This essay will critically assess Cesare Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment, displaying how his ideas influenced the way in which crime is viewed and punished in current society. Beccaria was born in Italy in 1738, where globally, crime was viewed as the work of the devil. Punishments were harsh and barbaric with the use of capital punishment which was in place to eliminate those who seemed as devious. Beccaria’s ‘On Crime and Punishment’ was published although it was in conflict with the views of the mass of its era. He believed that law and punishment should be standard for all people regardless of influences such as wealth and status.
Summary and Critical Analysis of Crimes and Punishments:
Key principles presented in Beccaria’s ‘On Crimes and Punishment’ are rationality, free will, hedonism, certainty and proportionality. He concluded that all citizens were a part of a social contract that binds them to laws that once broken are punishable (Beccaria, 1764, p.17). Persons of society who violated this social contract were said to have done so making rational choices, and utilizing their free will. Through using hedonism, an individual considers whether the pleasure and benefits of the offense outweigh the punishment determining whether they commit the crime or not. The limitation of Beccaria’s idea of hedonism is that he fails to acknowledge that not all people of society are able to make rational decisions due to diminished responsibility. Diminished responsibility may be given to a person who has a medical condition such as mental instability. According to the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2017, 31,328 UK prisoners were reported to have mental health/well-being issues which is 37 percent of the monthly average prison population. This shows that a large number of criminals lack the ability to be rational due to circumstances beyond their control. Beccaria also makes the assumption of people being able to exercise their own free will, making calculated decisions whilst committing crimes. This may not be a fact as globally, the more unequal the country, the higher the prison population due to poverty being the driving source of crime (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2011).
Beccaria proposed that of punishment was essential if attempting to deter society from offending in the first place through his statement ‘’ I have said that the promptness of punishments is more useful because when the length of time that passes between the punishment and the misdeed is less, so much the stronger and more lasting in the human mind is the association of these two ideas, ‘crime and punishment’ having an inevitable effect (Beccaria, 1764, p.19). This can be proven in society because rape culture has stayed the same for the majority of the world. People in communities that are aware that sexual abuse rarely results in a conviction lead to the rate of rape in their society being greater than those who see more convictions. The statistics from the BBC report show that sexual offenses have the least amount of offenses leading to arrests. This allows for society to continue to take advantage of others as crime and punishment are not closely associated in a person’s mind.
Beccaria had ideas that he believed would prevent crimes. He stated that ‘to enlarge the sphere of crime is to increase the probability of there being a crime committed’ (Beccaria, 1764, p.23). Society should not have laws that crush the people however the USA ignoring this ‘method of prevention’ has resulted in the homes of minorities being impaired. According to the marijuana timeline of the PBS, the enactment of federal laws (Boggs Act, 1952; Narcotics Control Act, 1956) set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana. A first-offense marijuana possession held a minimum sentence of 2-10 years including a fine of up to $20,000. This had a direct effect to the prison population as in the 1950s, approximately 23,000 people were in the custody of the federal prison and 186,000 in the state (Ori, 2011). Americans at this time became concerned over the swift growth in the prison population, proving the theory of enlarging the sphere of crime increases the probability of crime to be true (Beccaria, 1764).
Beccaria understood education to be a way of preventing crime, expressing that ‘the surest but most difficult way to prevent crimes is by perfecting education’ (Beccaria, 1764, p.24). This can be confirmed by statistics given by The Spirit Level. It indicates that there is a ‘strong social gradient in imprisonment, with people of the lower class, income and education much more likely to be sent to prison than people higher up the social scale’ (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009, p.149). If the management of education and equality were to be handled adequately in society, the prevention of imprisonment would be better off as people would have sophisticated means to prevent or come out of poverty in the first instance.
Beccaria emphasizes on there always being a meaning behind the action of an individual. He fails to acknowledge that in some instances, science and nature have a role in criminal acts. The positivist theory heavily contradicts Beccaria’s work criticizing his point that ‘whoever commits murder or theft, is alone the absolute arbiter to decide whether he wants to commit the crime or not’, denying the possibility of the crime being performed due to genetics. The positivist acts highlight that actually, some actions or lack of actions can disrupt the peace in society such as the scenario of the railway accident that lead to the death of civilians, but was completely accidental due to fatigue. Beccaria fails to acknowledge any accidental instances of crime which means his theory although useful to an extent, is not 100% solid to take on as a fact. Enrico Ferri, the Italian criminologist created five classifications of criminals which are born criminals, occasional criminals, passionate criminals, insane criminals and habitual criminals all of which can be proven to an extent. Beccaria’s work again goes completely against Enrico Ferri’s classification of born criminals as he believes crime is due to free will. The twin study of the Jim twins reveals that in certain cases, nature is to blame for many human behaviors as these twins lead nearly identical lives, marrying women with the same name and having the same occupation. (Miller, 2012)
In conclusion, Beccaria’s On the Crime and Punishment has been paramount in the reformation of punishing crime. We now live in a society where the punishment of crime at least makes an attempt to be proportionate to the crime hence why we do not have life sentences for petty offenses. In the UK, by taking on Beccaria’s idea of not using further violence as a crime deterrent, our crime rates are lower than the countries that do, proving violence does not work as a deterrent (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). However, his point of all people being equal before the judge fails because of the barriers that come with poverty. Undoubtedly the more money a person has, the greater the chance of them being disregarded for a crime they are guilty of because their money is able to purchase them quality lawyers with the suitable skills for a specific case. Another limitation of Beccaria’s work which expresses itself in today’s society is the treatment of offenders with mental instabilities. They are treated the same as those with capacity but really should be helped and given tools in order to deal with the issues they face. This would be efficient in the prevention of crime because potential criminals would then be able to interpret and counsel their urges more practically.