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Classical: pain-pleasure decisions


The classical view in criminology explains crime as a free-will decision to make a criminal choice. This choice is made by applying the pain-pleasure principle: people act in ways that maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Classicists believe that people are hedonistic and will seek pleasure at every opportunity and avoid pain. The way to prevent crime, according to classicism, is by deterrence-the risk of apprehension and punishment (Beccaria, 1764; Roshier, 1989; Valasik, 2014).

Applying classicism to criminal conduct, when the potential pain associated with crime (the likelihood of apprehension) is greater in the mind of the offender than the pleasure (gain) to be derived from the crime, the crime is prevented. This explanation fails to explain why crime persists even in those countries where governments add new laws, increase penalties, and make efforts to improve law enforcement.

One type of classical approach focuses on "routine activities" or "situational crime prevention." This perspective concentrates on "criminal settings" (i.e., environments conducive to organized crime activity) rather than on the motivations of individuals or groups of people. By focusing on the circumstances of crime, this perspective examines the availability of opportunities to commit specific crimes and aims at reducing them through, for instance, improved urban renewal and environmental design. This approach is based on the principle of routine activities, or, in other words, on the assumption that levels of organized crime are determined by several facilitating factors, such as: availability of attractive targets and opportunities, a low level of supervision, and low risk of apprehension. Rather than focusing on distant causes of crime (e.g., poverty, poor education, peer groups), the focus is shifted to practical ways to reduce the opportunities for crime or to minimize their harm (Bullock, Clarke and Tilley, 2010; Eckblom, 2003). The situational crime prevention approach is also considered in Module 13.

Situational crime prevention of organized crime

There is evidence that situational crime prevention can be useful in reducing some activities of organized criminal groups by limiting criminal opportunities and minimizing harm (Felson, 2006). The situational crime prevention perspective has been used to try to account for the manufacture of methamphetamine, automobile theft, open-air drug markets, products counterfeiting and other crimes. (Bullock, Clarke and Tilley, 2010; von Lampe, 2011; Zabyelina, 2016). These empirical efforts have shown some support for the situational perspective in preventing organized illicit activity.

Situational crime prevention requires that crime prevention techniques be directed at five areas:

  1. Increasing the effort for offenders (e.g., target hardening, controlling crime facilitators).
  2. Increasing the risks (e.g., surveillance of offenders and victims, screening entrances and exits).
  3. Reducing the rewards (e.g., removing targets, controlling markets).
  4. Reducing provocations (e.g., reducing temptations, avoiding disputes); and
  5. Removing excuses (e.g., setting clear rules, alerting conscience). (Clarke, 2005)

The exact methods needed to achieve these goals depend on the particular crime and its underlying preparatory behaviours, although empirical efforts reveal that it is sometimes difficult to isolate the methods of crime prevention that will have an impact on organized crime activity (Bullock, Clarke and Tilley, 2010).

Another influential classical explanation is the "general theory of crime" intended to explain all kinds of crime, including organized crime. This explanation sees crime emanating from the human tendency "to pursue short-term gratification," rather than consider the long-term consequences. Short-term gratification usually implies impulsiveness, aggression, and lack of empathy for others (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990).

A notable shortcoming with the classical approach in criminology is overstating the impact of penalties on human conduct. Deterrence is a weak influencer in criminal justice, because the odds of apprehension are generally low. In addition, the tendency of some to act on the base of short-term gratification must be caused by some factors that would need to be further investigated. There are questions that are hardly answered when trying to explain criminal conducts through classicism. For instance: why do many people choose not to engage in crime, despite the low risk of apprehension? A study of several hundred organized crime offenders in Europe found that "internal drives are the hardest element to capture, particularly when offenders seem to be motivated internally (i.e., they were not talked into committing a crime by others)" (van Koppen, 2013). At the same time, there are other drives and factors that this approach underestimates or fails to consider and that clearly have a relevant impact on a person's decision to commit a crime.


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