Positivist approaches to crime

Compare And Contrast The Classicist And Biological Positivist Approaches To Crime

This paper will look at the classicist and biological positivist approaches to crime comparing each approach and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. In the late eighteenth century a large body of theory known as the enlightenment began to emerge that led to the beginnings of classical criminology. Until this time criminals were considered sinners and punishment was needed to remove the devil from their soul. The religious law was being used by the powerful against the poor and the law offered the accused little protection. Confessions were often extracted by torture and punishments were cruel and unreasonable (Williams 2008).

One of the main writers of the classical approach was Cesare Beccaria who thought that crime could be traced to bad laws, not bad people. Beccaria highlighted the need for a criminal justice system to guarantee equal treatment of all people. Beccaria's 1764 essay On Crimes and Punishment presented a new criminal justice system that served all people.Beccaria believed that pain and suffering was a natural part of human condition and that what controls the behaviour is the strength of character, although natural forces may influence the self control, the will in certain actions is free to choose. The most important means of controlling behaviour is fear, particularly the fear of punishment or pain. This could be used for keeping the actions of people under control they could then be directed to make the correct choices. Beccaria argued that since the state had the right to punish behaviour that it ought to do so in an organised manner which included the law enforcements, courts and correctional practices (Dr Cecil Geek 2005).

Beccaria accepted the beliefs of his era instead of developing new explanations for criminal behaviour; he looked to rationalize punishment and was opposed to allowing judges the broad discretion that they enjoyed. He believed that the principal role of the justice system is to decide upon the guilt of the offender and that a system of criminal justice would be based on a scale of crimes and punishments. The severity of the crime for which an offender is punished must be based upon the actual act committed, not the level of intent involved. For a rational system of criminal justice to work, punishments must be certain, swift and proportional. The goal was to ensure that the benefits of crime never outweighed the pain from punishments. It required that all offenders be punished as the more criminals who escaped punishment the less the impact on the minds of others contemplating such behaviour. It was important for punishment to be swift because if punishment was left to long after the offence occurred it would lessen the deterrent effect on future criminality.Beccarria's emphasis on proportionality led him to oppose the use of the death penalty apart from the most serious crimes as capital punishment would have no impact if it was used for minor offences.Beccaria however, was not the only scholar in his time to consider these issues Jeremy Bentham( 1748-1832) also argued that punishment should be a deterrent and he too explained behaviour as a result of free will and hedonistic calculus(Dr Cecil Geek 2005).

Positivist explanations of criminal behaviour began to emerge becoming influential causing the theory of the classicists to fade away. However, most modern criminal justice systems have never rejected free will explanations of criminal behaviour. The classicist theory has offered an interesting explanation of crime and has contributed to the development of criminology today. The classical theory exists today within our society legislators make the laws by which the judges are bound. These laws are required to sentence criminals, without punishing an individual without good reason. Individuals are not sentenced based upon the cause of their actions, but on the nature of the crime that was committed. The criminal justice system may not be in place today without the work of Beccaria and the death penalty may still be legal in Britain. What is interesting about classical thinking is that it has the largest history of any contemporary criminological theory but still continues to be a major influence. (Williams 2008)

Critics have attacked the work of classicists by arguing that all sorts of people and activities were being controlled and removed from society such as drunkards, the mentally ill, the poor immigrants, those moving from one parish to another, prostitutes, those suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, petty offenders and hardened criminals. More importantly, all this imprisonment had been seen to control the dangerous classes who were the very poor who others perceived as posing a threat to law and order. It is argued that if the punishment for the crime does not act as a deterrent, an attempt to address the cause of an act must be explored. The classical theorists had deliberately ignored the differences between individuals' first offenders and the repeat offenders were treated exactly alike and solely on the basis of the particular act that had been committed. Children, people with learning difficulties and the people with mental health issues were all treated as if they were fully rational and competent(Hopkins Burke 2009). The classical theory ignores the many social and psychological factors that affects people's actions and maintains that criminal behaviour is freely chosen (Conway 2000).