The Classical School of Criminology & Its Influence Today

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  • 0:04 Criminology
  • 1:10 Classical School
  • 3:58 Modern Influence
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Our judicial system is complex, and it's based on principles of crime and punishment that have been around for centuries. In this lesson, we'll explore the classical school of criminology and the five basic tenets of that form, which are its cornerstone.


Jordan is very interested in why people commit crimes and what should be done to punish them. Should torture be legal? What is the purpose of jail time and other punishments?

Criminology, or the study of crime and punishment, attempts to answer Jordan's questions and many more. There are many different schools of thought regarding crime. A long time ago, from the Roman days to the middle ages, punishment was about getting even with the criminal, and it could be very harsh. Torture was common during much of ancient history.

But during the second half of the 17th century, a new movement known as the Enlightenment period began. Like Jordan, people in the Enlightenment were interested in crime and what the best punishment should be.

From the Enlightenment came a school of thought known as the classical school of criminology, which emphasizes the ideas that people make choices to commit crime and that punishment should be about preventing future crimes from being committed. Let's look closer at the classical school of criminology, including its influence on modern law.

Classical School

Jordan is interested in criminology, and he's heard that things before the Enlightenment were pretty bad for criminals and people suspected of being criminals. But he's still not quite sure what the classical school of criminology is about.

To understand the classical school, Jordan's teacher tells him to remember the five key principles of the classical school of criminology. They are:

1. Rationality: The classical school assumes that people have free will and that they choose to commit crimes. For example, if Jordan decides to steal some candy at the store, he is not forced to, based on some pre-destiny. He chooses to steal that candy. Not only that, he thinks about it beforehand and says to himself, 'I really want candy, and I don't have money, so I will steal it.' This is the rational thinking that goes into his planning to commit a crime.

2. Hedonism: The classical school also assumes that people seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. For example, when Jordan looks at the candy in the store, he thinks about how it will bring him pleasure, so he steals it.

3. Punishment: Remember how we said that a key idea was the idea of hedonism, where people seek pleasure and try to avoid pain? Well, that informs punishment, according to the classical school. For example, if Jordan thinks about stealing the candy and then realizes that he could go to jail for it, he might not steal it because he'll be trying to avoid the pain of jail. In this way, the classical school of criminology believes that punishment works as a deterrent to crime.

4. Human rights: Jordan has learned that before the classical school of criminology, punishments could be very harsh indeed. It was not uncommon to torture someone who was only suspected of a crime, and the punishments once convicted could be horrifying.

According to the classical school of criminology, all individuals have rights, and society needs to respect the rights of individuals. That means that they should not torture or institute punishment that is unreasonably harsh. For example, if Jordan gets caught stealing the candy, we wouldn't expect that his punishment would involve cutting his hand off. That seems a little extreme!

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