Classical school of criminology the rational choice theory and its application in the criminal justice environment today

Criminology arose in mid eighteenth century, when a group of social philosophers evaluated crime using the concepts and principles of law and justice. Since then, many schools of thought have emerged and developed on the subject of criminology (Cornish, Clarke, 1987).The classical school of criminology represents a very broad label comprising of a set of philosophers of crime who studied law and crime to develop a theory that has since gained popularity in the whole world. One such theory of crime is the theory of classicism which was initially proposed by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.

This theory has since been developed by other philosophers (although holding on to the same concept as Bentham and Beccaria) who studied Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Benthams work to come up with the Rational Theory of Choice in Criminology (Jrank organization, 2010).This theory is also referred to as the theory of classicism since it follows the ideas of classical theorists. Classical school of criminology aims at identifying, examining and explaining the reasons as to why people commit crime, that is, the central factors responsible for motivating the occurrence of criminal acts. The theory was however replaced by the other criminological schools of thought such as Chicago and Positivist, only to regain its popularity in the 1970s through the works of James Wilson and Gary Becker on crime and punishment (Montada, 1998). This paper will discuss the classism approach of classical criminology by providing a detailed evaluation and critique of the theory of rational choice in criminology.

Rational choice and classicism
Rational choice in criminology refers to the decision by an individual to commit a particular crime (Montada, 1998). In philosophy, rationality refers to the system of thought that stresses on the role of personal reasoning and the power of an individual in decision making.  This implies that rational choice theory entails the absolute and independent reasoning and decision making by and individual (Prein, Blossfeld, 1998). Classicism on the other hand refers to the view of criminality and crime as a study that is underpinned through the concept of free will and rational action. Classicism emphasizes that that an individuals self interests are always put first (Pelovangu, 2010).

The origin and development of the theory
The rational choice theory of criminology is also referred to as the classical theory of criminology. It is one of the principal schools of criminology. The theory originated from philosophical utilitarianism in the eighteenth century. Rational choice sprung from earlier experimental collections of theories surrounding the experiential findings of various scientific researches into the mechanisms of the human nature (APSU, n.d.). The rational choice theory thus emerged after classical theory regained popularity in the early 1970s. During this time, a certain political scientist, James Wilson pointed out that efforts ought to be made so as to minimize opportunity of crime through deterring the potential criminals as well as incarcerating the known criminals (Valencia, 2010).

Cesare Beccaria is the father of the choice theory. He wrote on the subject of punishment and the consequences of punishment on criminality and criminal behavior. In his theory, punishment was supposed to have four major objectives. The first objective is to prevent all crime and criminal offences. Secondly, if punishment cannot prevent all crime, then it ought to convince the wrong doer to engage in a lesser criminal activity. Third objective should make sure that an offender never uses additional force than what is called for. Finally, the last objective entails preventing all crime as reasonably cheap as possible (Prein, Blossfeld, 1998).

The rational choice theory in criminology principle concepts of the theory
The major contributors in the classical school of criminology are Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. These two philosophers shared a common belief that criminal tendencies and behavior can be controlled and understood as a product of human nature which is shared by all people. In their view, people were assumed to be completely hedonistic, acting according to their personal interests, while at the same time able to consider the course of action which was truly in their own interest (Bolcke, 2010). The classical school of criminology held that the best deterrent for unlawful and criminal actions would be quick punishment instead of the long trials. They argued that individuals who committed crime and broke laws acted out of irritation were not aware of which action would be to their best interest or the societys best interest (Bolcke, 2010).

The theory sees a human being as a rational being whose own acts are chosen freely. When faced with alternative courses of actions, the individual will evaluate the benefits versus the risks of all the alternatives and then chose the one which, according to his view, will maximize his own pleasure and minimize pain (Jrank, 2010). The principal underlying concepts of the theory suggest that since people are capable of choosing all kinds of behavior they engage in, inclusive of criminal behavior, their choices can thus be controlled through the fear of punishment the more certain, swift, and severe the administered punishment, the higher is the capability of controlling criminal behavior (Valencia, 2000).

Rational choice is a decision to carry out a given kind of a criminal act, as well as a matter of purposive individual decision making which is based on assessing the existing information. The proponents of rational choice perceive crime as both offender -and offense specific. Offense-specific criminal actions imply that the offender reacts selectively to the distinctiveness of certain particular offenses. On the other hand, offender-specific offenses imply that offenders are not just simply driven individuals who for some reason commit crimes randomlyprior to deciding to engage in any antisocial behavior, the criminals examine whether they are in possession of the prerequisites for carrying out a crime. These prerequisites include the fears, the needs and the skills amongst others (Arkers, 1990).

The classical theorists held that while criminal behavior is an individuals personality trait, crime is an event. According to one of the choice theorists, people who prefer crime to conformity have several personal traitsthey distinguish between lack of societal constraints and liberty of movement, they usually have lesser self-control compared to other people in the society, they are not affected by the fear of societal controls, they are typically under stress or undergoing certain serious personal difficulties which oblige them to take up the risky antisocial behavior (Valencia, 2010).

According to the studies done by these rational choice theorists, the decision by a person to engage in criminal activity (not considering the substance) is planned using the option of where the offense happens, the characteristic features of the specific target in addition to the means of achievement available. These studies showed that most criminals usually choose the place where the crime will happen depending on the likelihood of being caught in the act (Valencia, 2010).

Everyday activities also constitute an element of rational choice theory. The rates of crime match with the total number of the motivated criminals. Motivated criminals include teenage males, unemployed adults and drug users who. Most criminals articulate that they engage in crimes for the reason that they believed legitimate chances were not available to individuals with their inadequate background and education. Motivated criminals never commit criminal acts unless they feel their targets are both suitable and available. To summarize the rational choice theory, an individuals rational choice entails both the structuring of the crime and shaping of the criminality (Valencia, 2010).

Validity of the rational choice theory in criminology
The rational choice theory stands out among the strongest theories that explain crimes causation. It illustrates a broad scope since almost all forms of crimes drug abuse, violence, theft and many otherscan be explained using the rational choice theory. For instance, burglary and robbery illustrate crimes which are done to benefit the criminal economically either by selling or trading them. Crimes such as murder and rape display a clear, premeditated, rational decision making process by the offender. Rational thinking and choice is evident in the criminals choice of the time, place, victim and location of the planned crime (Momtada, 1998).

A study carried out to investigate rational choice against tax evasion and shoplifting crimes found out that the apparent likelihood of being punished and apprehended prevented countless people from engaging in the crimes despite the high expected economic benefits. In another study, that was aimed at investigating the rationality of individuals involved in sex offenses sixty nine sex offenders who had been imprisoned in Canada described the hunting processes they engaged in before determining a suitable victim, as well as the attack methods they used before and during the events (Cornish, Clarke, 1987). More so, most criminals, especially those who engage in robbery and burglary, murder and rape use disguises so that the victim will not recognize them. This simply illustrates that the criminal had earlier on planned and prepared himself to commit the crime. These are clear evidences of the conscious decisions and intentions of criminals when carrying out criminal activities this is the key argument of the rational choice theory (Jrank organization, 2010).

Criticisms of the theory
Although the arguments of the rational choice theory have been quite influential in criminal justice and law policy, a number of criticisms have however been presented by the opponents of this theory. To begin with, some critical authors such as Norris and Coleman argue that the postulation that all individuals are equal in the eyes of law and capable of making uniformly rational choices and decisions is flawed. For instance, the mentally ill, the children and other groups of people who cannot be able to form logical, rational and free willed choices cannot make similarly equal rational choices as compared to other demotic individuals (Pelovangu, 2010).

The rational choice theory has also been criticized on the basis that it usually over emphasizes on the individual free will and choice and it excludes certain social factors like underprivileged childhood, unfavorable living conditions, poverty and broken families. This leads to exaggeration of the choice of an individual in criminality since all these factors are known for compelling people into criminality even without their free will (Bruce, 1999). The most interesting criticism of the rational choice theory is perhaps the argument by Arkers, that it may breed a fortress society where everyone is locked in his or her homes to prevent crime. This is for the reason that Arkers considers that the theory accepts crime as a necessary evil in the society that cannot be eliminated (Arkers, 1990).

Other opponents have criticized the theory on the basis of its scope, whereby they point out that the theory is extremely wide in scope which makes it tautological. They also consider the theory to be somewhat thrifty for the reason that even though it states that a criminal will carry out a criminal act based on rational choice and free will, there are other various factors that the criminal may have to consider before making a decision whether or not to risk breaking the law (Bruce, 1999). If persons make absolutely rational based on calculated assessment of individual and situational factors, how would this theory give explanations regarding crimes of passion For instance, a husband (in this case a military army man) who comes home from work and finds his spouse in their bed with a different man could not have probably had adequate time between pulling out the gun and immediately shooting either or both of the victims, to reasonably (rationally) think and evaluate the consequences and benefits of such an action (Prein, Blossfeld, 1998).

This theorys foundation is the personal decision-making model which proposes that a criminal act would be carried out if the economic benefits seem larger than the consequences or risk to the law breaker. If this be the case, for what grounds do individuals join gangs Plainly, some crimes which members of a gang engage in usually profit the gang jointly but not directly personal benefits or interestsfor example drug dealing and hustling. However, engaging in some other gang -linked activities, like enduring beatings for initiation, would augment a members susceptibility to violence and crime and hence not profit the person at all. For majority of the members, these gangs are never individually advantageous, whether physically or economically therefore disagree with the fundamental concepts of rational choice theory (Prein, Blossfeld, 1998).

Rational choice theory also suffers from difficulties in being properly researched. It is not simple to describe or define and put into operation the key variables in the theory. For instance, how can one possibly define a potential offenderwho in the society can easily be pointed out as a potential offender Another variable that show diverse relatively in the theory include suitable targets. How likely can it be for a person to define what is meant by a suitable target, considering the great variations in ways of life by male versus female, age groups and ethnic groups (APSU, n.d.). The rational choice theory is a complete theory on crime prevention. It effortlessly assists us with the three Ds of crime deterrence which include deter, delay and detect. However the theory does not subsist to fulfill its guarantee of being the complete crime theory regarding where, when, and in what circumstances criminal activity is likely to take place (APSU, n.d.).

Application of the rational choice theory in the current criminal justice environment
The rational choice perceptive provides a practical framework for evaluating offense control policies the theory offers a wide range of practical explanations of the causations of criminal activates in the society. There is certainly no other theory besides rational choice in criminology that has been more applicable in the execution of justice in the society. In contemporary criminal justice environment, the variables and ideas of the rational choice theory have been applied in many ways to evaluate the nature of human criminal behavior and to determine the deterrent methods of administering justice to the criminal as well as the offended party or the society (Cornish, Clarke, 1987).

To begin with, the original proponents of the theory, Beccaria and Bentham held that punishment is the necessary application of justice and law for a criminal act a crime commit should be matched with an equal punishment to the offender as means of justice to the offended party, the society and even the offender. Today, the imprisonments, rehabilitation and other forms of penalties on crime are administered by many judicial systems in the world as a means of deterrent for criminal activity. They represent direct modes of administering punishment to reduce crime or completely eliminate further commission of criminal activity, such as through the rehabilitation of criminals (Cornish, Clarke, 1987).

In addition, the theory of rational choice in criminology argues that the more severe, certain and swift the punishment for crime is, then the more it is effective in deterring potential criminals o pursuing the same activities (Arkers, 1990). Principal is evident in the application of severe punishments on crimes against humanity such as rape. In the United States for instance, the application of very penalty on rapists have seen the rate of reported numbers of rape cases reduce greatly over the past and present decade. In addition, the swiftness of the punishment for crime ensures that the criminal feels the immediate effects of his or her unlawful actions, a concept that is applied in criminal justice today through the immediate imprisonment or conviction of criminals (Arkers, 1990).

This theory can still find more practical application in the current criminal justice  environment through the capital punishment debate especially in the countries which still practice the is still applied in criminal justice, for example in the United States of America. In following the arguments of Cesare Beccaria, it is evident that capital punishment lacks the moral value of deterrence (Bruce, 1999).

Capital punishment terminates the life of the criminal and does not give them the opportunity to stop the criminal behavior and engage in other activities which are in conformity to the societal laws. If capital punishment achieves deterrence of criminals, then why are there still so many people behind the prison docks that are waiting conviction It is for this reason that the principals of rational choice theory should be applied in the debate against capital punishment in the modern criminal justice environment (Bruce, 1999).

The rational choice theory sprung from the ideas and thoughts Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham who made great contributions to the classical school of criminology between 1700s and 1800s. It was afterwards restructured and developed to include factors like morality, values, and emotions. (Valencia, 2010). Despite some presumably valid criticisms, this theory has greatly influenced considerable historical documents and landmarks and it is still among oldest, yet standing and valid justifications for majority of the crimes today. Its arguments are still applicable to the criminal justice environment around the world.


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