaviour. At the time when it first developed as a theory, it may have been possible to believe that a person’s individual biological structure could be the sole cause of their criminality, but many of the studies carried out were later seen to be unreliable and biased pieces of research. All of the methods used by biologists failed to prove that criminality is inherited, perhaps because they cannot separate hereditary influences from environmental influences.

Another disadvantage of this theory is that it attempts to shift definitions of crime away from sociological factors, which may have an important role in determining individual criminal behaviour.

Therefore, it may be said that biological factors are related to criminal behaviour in an indirect way, which is also combined with environmental factors. To some extent, an individual’s genetics does have a role, but the fact that parental upbringing could be another possible cause of criminal tendencies must also be considered.

However, it is possible that there is a value in using biological concepts in criminology as well as adhering to the classical theory, but this would perhaps only be possible if other factors were also taken into account.

At the present, criminology has gathered features from several different theories in order to explain, predict and prevent criminal behaviour. Criminology has come to the point where the contribution of both classical and biological as well as other theories is vital due to the fact that, though they are all very different, they all provide the basis for a cohesive overall approach to addressing the problem of crime.