What is the influence of Criminology on Policing & Criminal Law?

influence of criminology on policing

“He who does not prevent a crime when he can, encourages it,” said Seneca. When he uttered these famous words, the ancient Roman philosopher unwittingly described criminology, the modern study of crime. The influence of criminology on the legal system has been very important for more than last two hundred years. For that reason criminology and policing are two important protections for the modern world.

This article will cover the history of Criminology, and its influence on policing and criminal law.


What is Criminology?

Criminology is the study of crime from a scientific approach aimed at discovering the causes of it and methods to prevent it. It involves research from several different fields, such as psychology, sociology, biology, anthropology, justice and philosophy. Criminologists examine illegal activity both on an individual level as well as a societal level. They study a broad range of topics related to it, from the rate of lawlessness and its consequences for average citizens and the nation, to the reactions to felonies.


A Brief History of Criminology

While the word “criminology” was only coined 135 years ago, it has existed in some basic ways since the dawn of time. As mankind grappled with the cruel reality of evil, it had to develop a way to understand lawlessness in order to prevent it. Early civilization was threatened by unregulated feuds that occurred when one person retaliated against another for a perceived offense. Man soon learned that for justice to be maintained in a culture, an established list of crimes must be recognized and appropriate punishments must be determined.

One of the earliest examples of criminology being practiced was the ancient Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of 282 laws developed in 1754 B.C. by the Babylonian king of the same name to establish fair punishments for the crimes listed, with the death penalty reserved for the worst acts. During the ancient times, misdeeds were largely seen as an act against a god.

During the Golden Age of Greece, the ancient Greek philosophers speculated about evil. Plato viewed poor education as the cause of lawlessness, and thus promoted good schooling as a way to prevent it. Aristotle believed that proper punishment would prevent future criminal acts.

Yet, it was not until the Romans established their Republic that the more modern view of illegal activity was established. In the Republic’s early years, the elite patrician class held control of society. They abused the lower-class plebeians, sometimes punishing them for laws they broke, which were unknown. In 494 B.C., the majority plebeians revolted against the mistreatment by wealthy Romans and forced the Senate to publish the laws of Rome on Twelve Tablets that were displayed in the Forum.

Rome’s approach to lawless behavior was that it was a violation committed against the community which should be punished by the government. This has been the foundation for the modern Western view.

During the Middle Ages, the view of evil was influenced greatly by the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. While punishment of the criminal was still accepted, the strong belief in forgiveness in the church caused a concern for the criminal as well. The Church began to teach that efforts should be made to redeem criminals.

In the mid-18th century, as the scientific revolution grew in the Western world, philosophers and others began to apply science to the area of lawless behavior. They sought to understand the causes of it and to develop humane and positive ways to deal with it.

Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria was one of the early modern criminologists. He was of the group of philosophers who developed the school of thought suggested by Enlightenment philosophers called the classical theory. These thinkers believed that the criminal, as a creature with free will, simply made decisions that seemed in his best interests. Such views set the foundation for the rational choice theory of modern times. He believed the correct response of society was to make criminal behavior less desirable with appropriate penalties, though Beccaria argued against the death penalty.

In 1885, the word “criminology” was first used by Raffaele Garofalo, an Italian legal professor who believed that criminal behavior should be studied through scientific methods. He is considered the “father” of the field. His work marked the beginning of the modern study of illegal behavior.


Major Concepts and Theories

Leading thinkers often have historically developed a school of thought to explain and understand criminal behavior and activity, only to have it replaced by another school of thought later. These theories can be grouped into three categories: biological theories, psychological theories, and sociological theories. The following is a brief description of some of the major theories in each category.

Biological Theories


Atavism Theory – This theory developed in the 19th century in the early days of criminology as a rejection of the classical theory. Italian criminologist Ceasare Lombroso believed criminal behavior could be predicted by a person’s physiological characteristics. He thought that a person’s facial structures, hairline position, and other biological features could indicate the likelihood of anti-social actions. Since these traits were often inherited, Lombroso concluded that these people were “born criminal.” Eventually, this theory fell out of favor with later researchers, as it seemed subjective and prone to justification of discrimination.

Chromosome Theory – After World War II, researchers continued to look for a biological cause of criminal behavior in the area of genetics. They found that some males have an extra Y chromosome, which leads to increased levels of testosterone. Proponents of this theory suggested that these higher hormonal levels lead to aggression and violence, resulting in illegal activity. Extensive scientific evaluation has not been able to verify this hypothesis.

Neurochemical Theory – This is the theory that the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain may predispose a person to criminal activity. Scientists have examined three main brain chemicals for a possible link: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. While low levels of the first two are associated with lawlessness, higher levels of norepinephrine may be connected with it. Yet, research has not been able to establish that these are the direct causes of such actions.


Psychological Theories


Psychodynamic Theory – This theory is based on the work of Sigmund Freud. He believed that an individual’s personality was made up of three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. If a person experiences a conflict between these three elements, it causes an imbalance psychologically. To resolve this tension, a person may adopt a coping mechanism that causes him to act out criminally. Critics of this theory point out that it is difficult to test through objective, scientific research.

Behavioral Theory – This theory believes that criminal behavior is caused by learning such a lifestyle from one’s environment and criminal role models. Edwin Sutherland, an American sociologist, was an early proponent of such an approach. There has been much research in this area of thought, which has produced much support for this approach.

Cognitive Theory – This theory is based on the work of French psychologist Jean Piaget, who taught that normal human beings must progress through three levels of moral development to be able to live and act morally. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are the leaders of this approach, which believes that criminals behave wrongly because they have not developed their moral judgment ability.


Sociological Theories


Strain Theory – Proponents of this theory believe that people act criminally as a result of reacting to strain or stress. This reaction serves to release this stress. There are two common causes of such strain. First, an individual may experience strain when others hinder the achievement of a goal. Second, strain may result when others withhold things of value. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist at Columbia University, first proposed this theory in 1938. While this approach explains some types of lawless activity, critics point out that it falls short of explaining white collar crime, and that it has weak scientific support.

Social Learning Theory – Robert Akers, an American criminologist, developed this theory based on psychologist B.F. Skinner’s work. This approach maintains that criminal behavior is learned and encouraged through social relationships and settings, especially through family and friends. There is much support from research for this theory.

Control Theory – This theory does not seek to explain why people engage in criminal activity. Rather, it assumes that lawless behavior is often more attractive than restraint. It seeks to understand why people choose to refrain from illegal behavior. Proponents of this theory maintain that people do so because of internal and external controls placed on their behavior. These come from a variety of sources, such as family, friends, or law enforcement.

Rational Choice Theory – This theory is based on the utilitarian views of the classical theory. Proponents of this theory believe a criminal is a rational creature who makes choices based on costs and benefits. If the pleasure gained by illegal behavior outweighs the consequences of it, then the criminal makes a rational choice to act criminally. It is a popular modern theory that explains criminal activity as a process of a cost benefit analysis.


Methods of Criminology

In an effort to understand the causes of lawlessness and how to prevent it, criminologists have developed several important methods over the last two hundreds. The following is a brief description of some of these tools.

Descriptive Statistics


This is the method of gathering statistical information about criminal activity from a specific population sample in order to make conclusions about specific actions. Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian mathematician, was the first person to publish a statistical report of criminal activity on a national level. He produced a study of France’s criminal rate in the early 1800s. This use of descriptive statistics to study illegal activity has grown over the years. A present-day example is the FBI’s Uniform Report that examines lawlessness annually nationwide.

Case Studies


This is the method that focuses on an individual criminal, seeking to understand the causes of the person’s illegal actions. While these studies provide some interesting insights into the criminal mind, their subjective nature limits the usefulness of the information.



This approach attempts to classify criminals into different categories, such as career criminals or white collar criminals. The hope is that studying similar types of criminals will reveal patterns helpful in prevention. Though it does not focus on a single individual as does a case study, this method still is considered by critics as too simplistic to be very reliable.

Experimental Methods


The experimental method attempts to discover solutions to criminal activities by scientifically testing different prevention approaches in real-life settings. Traditionally, this type of method was not widely used due to ethical concerns. Yet, in the last forty years, researchers have increasingly used this method with some positive results.

Prediction Studies


This method seeks to predict the likelihood an individual committing a certain type of misdeed in the future. The main tools used in forecasting are statistics and case histories. While this approach is not as effective for every type of illegal activity, it has proven valid for some areas, such as criminal drug behavior.

Action Research


Action research aims at discovering practical solutions to lawless behavior through the insights of law enforcement and social service officials. Since these individuals have the most current and relevant experience with offenders, this method seeks to employ this wisdom to build positive prevention policies.

Cross-Disciplinary and Cross-Cultural Approaches


This approach seeks to understand lawless behavior by comparing criminal activity from different cultures. For example, the illegal activity of Philadelphia youth might be compared to that of New York youth. Proponents of this method believe the comparison will highlight differences that may be explained by differences in the two cultures.

“The deviant and the conformist…are creatures of the same culture, inventions of the same imagination,” said sociologist Kai Erickson. For that reason, the influence of criminology is a vital field of study to help society understand what causes an individual to deviate from the law and behave criminally. Doubtlessly, criminology and policing are important partners in preserving a peaceful community.