Cesare Beccaria was born on March 15, 1738 into an Aristocratic family in
Milan Italy. He received a Jesuit education, and achieved his degree in 1758.
In 1761, he married Teresa di Blasco against his parents wishes. At this time
he also had two very close friends, Friends Pietro and Alessandro Verri, and
they together formed a society later known as the "academy of fists".
This group was "dedicated to waging relentless war against economic
disorder, bureaucratic petty tyranny, religious narrow-mindedness, and
intellectual pedantry" (Paolucci, pg.xii). With the encouragement of the
"academy of fists", Beccaria started to read the enlightened authors
of France and England, and while he said very little, he did write essays that
his friends assigned him. His first publication was "On Remedies for the
Monetary Disorders of Milan in the Year 1762."
Beccaria’s most noted essay, "On Crimes and Punishments" was
written with the help of his friends in the "academy of fists". When
Beccaria wrote the treatise, his friends recommended topic, gave him the
information, elaborated on the subject matter and arranged his written words
together into a readable work. While the treatise concerned the criminal
justice system, Beccaria had no experience or knowledge of that system, but
once again his friends helped him out. Two friends with knowledge and
experience in the criminal justice system had the most influence on Beccaria,
Alessandro had the official post of "protector of prisoners" in Milan
and Peirto was working on the history of torture.
The treatise "On Crimes and Punishments" was published in 1764,
but since Beccaria feared a political backlash, he published it anonymously.
Only after it was received and accepted by the government, did Beccaria have it
published under his name. Many people had a hard time believing that this
quiet, unknown man wrote the work, but once again his friends came to his
rescue and affirmed that the essay was Beccaria’s own writings.
The treatise was publicly praised by Katherine the Great, Maria Theresa of
Austria-Hungry and quoted by Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The
success of the treatise is explained by the author Maestro who stated,
"Moreover, the great merit of Baccaira;s book — and this explains its
great success and the practical impact that it would soon have in many
countries lies in the fact that for the first time the principles of a penal
reform were expressed in a systematic and concise way, and the rights of
humanity were defended in the clearest terms, with the most logical
arguments." (Maestro, pg., 34). It was published in many languages all
over the world and was influential in the creation and reform of penal systems
across the globe. The treatise discussed issues, government (crime and human
rights) that were being widely expressed at that time, and was written in a
manner that was both to the point and clearly understood.
The French intellectuals warmly welcomed Beccaria’s treatise, "On
Crimes and Punishments" , and he was subsequently invited to go to Paris.
Upon arriving in Paris, it was clear that Beccaria did not fit in with the
other enlightened intellectuals. The intellectuals thought of him as
"childish imbecile without backbone and unable of living away from his
mother (Paolucci, pg. xv). Beccaria left Paris without finishing his trip.
After Paris he distanced himself from his friends and stopped being part of the
"academy of fists" He went to Austria were he was not so well known
and worked quietly for the Austrian government. Away from the support of his
friends, he never wrote anything else that was worthy of publication. Beccaria
died in 1794.
After his death his legend in France and England grew. Many people at that
time thought that Beccaria was silenced by the suppression of a tyrannical
government. They did not care to know or admit that he brought the silence upon
himself. Beccaria is still remember today as a father of classical criminal
theory, and as a literally champion of the cause of humanity. His treatise,
"On Crimes and Punishments" had a large and lasting impact on the
American Constitution, the Bill of Rights and our criminal justice system. So
while he only wrote one worthy, published essay, his influence is still felt
There are three main legs in which Beccaria’s theory rests. Those are
that all individuals possess freewill, rational manner and manpulability.
Beccaria, like all classical theorist, believe that all individuals have
freewill and make choices on that freewill. The second leg, rational manner,
means that all individuals rationally look out for their own personal
satisfaction. This is key to the relationship between laws and crime. While
individuals will rationally look for their best interest, and this might entail
deviant acts and the law, which goal is to preserve the social contract, will
try to stop deviant acts. This ends up with the individuals and the society
rationally looking for satisfaction, and at times these interests clash. The
third leg in which Beccaria’s theory rest is manipulablibily, universally
shared human motive of rational self-interest makes human action predictable,
generalable and controllable. (Roshier, pg.16). The job of the criminal justice
system is to control all deviant acts that an individual with freewill and
rational thought might do in the pursuit of personal pleasure. This is made
easier by the fact that human actions are predicable and controllable. With the
right punishment or threat the criminal justice system can control the
freewilled and rational human being. The problem the criminal justice system
has is finding the right punishment or threats.
Beccaria expresses not only the need for the criminal justice system, but
also the government’s right to have laws and punishments. He believe in
the social contract, or the idea that freewill and rational individuals made a
choice to live in a society instead of living alone. When one chooses to live
in a society, then one chooses to give up some personal liberties in exchange
for the safety and comfort of a society. Laws are designed as the framework of
the society and the rules for which acts are encouraged or prohibited. Laws are
the conditions of a society of freewilled and rational individuals. There is a
need to have some system set up in order to ensure that the individuals in the
society are protected against any individual or groups that want to take back
the personal liberties forfeited in the social contract and those who want to
also harm the personal liberties of others in the society. In "On Crimes
and Punishments" Beccaria states, "but merely to have established
this deposit was not enough; it had to be defended against private usurpation
by individuals each of whom always tries not only to withdraw his own share but
also to usurp for himself that of others"(Beccaria, pg. 12). So there is a
need for and a right to have laws and a criminal justice system to ensure that
all individuals in society obey or follow the social contract.
Beccaria felt that while there needs to be a government and a criminal
justice system if there is to be a civilized society, he did not believe that
the current government or criminal justice system was appropriate. He felt that
the government at that time were just a "few remnants of the laws of an
ancient predatory people, compiled for a monarch who ruled twelve centuries ago
in Constantinople, mixed subsequently with Longobardic tribal customs, and
bound together in chaotic volumes of obscure and unauthorized
interpreters"( Beccaria, pg. 3). The criminal justice system was not
anymore enlightened than the government. He felt that the criminal laws and
especially the "barbarous" punishments of the time were in need of
reform. His treatise, "On Crimes and Punishments" aimed at creating a
blueprint for which the new enlightened criminal justice system would be based.
One thing that is essential to any laws regarding criminal justice is that
the laws be created by a "dispassionate student of human nature". He
stated that many of the present laws were just "a mere tool of the
passions of some, or have arisen from an accidental and temporary need" (
Beccaria, pg. 8). Instead of laws created out of passions, Beccaria stresses
the importance of a to create laws for the "greatest happiness shared by
the greatest number" . To ensure that laws of that nature were formed, an
educated and enlightened male should create the laws that would benefit the
entire community, and he should do so without looking for only his benefit or
passions. Laws should be enlightened, rational, logical and should be the
greatest good for the greatness number. He felt that criminal laws should be
formed with rational thought and not passions.
With the creation of criminal laws and a criminal justice system, a rational
form of punishment must also be created. Beccaria was very much against the
cruel and arbitrary punishments of the day, but he did feel that the government
had the right and duty to punish those individuals that threatened the society.
The government had only the right to inflict punishments that were necessary
for the crime, he stated, "for a punishment to attain its end, the evil
which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantage derivable from the crime; in
this excess of evil one should include the certainly of punishment and the loss
of the good which the crime might have produced. All beyond this is superfluous
and for that reason tyrannical"( pg. 43). So while the government could
punish it could not go over than what was necessary for the security of the
To determine what amount of punishment is necessary of safety and what is
excessive, the legislators the "dispassionate student(s) of human
nature" must define the punishments for each crime. Since members of
society of rational human beings with freewill, they will commit acts if the
pleasure of the act out weighs the cost. To stop individuals from committing
prohibited acts, punishments must be set to make the punishment just over the
amount of pleasure the individuals receive from the deviant acts. Any
punishment that grossly or even slightly goes over the amount necessary to stop
individuals from committing prohibited acts would be considered unjust.
Beccaria goes even further on his criminological theory, and he gives many
examples of how the system should work. He gives the particular principles that
a just government would use to maintain the security of the society. He
discussed the arrests, court hearings, detention, prison, death penalty,
particular crimes and crime prevention. One the first parts of the criminal
justice system that Beccaria discusses is the role the courts play in obtaining
justice. Some rules that Beccaria writes about are that: laws must be set by
legislators, legislators cannot judge persons, judges in criminal cases cannot
interpret the laws, laws must be clear and in need of no interpretation,
offenders must be judge by its peers (half of the victim half of the criminal),
right of the criminal to refuse some jurors, no secret accusation by
government, judges should be impartial searcher of truths and judges should not
become part of the treasury so that the do not look to criminals to make money.
He stresses the importance of laws being clear and known because a rational
person can not make a rational choice not to commit an act if he or she does
not know that the act is prohibited. He stated that, "when the number of
those who can understand the sacred code of laws and hold it in their hands
increases, the frequency of crimes will be found to decrease, for undoubtedly
ignorance and uncertainly of punishments add much to the eloquence of the
passions" ( pg. 17). If laws are clear, need no interpretation and are
known to the public than crime will go down.
Beccaria goes further and gives rules and principles for the rights of the
offender once arrested. Some of these include: imprisonment before conviction
is important and accepted, certainty is demanded if they are to deserve
punishment, laws should forbid leading or suggestive questions in trial, no
torture to receive a confession and the right for the criminal to defend
himself if certainty is found, but not so long as to make the punishment not
prompt. Beccaria wrote that oaths were useless, cause it will not make liar
tell the truth, "every judge can be my wittiness that no oath ever make
any criminal tell the truth" (pg. 29), and he wrote that "it is
frivolous to insist that women are too weak to be good witnesses" (pg.22),
Also if an individual is going to be imprisoned before the trial the offenders
of harsh crimes should be have less time in trial but more time in prison if
found guilty. If an individual is imprisoned for a less harsh crime, they
should be afforded longer time in trial but less time in prison after found
guilty. This is because the offender of the harsh crime is more likely to be
found not guilty, and thus the time imprisoned while in trial should be
When it comes to torture to obtain a confession, Beccaria had very strong
words against this practice. He believes that torture to obtain a confession
makes an innocent man suffer a punishment he did not deserve or was yet proved
. Torture also makes a weak person more likely to confess to a crime than a
strong person, without consideration of guilt. The confessions from torture
should not be valid since an innocent man might confess just to stop torture,
and a person might implicate innocent accomplices. Confessions obtained with
torture might make an weak, innocent individual suffer punishment he did not
deserve, and it might make a strong, guilty man by not confessing be reward for
committing a crime.
Beccaria had many things to write concerning the principles of punishment if
once an individual is found guilty of committing a crime. The two main
principles is that to be effective punishments must be certain and prompt. He
states that, "the certainty of a punishment, even if it be moderate , will
always make a stronger impression than the fear of another which is more
terrible but combined with the hope of impunity" (Beccaria, pg. 58). To
build the connection between the crime and the punishment it is essential that
the punishment is prompt. It is written in the treatise of "On Crimes and
Punishments" that "the more promptly and the more closely punishment
follow upon the commission of a crime, the more just and useful will it
be"( Beccaria, pg. 55). In order for a punishment to be effective in
stopping further crimes the punishment must be certain and prompt.
Other principles of punishments are written in the treatise. These include,
there should be a set amount of incarceration for each crime, individual should
be punished for attempting to commit a crime, accomplices working together on a
crime should be punished equally, harsher the crime the harsher the punishment,
crimes against persons should be corporal and crimes of theft should be fines.
Beccaria was a strong opponent to the death penalty, for he felt that a
laborious loss of liberty was more harsh than a quick death. He also stated
about the death penalty that, " it seems to me absurd that the laws ,
which are an expression of the public will, which detest and punish homicide,
should themselves commit it, and that to deter citizens from murder they order
a public one" (Beccaria, pg. 50). Beccaira felt that the death penalty,
while cruel and excessive, it also was an ineffective measure to reduce or
In the treatise, "On Crimes and Punishments", Beccaria wrote a
short chapter on preventing crime because he thought that preventing crime was
better than punishing them. He gave nine principles that need to be in place in
order to effectively prevent crime. To prevent crime a society must 1) make
sure laws are clear and simple, 2) make sure that the entire nation is united
in defense, 3) laws not against classes of men, but of men, 4) men must fear
laws and nothing else, 5) certainty of outcome of crime, 6) member of society
must have knowledge because enlightenment accompanies liberty, 7) reward
virtue, 8) perfect education, and finally 9) direct the interest of the
magistracy as a whole to observance rather than corruption of the laws. If this
nine principles are followed there would be less of a need to follow the other
principles of trial and punishments.
Implications on United States:
Around the time that Beccaria was writing "On Crimes and
Punishments", the United States was coming together as a nation. Our
founding fathers were greatly influenced by Beccaria, Bentham and other
classical criminologist. In our Constitution and Bill of Rights, many of the
rights that we, as U.S. citizens, accept as fundamental come from the works of
classical criminology. Some of our rights include: rules against vagueness,
right to public trial, right to be judged by peers, right to dismiss certain
jurors, right against unusual punishments, right to speedy trial, right to
examine witnesses, coerced or tortured confessions are considered invalid,
right to be informed of accused acts and the right to bear arms. Our
Constitution was greatly influenced by Beccaria, and many of the rights that he
advocated were made the foundation of the United States.
The classical view of criminology has been steadily growing in popularity
this decade. The criminological theory of Rational Choice takes many of the
Classical ideas and makes them more relative to today’s issues. Rational
Choice theory believes in freewill, individuals make rational choice to commit
crimes, people use the pleasure/pain to make rational choices, people will
choice choices that increase their pleasure, the government has the right and
duty to preserve the common good and the society, swift, severe and certain
punishment will give the government control over the peoples’ choices ad
behavior, deterrence and the use of incarceration and punishment to prevent
Rational Choice theory also deals with the issues of general and specific
deterrence, the use of incarceration and "just desserts". General
deterrence is that the general public will not commit crimes due to a fear of
getting caught, prosecuted and severely punished. Specific deterrence is using
punishments to prevent a known deviant from committing future crime or said
that if a criminal receives enough punishment for committing an act, that
criminal will not commit that act again. Incarceration is the use of prisons to
punish criminal, and by taking them out of society, criminal are prevented from
committing in new harm. "Just desserts" simply means that an
individual commits a deviant act then they deserve to be punished by the
government. Beccaria did not write in depth about general and specific
deterrence, but he did write in a general manner about the use of laws and
punishment, if certain and prompt, can deter the general public and specific
criminals from committing crimes. Beccaria also supports the Rational Choice
Theory of the use of incarceration and "just desserts" for in these
topics main concepts in his treatise, On Crime and Punishments. In studying the
recent theory of Rational Choice, one can see the large and lasting impact that
Beccaria had on the field of criminology.
In recent policies that have been influenced by Beccaria’s work and his
truth in sentencing, determinant sentences, swift punishments, corporal
punishments, look at crime not criminal, punishment not treatment, people
rationally choose crime and less judicial discretion. While not all state
governments have adopted all these ideas, most have and many are about to
follow. Some of the recent policies go against the ideas of Beccaria these are
longer sentences, threes strikes and you are out laws, death penalty and gun
control. While many of his ideas about human nature and policies on controlling
crime have grown in popularity, still many of his ideas are very unpopular.
The recent trend of more gun control goes against Beccaria’s idea about
citizens’ right to bare arms. In writing about the utility of gun control,
he writes, " false is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousands real
advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience’ that would take
fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has
no remedy for evils, except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of
arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm those only who are neither inclined
nor determined to commit crimes" (Beccaria, pg. 87-88). Today many
opponents of the gun control laws use Beccaria’s warning as a battle cry.
Many use his words, along with the words of other theorists of the time, Thomas
Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and James Madison, to support their right to bare
In 1764, the unknown Cesare Beccaria wrote one short treatise called
"On Crimes and Punishments" and the world is still using it to guide
criminal justice. That short essay greatly impacted the United States’
Constitution, Bill of Rights and justice system. Many reforms that Beccaria
called for were incorporated into our system, and his influence stretches from
arrest, prosecution and punishment. He never wrote anything else or expanded on
his thoughts about crime so many answers will never be answered.
Beccaria’s work "On Crimes and Punishments" has become the
foundation in which many criminology theories use to build and expand.
Works Cited and Consulted
Beccaria, Cesare. "On Crimes and Punishments." Trans. Henry
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Beccaria, Cesare. "One Crimes and Punishments and other Writings."
Bellamy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
"Death Penalty News".
ILA Research & Information Division Fact Sheet. "America's Founding
Fathers: On the
Individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms."
Internet Enclyocpida of Philosophy. "Cesare Beccaria".
Keel, Robert. "Rational Choice and Deterrence Theory".
Maestro, Marcello. Cesare Beccaria and the Origins of Penal Reform.
Temple University Press, 1973.
Newman, Grames. The Punishment Response. New York: J.B.Lippincott
Paolucci, Henry. Introduction. "On Crimes and Punishments". By:
Trans. Henry Paolucci. Englewood, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Roshier, Bob. Controlling Crime: The Classical Perspective in
Open University Press. 1989.
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