Essay on The Neo-classical School of Criminology !
The ‘free will’ theory of classical school did not survive for long. It was soon realised that the exponents of classical school faultered in their approach in ignoring the individual differences under certain situations and treating first offenders and the habituals alike on the basis of similarity of act or crime.
The neo-classists asserted that certain categories of offenders such as minors, idiots, insane or incompetent had to be treated leniently in matters of punishment irrespective of the similarity of their criminal act because these persons were incapable of appreciating the difference between right and wrong.
This tendency of neo-classists to distinguish criminals according to their mental depravity was indeed a progressive step inasmuch as it emphasised the need for modifying the classical view. Thus, the contribution of neo-classical thought to the science of criminology has its own merits. The main tenets of neo-classical school of criminology can be summarised as follows:
(i) Neo-classists approached the study of criminology on scientific lines by recognising that certain extenuating situations or mental disorders deprive a person of his normal capacity to control his conduct. Thus, they justified mitigation of equal punishment in cases of certain psychopathic offenders. Commenting on this point, Prof. Gillin observed that neo-classists represent a reaction against the severity of classical view of equal punishment for the same offence.
(ii) Neo-classists were the first in point of time to bring out a distinction between the first offenders and the recidivists. They supported individualisation of offender and treatment methods which required the punishment to suit the psychopathic circumstances of the accused. Though the ‘act’, i.e., the criminal act still remained the sole determining factor for adjudging criminality without any regard to the intent, but the neo-classists focused at least some attention on mental causation indirectly.
(iii) The advocates of this school started with the basic assumption that man acting on reason and intelligence is a self-determining person and therefore, is responsible for his conduct. But those lacking normal intelligence or having some mental depravity are irresponsible to their conduct as they do not possess the capacity of distinguishing between good or bad and therefore should be treated differently from the responsible offenders.
(iv) Though the neo-classists recommended lenient treatment for “irresponsible” or mentally depraved criminals on account of their incapacity to resist criminal tendency but they certainly believed that all criminals, whether responsible or irresponsible, must be kept segregated from the society.
(v) It is significant to note that distinction between responsibility and irresponsibility, that is the sanity and insanity of the criminals as suggested by neo-classical school of criminology paved way to subsequent formulation of different correctional institutions such as parole, probation, reformatories, open-air camps etc. in the administration of criminal justice.
Thus, it is through this school that attention of criminologists was drawn for the first time towards the fact that all crimes do have a cause. It must, however, be noted that though this causation was initially confined to psychopathy or psychology but was later expanded further and finally the positivists succeeded in establishing reasonable relationship between crime and environment of the criminal.
(vi) Neo-classists adopted subjective approach to criminology and concentrated their attention on the conditions under which an individual commits crime.
Thus, it would be seen that the main contribution of neo-classical school of criminology lies in the fact that it came out with certain concessions in the ‘free will’ theory of classical school and suggested that an individual might commit criminal acts due to certain extenuating circumstances which should be duly taken into consideration at the time of awarding punishment.
Therefore, besides the criminal act as such, the personality of the criminal as a whole, namely, his antecedents, motives, previous life-history, general character, etc., should not be lost sight of in assessing his guilt. It may be noted that the origin of jury system in criminal jurisprudence is essentially an outcome of the reaction of neo-classical approach towards the treatment of offenders.
As to the shortcomings of neo-classical school of criminology, it must be stated that the exponents of this theory believed that the criminal, whether responsible or irresponsible, is a menace to society and therefore, needs to be eliminated from it. As Saleilles observed: “the protection of society from crimes must be our primary concern”.
He considered responsibility as a concept of social organisation which the exponents of neo-classical school seek to convert into metaphysical and abstract notion without corresponding reality. These abstract notions of ‘free will’ and ‘responsibility’ cannot furnish legal ground for Judges and juries to form a basis for their discretion.