Criminology | Section 3.1

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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The Nasty, Brutish, and Short Era

Two people are the best-known example of the ideas of this period.  These eighteenth-century writers were Cesare Beccaria in Italy and Jeremy Bentham in England.  Both were utilitarian social philosophers—primary concerns were penal and legal reform, not theory development.  Their writings outline a theory of crime that remains important today.

To understand where the Utilitarians were coming from, it is important to think of how things were back in those days.  The justice system of that day was arbitrary, biased, and capricious.  Torture, coerced confessions, and cruel punishments such as whipping, public hanging, and mutilation were common.  The classical criminologists were interested in developing a philosophical rationale for making the legal system more rational and fair.  They promoted reforms that many of the leading intellectuals of the day were advocating.  These ideas fit in well with the growth of democratic governments such as the one in the United States.  Many of the ideas such as speedy trials and doing away with cruel and unusual punishment were incorporated into the United States Constitution.

According to the utilitarian philosophy, there were three elements to deterrence:

  1. Certainty of Punishment
  2. Celerity of Punishment
  3. Severity of Punishment

A basic principle of the utilitarian philosophy is that people take actions based on the exercise of free will—including crimes.  That is, people make choices.  This decision is made based on a balancing act between the pleasure derived from the act and the potential pain of punishment.  If they believe that the legal penalty threatens more pain that the probable gain produced by the criminal act, then they will not commit the act.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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