Over the years, the ideas and theories of criminologists have developed and as new theories have emerged, those surrounding the causes of crime have been widely studied.
Early criminologists adopted a classical gaze, focusing on the crime committed as opposed to the criminal committing it. Beccaria and Bentham were two key role players in the eighteenth century, believing that everyone acts out of their own free will and that most crime is an exploitation of opportunity.They believed in deterrence and that clear laws should be set down so that everyone knew the consequences which would befall them were they to commit a certain crime. The theory was that human beings wished to avoid pain and loss in the pursuit of pleasure and profit and therefore, in order to deter committal of a crime, the punishment (pain) should outweigh the pleasure and gain of committing the crime. Classicism places certain crimes into certain categories and believes very much that human beings have the same free will and therefore the same choices of whether or not to commit a crime.
There was no differentiation between individual criminals and the belief was that everyone should be punished in the same way. In this essay, however, I am going to discuss positivism, so called because it uses the ‘positive application of science’ to try and make sense of crime and criminality within society. I will lay down some of the key theories which have developed from early positivist scientists and try to show how we use these theories to predict and deal with crime and criminality.
In the late nineteenth century, certain key criminologists started to doubt this method of looking at and dealing with crime and criminality. It was during a period when science was progressing extremely quickly and people were beginning to question older theories. This demand for scientific proof, known as determinism, was one of the main reasons that the positivist school of criminology came about. Positivists did not wish to concern themselves with the unproven or the abstract, looking instead for tangible, quantifiable evidence to back up their theories.Instead of focusing on the crime committed and punishing accordingly, positivists wished to study the actual offender and attempt to deduce patterns which could help them to predict and control crime. It was no longer believed that crime was a product of free will and criminologists set about trying to find the determining factors which differentiated those with criminal tendencies form those with none, seeking to explain crime and criminality.
Positivism has two main focuses – the study of hereditary influences, for example bodily features and later on gene types, and the study of how a surrounding environment may influence criminal behaviour. One of the leading figures of positivist criminology of the late nineteenth century was the Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso. He was greatly influenced by the work and findings of Darwin and based much of his work on theories of evolution. Through studying inmates at an Italian prison, he discovered that those with higher criminal tendencies often shared certain facial and bodily characteristics.Following up on this observation, he deduced that these characteristics displayed by the criminals were the same as those that less evolved human beings would have had many years ago. He put forward the theory that criminals were in fact evolutionary throwbacks, and that by identifying these distinguishing abnormalities, for example unusually large facial features, strange or bumpy head shapes and an inability to blush, criminality could be determined and a solution developed for each separate offender or possible offender.This led to a system of classification for criminals, from which several categories were produced including born criminals, insane criminals and criminaloids. Lombroso’s ideas on physiognomy and phrenology became popular in Italy for several reasons.
At the time Italy was experiencing social problems, one of which was lack of prison space and funding. By using Lombroso’s classifications, the option was available for predictions to be made as to which of the offenders posed the greatest threat to society and who was predisposed to commit crime, therefore deserving precious prison space.His theories were also popular with the government as it excused them from dealing with crime, his theories having taken the burden off society and placed them back with the criminal. However, this type of scientific criminology also received criticism. Because of his seemingly reliable classification system, Lombroso often got called to testify at trials.
S. J. Gould said of Lombroso’s testimonies “… we cannot know how many men were condemned unjustly because they were extensively tattooed, failed to blush of had unusually large jaws or arms. 1 This seems to be one of the more substantial arguments against scientific criminology. The fact that some people who have the characteristics associated with criminal deviance will overcome their natural criminal tendencies and be able to live normal lives should not go unnoticed.
The argument here is that not everyone who shares the ‘criminal’ characteristics set down by Lombroso should immediately be classified in the same way.For example, in the early twentieth century a pupil of Lombroso’s named Garofalo was involved with an American movement which took it upon themselves to sterilise thousands of society’s deviants in order to prevent them from reproducing and bringing children who may share the same ‘criminal’ genes into the world. Although this is an extreme case of eugenics, it sparks the idea that in some cases, scientific criminology has been used in an immoral way, depriving people of basic human rights which even if these people are criminals, they are nevertheless entitled to.If Lombroso’s theory that criminals are born bad is to be believed, then it could be said that people with criminal tendencies are in the same way mentally incapacitated. This raises the question of whether it is therefore right to punish offenders as they have no control over what is essentially a disability. Aside from Garofalo, Lombroso had other students who also played a large part in the positivist school of criminology. One student in particular, named Enrico Ferri, was not content to focus merely on the physical appearance and biological background of the criminal.He wanted to widen the study and analyse the effects of social circumstances and upbringing on a possible offender.
By the end of his career, Lombroso’s thinking had evolved to include these factors as well; he concluded that every crime has it’s origin in a multiplicity of causes. Ferri however, studied these causes in more detail and recognised three different sets of factors in crime: those in the physical or geographical environment (the telluric), those in the constitution of the individual (the anthropological) and those in the social environment (the social).His theory, building on Lombroso’s earlier theory that only physical characteristics play a role in developing a criminal, was that “every crime, from the smallest to the most atrocious, is the result of the interaction of these three causes”. 2 Like Lombroso though, he still argued that all crime is involuntary behaviour. He was also one of the pioneers of the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment for the offender and paved the way for some of today’s schemes, for example restorative justice, a scheme in which offenders are made to meet with their victims and come face to face with the consequences of their actions.
He argued against penal systems that stressed only punitive action, recommending crime prevention instead. The work of criminologists like Lombroso and Ferri has played a great part in attempting to prevent crime before it happens. Today, if a child is seen to be ‘at risk’ due to it’s physical surroundings or due to a tendency towards deviant behaviour at a young age, there is a possibility that any future criminal behaviour can be discouraged through counselling or other such constructive treatments.It is far better to be able to predict who may go on to commit a crime and help them before they offend than to wait until it’s too late and they’ve been sent to prison to start rehabilitating them. Lombroso’s theories about protuberances on the head also led later to findings about areas of the brain which are abnormally large in criminals and subsequently to the development of drugs which may be able to control the deviant impulses in the brains of, for example, sex offenders, causing them to no longer have the urge to commit rape.Another criminologist who would disagree with the idea of attempting to cut out crime entirely from a society is Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist who was opposed to scientific and biological criminology in favour of sociological methods of looking at crime.
His theory, which he called anomie, was that the formal rituals of trial and punishment enhanced social solidarity and consolidated moral boundaries. He also believed that as crime is present in all societies without exception, it is to be seen as ‘normal’, and that no society could ever possibly be crime free.His theory was that crime is necessary in order for a society to progress, introducing new ideas and holding its members together. Durkenheim’s work helped bring about the Chicago School of sociology. Two of the men working on these theories, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, made the discovery that crime tends to congregate in certain areas of a city and that delinquent behaviour is ‘culturally transmitted’ from generation to generation.
They also discovered that crime rates are higher in areas with social problems. These findings are important in the way we deal with crime today. Being able to pinpoint where criminal problems lie and do something about them is invaluable to the smoother running of a society. Also, the correlation between crime rates and social problems means that it is possible to tackle these problems by building new facilities for example, and therefore hopefully lowering crime rates.The positivist school of thought has helped society a great deal by laying out certain points, characteristics and patterns which should be looked for when dealing with and attempting to explain crime and criminality. The logic behind the theories gives clear, thought out analysis to what would otherwise be a society where the problem of crime is dealt with in a classical way, paying no attention to the root of the problem and heading straight for punishment instead of a cure for delinquency.Thanks to scientists such as Lombroso and Durkheim we can try and explain why criminals offend and why certain areas of a city or country have higher crime rates than others and although no one criminologist has come up with a faultless theory as to how we should best deal with crime, a combination of scientific and sociological positivist criminology is helping us to learn new techniques in crime prevention and the positive rehabilitation of offenders.