The Enlightenment thinking was the pillar of the classical approach to crime. It introduced a much more rational and fair system for organising punishments and control of crime. It had much less of a focus on the criminal per se and since had little concern with establishing the causes of crime. The main contributors to this school were Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), Rousseau (1712-1778), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), William Blackstone (1723-1780), and Paul Feuerbach (1775-1833). But the focus of this unit will consider the contributions of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. discuss the contribution of Cesare Beccaria to criminology 
  2.  explain the main focus of the classical school 
  3.  state the contribution of Jeremy Bentham to the treatment of offenders. 


3.1 The Classical School of Criminology

The starting point of a discussion of the history of criminology is the concept of the classical tradition in criminology, and the contribution of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794), an Italian legal theorist and humanist, sought for the reform of the judiciary and penal system, which he considered irrational and unfair. His focus was the abolition of torture and capital punishment in protest against the severity of the penal law. His work draws freely from social contract theory that the state resulted from an agreement among society’s members to submit their individual rights voluntarily to the sovereign to rule in order to stabilise social relationship and safeguard individuals’ liberty and preservation of their lives and property. As such, authoritarianism has no place in social contract as the people have the right to overthrow an unjust government and establish a more equitable contract.

The classicists believed that human beings are naturally pleasure loving and would use their free-will (liberty) to choose acts that bring pleasure (hedonism) to them as against those that will bring pain and suffering. It was a basic assumption that criminal behaviour was essentially a rational act, following a deliberate calculation of the relative risk and gain involved. The offenders have a heuristic view that there were a lot of pleasurable outcomes and profit that will result thereof. This is the cost benefit analysis. That is, people are rational beings who engage in any act deliberately knowing the cost benefits. Human actions are not determined by inside or outside “forces” but can be seen as matters of conscious decisions and “free will”. Classical criminology is more interested in penology (societal reaction to law-breaking) than in why people break the laws. 


(i) The Utilitarian Principle

The principle of utilitarianism was derived from the economist notion of “utility”. Utility is defined as that quantity of goods and services, which make a desired usefulness, and satisfaction derived from it. Jeremy Bentham, then postulated that laws should have a “spirit” of utilitarianism, that is, the laws should be made for the greatest happiness for the greatest number in the society. Bentham argued that their violation would open the door to anarchy. He believed that individuals weigh the probabilities of present and future pleasures against those of present and future pains. Thus, people acted as human calculators and they put all factors into a sort of mathematical equation to decide whether or not to commit a crime. That is, if the advantages of criminal acts, for example, are greater than the disadvantages, the probability of the crime will increase.

In order to deter people from law-breaking behaviour, the school advocated punishment painful enough to make such acts painful to criminal. He linked the classical theory of punishment with his utilitarian principle. He believed that utility should be viewed from the perspective of how much pleasure or pains the law generates. According to him, the objective of the law should be to attain, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.

(ii) The Theory of Punishment

Jeremy Bentham, an English reformer was not happy with the legal system in England in the 18th century. He made efforts to oppose the harsh and arbitrary punishment by the state to the accused persons. His main theory was that punishments for crime should not exceed what was necessary to maintain public order. He was against capital punishment and secret trials. To him, the English legal system was barbaric and ineffective. He maintains that a punishment involving brutality is unnecessary because it produces more pain than satisfaction. He became interested in equality before the law. A criminal law should be clear, so that all could know and understand it. The accused should be given adequate time and resources for his defence. Punishment should be quick, certain, and commensurate with the crime committed. He believes that the law exists to create happiness for all, thus since punishment creates unhappiness it can be justified if it prevents greater evil than it produces.

His assumptions about punishments were:

  1.  the punishment should be commensurate with the seriousness of the wrong, that is, the punishment should be more than the pleasure derived…
  2.  indeterminate sentences should be abolished. Particular crimes merit particular punishments, and offenders should know what they would get. In other words, the given punishment should not be more than is necessary to deter the offence
  3.  sentencing discretion should be sharply reduced. A system of standardised penalties should be introduced. There should be no discrimination and discretion. 

The most significant of the classical thought was the idea of free-will. The concept of free-will is central to commit crime .The individual is believed to be rational and has the ability to choose between right and wrong, pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness; and so on. The

classicists established that punishment should be designed to fit the crime committed .Its points of departure is the juridical definition of crime rather than the criminal behaviour.


How does the Bentham’s Utilitarian Principle address the theory of punishment?

3.1.1 The Neo-Classical Model

The main proponents of the neo-classical thought are Vanden Haag and R. Bayer. The neo-classical school did not agree with the idea that human beings are naturally pleasure-loving animals who use their free-will to choose acts that will bring pleasure to them or for the purpose of maximising pleasure. According to them children, the insane, imbeciles, and morons cannot be said to exercise free-will rationally because of their defective mental ability. So they cannot be held responsible for any act they committed against the law of the land. That is, they believed that it would be an act of injustice if these set of people are administered punishment in the same category like the normal adult offender.
The point of contention to the neo-classicist is that the classical school erred in the idea of a blanket punishment for the criminals. They therefore attempt to fill the gaps left by the classical school. The neo-classical school believes that extenuating circumstances should be taken into consideration before punishing a criminal. They maintained that punishment should therefore be based on full or partial responsibility, considering such conditions as the insane, imbeciles, and morons because of their defective mental ability. Therefore, it is impossible for this group of people to exercise free-will in committing crime.


The historical development of criminology started with the classical school which grew out of a protest against the barbaric nature of the criminal justice system of the eighteenth century Europe. They demanded that punishment should fit the crime committed. The central theme of the classical school was the idea of free-will. The neo-classical thoughts attempted to fill a gap left by the classical school in the administration of justice to the accused person.


The classical school was not interested in studying criminals, but rather law-making and legal processes. We learnt that the school believes that crime was as a result of total free-will. Beccaria also held the view of the rational nature of human beings, the ability to choose and control their actions. Free-will is a psychological reality; people freely enter a social contract with the state to preserve peace and the consensus: a pleasure-pain motivation.


Examine the contributions of both Beccaria and Bentham in the administration of justice at the classical traditions of criminology.


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