The history of criminology as a discipline of study often starts with influential figures such as Beccaria and Lombroso. I will provide a basic introduction and account of criminology’s history which begins with the writings of criminal law reformers in the 18th century, particularly in the work of Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham and John Howard. These writers draw upon the Enlightenment ideals and characterize the offender as a rational free willed actor who engages in crime in a calculated way and is responsive to the deterrent penalties that these reformers advocated.
The classical school of criminology is then challenged in the late 19th century by writers of the positivist school, which typically includes the writings of Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri and Francis Galton, who adopted a more scientific empirical approach to the subject and investigated the criminal using the techniques of psychiatry; anthropology and other new human sciences. The positivist school claimed to have discovered the existence of criminal types whose behaviour was determined rather than chosen, and for whom treatment rather than punishment was appropriate.
Until the 18th century, before the emergence of criminology, supernatural explanations of crime were widely held to be true. In ancient and medieval times, it was assumed that people who acted in deviant ways did so because God was testing their faith, punishing them, or using their behaviour to warn others. Or else they were seen as sinners who had fallen from God’s grace and were tempted or even possessed by the devil or other evil forces.
As outdated as this notion is, many people still believe in Satan and demonic possession. Historical data indicate that millions of witches were tortured and executed for the alleged practice of witchcraft. Methods of torture were many. Victims were deprived of sleep, crushed by heavy weights, forced to bathe in boiling water, forced to eat salted herring and then deprived water. Needles were driven into the quick of nails, ands and feet were cut off, flesh was torn from the breasts, eyes were gouged out. Burning was often deemed necessary to destroy the witch entirely and evoke the image of hell as the final resting place for the unpurged sinners.
The ritual application of pain was the standard mode of punishment during the Middle Ages. Torture was considered appropriate for both exorcising evil spirits and extracting confessions. Sometimes the accused had the opportunity to be acquitted of the charges by undergoing a trial by ordeal, a process designed to elicit divine intervention from the innocent. In one ordeal, the accused was required to dip his bare hands in a cauldron of boiling water to find a small pebble.
The hand was then wrapped in cloth, sealed with a signet of a judge, and unwrapped three days later. If the hand was healed, the individual would be declared innocent. In another ordeal the accused was forced to walk over red-hot iron ploughshares; if no injury occurred, acquittal would follow. In ordeals such as these, it was assumed that God would intervene to protect the innocent.
It is against this backdrop of superstition and cruelty that modern classical criminology emerged to offer new ways of thinking and dealing with crime. The classical criminologists were part of the eighteenth century European movement known as the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. The Enlightenment philosophers believed that humanity need not rely on religious authority to govern its affairs. Rational thought or reason could be used instead to develop principles of morality and justice.
Individuals could agree to enter into a social contract whereby they would surrender some of their individuality and submit themselves to governmental control in exchange for protection of the common good and the maintenance of natural liberties and rights.
Beccaria’s work also spoke of human beings having free will. Their actions are not simply determined by outside forces but can be seen as matters of free decisions. The idea of punishment as deterrent – rational beings will choose not to commit crimes if the punishment fits the crime. Utilitarianism – laws useful to the greatest number should be observed. Jeremy Bentham argued that their violation would open the door to anarchy.
At the heart of classical thought were ideas on the nature of punishment. Punishments could deter only if they were proportional to the crime. Proportionality means (1) that the severity of punishments corresponds to the severity of the harm done by the crime, so that more serious crimes receive more serious punishments and (2) that the type of punishment resembles the crime, so that others in society can best associate the punishment with the crime.
Punishment should be essentially public, prompt, necessary, proportionate to the crime and dictated by laws.