Classical criminology was established in the mid-eighteenth century and came to the forefront by the theories of Cesare Beccaria. Beccaria based his theories on a philosophy known as utilitarianism, which assumes that human actions are governed by whether they bring pleasure or pain. Utilitarianism emphasized that, the relationship between crimes and their punishment should be balanced and that behavior must be useful, purposeful and reasonable. From this evaluation, Beccaria and other classic criminologists believed that crime is a rational choice that could be controlled by criminal punishments.
Classical criminology theory established several basic elements. (1) People in society have free will to choose criminal or conventional solutions to meet their needs or settle their problems. (2) Criminal solutions may be more attractive than conventional ones because they usually require less work for greater payoff. (3) A person’s choice of criminal solutions may be controlled by fear of society’s reaction to such acts. (4)
The more severe, certain and swift the reaction, the better it can control criminal behavior. (5) The most efficient crime prevention device is punishment sufficient to make crime an unattractive choice. As a result of these early findings in classical criminology the choice theory or rational choice theory emerged unquestioned until the rise of positivism and criminology came together in the nineteenth century.
Positivism challenged the classical theories of criminology and suggested that crime can be related to social conditions of the offenders. Positivists based their beliefs on two main elements. (1) Human behavior is a function of external forces that are beyond individual control. (2) The scientific method was key to solving problems. With these theories of sociology in mind, sociological criminology came to light with the work of Adolphe Quetlet.
Quetlet began to look at the social factors such as age, sex and seasons and how they related to the propensity to commit crimes. Quetlet’s most important finding was that social forces were significantly associated with crime rates. In relation to criminality, Quetlet suggested that crime rates were greatest in summer months, in southern areas, among heterogeneous populations, and among the poor and uneducated and were influenced by drinking habits (Siegel).
Another prominent sociologist, Emile Durkheim, expanded this view with his vision of social positivism. Durkheim believed that crime was part of human nature because it existed at every age in both poverty and prosperity. Durkheim went on to suggest that crime was on occasion healthy for society to experience because it could often lead to social change.