A Classical View – Why Do People Commit Crimes?

Steven Spielberg

A Classical View: Why Do People Commit Crimes?

People commit crimes because that is what they want to do. Criminal behavior is a matter of choices. Today, there are many excuses cloaked as reasons for criminal behavior. The misguided nature of these assertions has a serious impact upon crime control strategies. The classical approach to crime control strategies deals with direct intervention tactics. Law enforcement, within this rubric, takes an aggressive posture toward criminal acts. The delayed tactics of a reactionary position is relegated to the illusion of rehabilitation. In the classical view, deviance and crime are addressed in a proactive manner. This strives to be consistent with both legal and social aspects of constraint. Deviant behavior in the form of criminal activity must necessitate a punitive approach to behavior. Such an approach must come with speed, precision and certainty. For control sanctions to work, the systems of justice must work decisively. The attendant criminal justice systems must be capable of deploying the necessary resources. From an historic perspective, the classical school of criminology is often overlooked as a viable crime prevention strategy.

All available scientific, forensic and technical resources should press full force behind a more classical approach to criminology. This effort should be applied within the context of modern times. Following a doctrine of “psychological hedonism”, the classical approach holds that people choose freely among alternatives of behavior. In this view, the perpetrator plans his or her criminal behavior before carrying out his or her actions. The individual creates the basis for their departure from socially, morally or legally sanctioned aspects of behavior. A person calculates the “pain versus the pleasure of an act”, or the gain minus the risk of doing a certain thing. Not unlike the rest of us, the perpetrator carries out his or her conduct as a result of personal calculations. Such acts of deviance stem from the pleasure being greater than the risk. In other words, they want to take something that someone else has. Criminals want the shortest distance between two points. The implication of the doctrine is that the societal reaction to crime should be the administration of a measured amount of pain. The general proposition of the classical school is that it is necessary to make undesirable acts painful. Attaching punishment is crucial to making an impact on behavior. Likewise, punishment requires re-education, so that criminals learn through painful costly consequence such behavior is counterproductive.

Accountability and responsibility are attached in definite ways, so the perceived loss will exceed the gain. Since the punishment must be one that can be calculated, it must be the same for all individuals. No one is excused regardless of age, mentality, social or economic status, political influence or other self-indulgent conditions. People are held in absolute accountability to the actions they choose. Deterrence and moral retribution replace rehabilitation. Preventing criminal behavior before it happens is part of the overall strategy of crime control objectives. This perspective presupposes that people will take advantage of opportunities. Since people freely decide their course of conduct, rapid societal interdiction is necessary. A concept of “free-will” criminology is necessary to ensure society does not disintegrate due to an obsession with behavioral excuses. Behavior is influenced by a decision-making process that relies on consequences. As such, so is criminal behavior.

The motivation to commit acts of criminal behavior relate to basic internal desires of control, dominance, anger, revenge and display of personally perceived inadequacy. A quadrangle of self-motivated thinking transpires. Desire, opportunity, ability and gain merge to formulate the strategy of motivation. A multi-dimensional realm within the mind transforms into an outer expression of exploitation. As such, our crime control strategies and tactics must consider the inherent motivation of the criminal. The inherent motivation is the subjugation of another person for personal gain. Approaches based on hasty generalizations and politically correct agendas are counterproductive to the health, safety and welfare of the community. We must consider what the individual criminal is like. He or she is not much different than the rest of us. Except that the criminal prefers “the short cut” in stead of the legitimate way of doing things. Forget about the pseudo-scientific approaches that come up with impressive labels and complex diagnoses. And, forget about the short-term fads or fetishes of quick fixes for long-term problems. Fancy theoretical constructs do not solve crime. Instead, determined and dedicated hard working police officers do. They are the ones who solve criminal behavior issues affecting society. They do this through the collective interaction of public support and involvement. Not by politicians, media hype, fad or fiction.

People commit crimes as part of a selfish desire to get something for nothing. Their “private logic” focuses on their alleged “suffering” at the hands of an insensitive and cruel world. They selfishly desire to take advantage of opportunities, exploit their prurient interests, and assert their abilities. All this is done based on their individual capabilities to get what they think is rightfully theirs. The criminal is not a victim of society. Neither is he or she forced into a position of disadvantage by others. Criminals refuse to accept responsibility and accountability for their behavior. When caught, they are quick to puppet excuses the social sciences, the media and politicians have preconceived for them. Criminals develop their thinking processes on the basis of “being owed” something. His or her behavior becomes connected to what they believe is “entitlement”.

Personal choice dominates the motives of individual actions. We think, we fantasize and we act according to our underlying belief system. Through a process of rational conscious thought, we select the temptations of preference. Regardless of what comes into us from external sources, we pick what we want. We employ our learning history to do things we conjure in our own minds. Such is the rational process by which we pick and select the course of action we take. In a kind of “economic view” of the world, people balance the risks, or the costs, involved in doing a certain act. Upon validation that the “benefit” outweighs the cost, we decide to act. Then again, we might decide not to act. Crime, in a sense, holds a seductive quality and grips our attention. We are mesmerized by the darkness in the balance between good and evil. Good and evil is simply picture thinking about the scope of human nature. For some, crime pays, until caught. At the very least, we calculate a “pain versus pleasure” reality.


1. Jeffery, C. R., Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1971), page 24;

2. Samenow, E. S., Inside the Criminal Mind, (New York: Crown Business, 1984), pgs. 20-22;

3. Schmalleger, F., Criminology Today – An Integrative Introduction – Fourth Edition, (Upper Saddle River: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2006), page 118-119;

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