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Posted: January 26th, 2021

Classical Criminology: The Contemporary Take on Crime, Economics, Deterrence, and the Rational Choice Perspective

Classical Criminology: The Contemporary Take on Crime, Economics, Deterrence, and the Rational Choice Perspective

Classical criminology is a school of thought that emerged in the 18th century during the Enlightenment. It was based on the idea that people are rational beings who have free will and can make choices about their actions. Classical criminologists argued that crime is a result of a cost-benefit analysis, where individuals weigh the potential benefits and risks of committing a crime. They also advocated for a system of criminal justice that is fair, proportional, and swift, in order to deter future crimes and protect the social contract.

However, classical criminology has been criticized for being too simplistic, abstract, and unrealistic. It does not account for the social, psychological, biological, and environmental factors that may influence criminal behavior. It also assumes that all people have equal access to information, opportunities, and resources, and that they share the same values and goals. Moreover, it does not explain why some people commit crimes despite the presence of effective deterrence measures.

In response to these limitations, contemporary criminologists have developed various theories that build on or modify the classical perspective. Some of these theories are:

– Rational choice theory: This theory maintains that crime is a product of rational decision-making, but it also recognizes that people’s choices are influenced by their personal preferences, situational factors, and constraints. Rational choice theory suggests that crime can be prevented or reduced by increasing the costs or reducing the benefits of criminal behavior, as well as by providing alternative options and incentives for law-abiding behavior.

– Deterrence theory: This theory focuses on how the certainty, severity, and celerity (speed) of punishment affect people’s perceptions of the risks and consequences of crime. Deterrence theory argues that crime can be deterred by making the punishment more certain, severe, and swift than the rewards of crime. However, deterrence theory also acknowledges that some people may be more or less deterred by different types of sanctions, depending on their personal characteristics and circumstances.

– Routine activity theory: This theory explains how crime is influenced by the availability of suitable targets, the absence of capable guardians, and the presence of motivated offenders. Routine activity theory suggests that crime can be prevented or reduced by altering the routine activities of people and places, such as by increasing surveillance, security, and guardianship, or by reducing exposure, attractiveness, and accessibility of potential victims and valuables.

These theories demonstrate how classical criminology has evolved and adapted to the changing realities of crime and society. They also provide useful insights and implications for criminal justice policy and practice. By understanding how people make choices about crime and how these choices are affected by various factors, criminologists can design more effective strategies to prevent or control crime.


– Beccaria C., On Crimes and Punishments (1764), trans. by H. Paolucci (1963), Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
– Bentham J., An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), ed. by J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart (1970), London: Athlone Press.
– Clarke R.V., Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (1997), Albany: Harrow and Heston.
– Cohen L.E. & Felson M., ‘Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach’ (1979) 44 American Sociological Review 588-608.
– Cornish D.B. & Clarke R.V., I need help writing a page essay The Reasoning Criminal: Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending (1986), New York: Springer-Verlag.
– Paternoster R., ‘How Much Do We Really Know About Criminal Deterrence?’ (2010) 100 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 765-823.
– Zimring F.E. & Hawkins G., Deterrence: The Legal Threat in Crime Control (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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