Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

The Beginning

"The common argument that crime is caused by poverty is a kind of slander on the poor," H.L. Mencken, journalist

The first organized scientific search for the causes of crime came to be known as the classical school. Theorists proposed that people are rational thinking beings and therefore their behavior is the result of a logical thought process. In 1764, an Italian professor named Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) published a book called Essays on Crime and Punishment. This study represented a dramatic break with the past. Previously, any form of "justice" focused on the concept of punishment. Beccaria suggested many policy changes in the way criminals should be treated. He said that punishment for a criminal offense should never be excessive and should be used as a deterrent to crime. He also proposed that any punishment should be written down in advance so offenders would know what to expect if they got caught. His innovative ideas of presumption of innocence and the protection of individual liberties later influenced the Constitution of the United States and especially the Bill of Rights.

Following in Beccaria's footsteps was the Englishman, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He believed that the rational choice theory promoted by Beccaria assumed that people commit crime because the benefit outweighed the cost. Being fond of inventing new words for some of his ideas, Bentham called this thought process the "hedonistic calculus." He concluded that for people not to commit crime, the punishment had to outweigh the benefit derived from the criminal act. Bentham believed that the goal of punishment should be deterrence. Punishment should be designed to persuade people that criminal activity was not worth the price to be paid.

The famous
The famous "auto-icon", the mummified
body of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832),
with head, on display at the University
of London

Bentham was a philosopher, a prolific writer and somewhat of an eccentric. Bentham's last will and testament directed that his body be preserved at the University of London. When he died in 1832, his embalmed body was dressed in the clothes he usually wore when he was alive and seated in one of his old chairs. He was put on display in the university where students had to pass by him each day. Bentham also directed that a sign be placed over his mummified body with the label "Auto-Icon." But during the embalming process, something went wrong and his head was ruined. It could not be used in the display. As a result, a wax replica later replaced the real head.

However, successive generations of students found the temptation too much to resist and Bentham's missing head frequently turned up at parties and sporting events. Legend has it that Bentham's mummified body regularly attends meetings of the College Council where his presence is always recorded in the minutes by the notation: "Jeremy Bentham, present, but not voting."

The classical school, whose origins stretched back to the Middle Ages, was a giant step forward for sociologists. Beccaria and Bentham were considered somewhat radical for their time, so ingrained were the principles of punishment in European civilization. But their ideas were an assault on conventional thinking, which convinced society that a better understanding of the nature of crime and the application of justice was needed. With that goal in mind, scientists began to look inward, speculating that for some people, criminality might be inevitable.

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