The Classical School vs. The Positive School

8 August 2016

During the mid and late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, as countries began to urbanise, crimes rates skyrocketed and punishments for crimes became severe. With many judicial systems becoming corrupted, the need for societal reform during this time was growing. The changes that were slowly brought about are strongly linked with the roots of modern criminal schools. Two major schools of thought have both significantly led to the development of today’s modern criminology: the classical school and the positivist school.

Cesare Beccaria, “one of the first scholars to develop [an] understanding of why people commit crime,” is a notable theorist whose theories lead to the development of the classical school, which focused more on the individual and the belief that only that individual was responsible for their actions, not that an outside source could have influenced their behaviour (Siegel 9). The positivist school believes “that heredity can make criminal behaviour unavoidable or inevitable” for some individuals (The Positive School).

The Classical School vs. The Positive School Essay Example

Although the classical school began emerging during the eighteenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that criminology gained respect as a valid scientific field of study; when the positivist school attempted to “use the scientific method to conduct research” on the causes of crime (Siegel 10). Both the classical and positive schools include the observation of behaviour from which theories on what causes the behaviours were developed.

With their proposed theories of human behaviour, each school sought to change the judicial system and sentencing of individuals who had been involved in criminal acts. The main idea shared by theorists in both schools of thought “involved isolating and correcting the specific [defects] that lead to his or her criminal behaviour,” and the need for a punishment that specifically fit the individual or the crime (Holms 17). Both advocated for a consistency and a levelling in the severity of punishments based on the severity of the criminal act.

Even though many of the early philosophies have been discredited as greater scientific knowledge and medical research has become available to criminologists, the importance of their initial inclinations towards seeking punishments that fit the offenders rather than the offences still remains as a basic tenet of the current criminal justice system. Though observation of human behaviour was at the heart of each school, there were major differences within the methods through which human behaviour was observed and analysed.

The beliefs of classical criminologists “explained that the criminal justice system drastically needed to be modernized and improved” and the need for a balance between the criminal acts and the corresponding punishments; whereas, the positivists paid more attention to how biological and environmental aspects could affect criminal tendencies (The History of Criminology). Even with the changes in the judicial system, which the classicalists were able to bring about, “crime rates continued to increase,” (Holmes 16).

This proved that some criminal behaviour could not be deterred through severe punishments alone, thus changing the direction of thought of what leads to deviant actions. This change in thinking along with the discovery of the applicability of the scientific method when observing human nature led to the emergence of the positivist school of thought. The positivists initially sought to identify specific and irrefutable indicators that would determine whether an individual would be more likely to commit criminal acts, hence the development of the practice of phrenology and physiognomology.

While the classicalists stressed the importance of the prevention of crime, positivists looked more at the function of the mind and wanted to gain an understanding of what leads an individual to commit a crime. The basic difference between the two schools is that the classical school focuses on fixing the system while the positive school focuses on fixing the individual. Positivists advocated for “rehabilitation” for criminals after gaining an understanding of the social and biological affects, an idea that is still “part of the current criminal justice system,” (Holmes 17).

The classical school of thought and the positive school of thought have both largely affected the modern criminal justice system. Although the classical school and the positive school almost completely opposed one another on methodology and techniques for analysing crime, they both brought about much needed reform to the judicial system and allowed new methods and practices to also emerge. Both have been building blocks for the understanding of criminal behaviour and today we have a marriage of the two schools of thought.

Modern criminologists understand that appropriate punishments do deter most individuals, however, individuals with certain personality types, or sociopathic personality disorders, will continue to engage in criminal activity, regardless of the severity of the punishments. The ground-work laid by the positive school movement gave criminologists an understanding that environmental factors and personality development of criminals in order to understand how to deal appropriately with individuals for whom normal punishments are not a deterrent.

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