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Neoclassical Criminology: School & Theory

Neoclassical Criminology: School & Theory
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  • 4:12 Routine Activities Theory
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Swan

Robert has taught college-level criminal justice courses and has a Masters degree in Criminology and a Doctorate in Public Policy.

Neoclassical criminology is a school of thought that is defined by a number of different theories. In this lesson, you will gain an introductory understanding of neoclassical criminology and its primary theoretical assumptions about crime and punishment.

A Look at the Neoclassical School of Criminology

Imagine that you have been out of work for six months and are running low on money. You are sitting on the bus and traveling to a job interview. A woman sitting next to you has placed her purse on the floor of the bus. In that purse, you see a large amount of cash. It is within easy reach, and you notice that the woman is distracted by a conversation she is having with the bus driver. Your stop is coming up next. What would you choose to do?

Did you choose to take the money? Why or why not?

If you chose to take the money, you would have committed a crime. In criminology, we are interested in studying this type of behavior. Some people might argue that you simply made a decision to steal because you needed the money, the money was easy to take, and the risk of getting caught was low. Simply, it was a rational decision.

But, is there more to it than that? Neoclassical criminologists think so.

Neoclassical criminology can be defined, simply, as a school of thought that assumes criminal behavior as situationally dynamic and individually-determined. Neoclassical theories of crime assert that deterring, reducing, or eliminating crime can occur through stricter child-rearing practices, enhanced punishments, and/or an increase in surveillance and security. Neoclassical thought is typically linked to politically conservative crime control policies. This is primarily because these theories advocate for an increase in more aggressive forms of policing, zero-tolerance parole and probation practices, and increased prison sentences for all crimes.

Throughout the remainder of this lesson, we will explore the basic theoretical assumptions of the neoclassical school of criminology and its potential to help us understand criminal behavior and appropriate punishment responses. You will also be given an example of neoclassical thought by exploring the assumptions of routine activities theory.

Neoclassical Criminology: School and Theory

A school of thought in criminology is made up of a number of theoretical perspectives, each of which are closely related in that they share, to some degree, similar underlying assumptions. Perhaps the most important assumption that neoclassicists share is that criminal behavior is a rational choice. The rational choice perspective assumes that all human beings have free will, they know all of their choice options, and will make choices that maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Neoclassicical theories minimize or ignore other factors, such as historical oppression, blocked opportunities, and poverty. Neoclassical theorists place the blame for committed crimes soley on the individuals, rather than on environmental factors.

Crime, then, is a result of people making a calculated choice to maximize pleasure while avoiding the pain of punishment. However, neoclassical theorists do not assume that everyone will make a decision to commit a crime. The decision to commit a crime hinges on a number of individual and situational factors.

Neoclassical Theories and Rational Choice

Neoclassical theorists draw much of their inspiration from the rational choice theory. Indeed, even the most complex neoclassical theories assume that people can and will make a choice to not commit a crime if the reward is low and punishment is likely to be swift, sure, and harsh.

However, neoclassical theorists do not hypothesize that all people may commit a crime if it is rational to do so. Rather, they understand that some types of motivated offenders choose to commit crime based on the opportunities available to them in relation to their individual attributes, skills, and interest.

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