Cesare Beccaria and his contribution to the field of criminology.


Cesare Beccaria is known as the father of criminology. This is because prior to Beccaria it appears that no one had applied his mind to these questions of what constitutes a crime in the philosphical sense; why crime it committed and how crime can be reduced.

Beccaria was an Italian and studied at the University of Padua. He graduate in 1758 – precisely a century before his spiritual descent Cesare Lombroso. Note that Cesare is pronounced ”CHEZ – e – ray” being the modern Italian for Caesar.

Beccaria was assigned an essay on the study of punishment – penology. Then he turned his mind to broader questions of the criminal law.

In Beccaria’s time crime was closely related to sin in public mind. 98% of Italians were Catholics. Italy was divided into many sovereign states. Italy was not a country at the time but as Metternich said it was a geographical expression. Every Italian state had Catholicism as its state religion. Indeed the Pope ruled central Italy as the Papal States. The Bible set forth what crimes were and prescribed gruesome punishments for transgressions. The Church and the civil authorities did not impose the full gamut of savage penalties provided for in the Good Book.  However, corporal punishment was certainly used for minor infractions in school as well as breaches of the criminal law. Flogging, branding and amputations were the order of the day. Execution was used unsparingly. The state felt such punishments were meet because they had Biblical sanctions. Moreover, by punishing someone physically in this life one made it probable that God would forgive the miscreant because it would unjust to punish him twice for the same offence. These punishments were executed in public whether it was a whipping or a hanging. The idea was that the masses seeing someone scourged or indeed put to death would know that justice had been done. Anyone contemplating committing a like infraction would adjudge that it was not worth the risk.

Prisons in Italy varied hugely in quality. Penniless criminals lives in the most ghastly circumstances. They were overcrowded in fetid cells and sanitation was all but non existent. They often died of communicable diseases in the filth of these oubliettes. Whereas those with lucre could easily pay to live in virtual luxury whilst detained. This was unfair and irrational.

Cesare Beccaria was troubled by this barbarous punishments. He noticed that there was a disequilibrium between the degree of wrongdoing and the punishments handed down  by the magistrates. Those who committed trifling wrongs were sometimes awarded heavy penalties. Those who carried out the gravest crimes sometimes escaped with a very light punishment. Beccaria reckoned this was unreasonable and unlikely to keep crime down.

Beccaria was part of an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers in Europe were mostly bourgeois and upper class intellectuals. They decided t o examine anew the way that society functioned. The presupposition that the Bible provided a guide to jurisprudence was questioned. Everything must be look at rationally according to these Enlightenment thinkers. They wanted government to be more enlightened – that is to say open to reason. They believed in observing the situation and drawing conclusions from one;s findings. Policies should be framed in a way to improve life. Government’s should not always be run according to Biblical precepts.

Beccaria proposed that there should be a sliding scale of punishments. The most minor misdemeanours should be punished with the mildest penalties. This should range all the way up to the most heinous crimes which would be penalised with the most severe punishments.

Beccaria wanted judges to preside over trials to ensure that they were fair. Italian states seldom had juries then. Beccaria thought that fair trials were crucial. He noticed that unfair trials were all too common with the affluent and well connected often being acquitted despite their guilt. The penurious and outcast were often found guilty in spit of their innocence. This was often to take the rap for a wealthy man who had friends in high places. Beccaria noted that this was grossly unjust. He insisted that a defendant be given a lawyer free of charge and afforded every opportunity to mount a vigorous defence of himself. He must be permitted to examine the prosecution case. Innoccent people must not be found guilty since that was an affront to justice. Furthermore, it undermined public faith in the judicial system.

Beccaria wanted judges to have no discretion in passing sentence. The sentence was to be automatic for the crime in question. He believed that allowing judges leeway would introduce an undesirable arbitrary element into trials. If one may received a lesser sentence for a certain offence and another man was given a harsher sentence for the same offence it would be inconsistent and many would say unfair. It would also mean that the personality of the judge was at play.. Furthermore, it would make people say that a judge went easy on one convict and was harder on another because be was biased. There must be no suspicion of partiality. That is why the imputation of favouritism or spite must be obviated by prescribing an  inflexible  table of penalties. The punishment would be tabulated strictly on the basis of the level of wrongdoing. Further, Cesare Beccaria argued that judges must not take into account what actuated the crime. A passional crime or a premeditated  crime must be punished exactly the same. A poverty stricken woman who stole to feed her starving baby must be punished just the same as a rich bags who committed a theft just for the thrill of pilfering. This was a rational system or so Beccaria perceived it to be.

C Beccaria believed that malfeasants also acted in consonance with rational principles. This is why a criminal would be exceedingly unlikely to commit a monstrous crime because he knew he would face a very severe punishment. The lesser offences would be more attractive because the criminal would know that if apprehended he would be punished mildly. It was better if crimes were not committed at all but as crimes cannot be prevented altogether it made sense to channel criminals away from the worst crimes such as murder and towards petty acts of larceny.

Beccaria was one of the first people to publicly oppose the death penalty. He wrote up his thoughts in a tome entitled ”Dei Delitti e dei Pene”  which translates ”Of crimes and punishments.” This book was avidly perused in Russia. Catherine the Great was deeply influenced by it and spoke of having it as the basis for criminal justice in Russia. In fact its proposals were not implemented. The knout and the gallows was still the order of the day in Russia for two centuries to come.

A number of criticisms of Beccaria have been made. We must not be too hard on him since he was a trailblazer. There was no one to look back to. No one else seems to have looked at this issues in such a methodical manner prior to him. Unsurprisingly some of his nostra now appear malapert. Not taking into account the motive for a crime now appears to be unfair. Surely someone who is compelled to steal or commits a crime out of a righteous rage is more worthy of forgiveness than someone who commits the same crime coldly and with malice aforethought. Not every offender is rational. Some are dim and do not calculate the punishment and whether it is worth the risk. Beccaria was right though in figuring out that the likelihood of being punished was a greater deterrent than the severity of the punishment. He also wanted punishments to be inflicted quickly – so there was a clear link between the crime and the punishment. The public must associate the two .










About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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