neoclassical criminology | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

Neoclassical Criminology is a theory in criminal justice that suggests people commit crimes as a result of rational decision-making, considering the costs and benefits.

To begin with, let’s explore what neoclassical criminology is all about. This theory suggests that people decide to commit crimes after weighing the potential benefits against the risks. In other words, people choose to break the law if they believe the reward outweighs the possible punishment.

Neoclassical criminology developed as a reaction to classical criminology, which emphasized that all individuals have free will and that punishment can deter crime. But neoclassical criminology added a new layer to this understanding. It considered that people might think about the consequences and rewards before committing a crime, but the offender’s circumstances factor heavily into the decision.

Rational Choice Theory

At the heart of neoclassical criminology is the Rational Choice Theory. This theory says that individuals use rational thinking to make decisions, even about illegal activities. For example, a person might decide to steal if they believe the value of the stolen item is higher than the risk of getting caught and punished.

Deterrence in Neoclassical Criminology

The concept of deterrence plays a key role in neoclassical criminology. Deterrence refers to discouraging someone from committing a crime. If the punishment for a crime is severe, swift, and certain, then people might think twice before breaking the law.

This understanding influences the way many criminal justice systems operate today. The goal is to create penalties that outweigh the perceived benefits of a crime, deterring people from choosing to commit illegal acts.

Criticisms of Neoclassical Criminology

Like all theories, neoclassical criminology has faced criticism. Some critics argue that not all people who commit crimes think rationally about the consequences. Factors like poverty, addiction, or mental illness might affect a person’s ability to weigh the costs and benefits accurately.

Others point out that neoclassical criminology tends to ignore social factors that might influence criminal behavior, like inequality or lack of education.

What is the Difference Between Neoclassical and Classical Criminology?

Both classical and neoclassical criminology theories focus on individuals as rational beings who make choices based on their self-interest. However, there are key differences between these two theories.

Classical criminology, developed in the late 18th century, emphasizes the idea of free will. According to this theory, all individuals have the ability to make choices, and they choose to commit crimes because they find it beneficial. This theory believes that the fear of punishment can deter crime, and thus, the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. In other words, it supports the idea that “the punishment should fit the crime.”

On the other hand, neoclassical criminology, which emerged as a modification of classical criminology in the late 19th century, adds a layer of complexity to this model. It still views individuals as rational beings making choices based on their self-interest. However, it introduces the idea that this decision-making process can be influenced by a variety of factors.

While classical criminology asserts that individuals have complete free will, neoclassical criminology acknowledges that certain factors can limit an individual’s ability to think rationally and make decisions. These factors might include a person’s psychological state, environmental factors, or the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Furthermore, neoclassical criminology introduces the concept of mitigating circumstances in determining the severity of punishment. This means the specific circumstances of the crime and the individual involved should be considered when deciding the punishment. For instance, an act committed under duress or the influence of drugs might result in a lesser penalty compared to the same act committed without such influences.

In summary, while both theories consider individuals as rational beings, classical criminology stresses absolute free will and equal treatment in punishment. Neoclassical criminology, meanwhile, acknowledges that rational decision-making can be influenced and supports differential treatment based on individual circumstances.


Despite these criticisms, neoclassical criminology has significantly influenced the criminal justice system. Focusing on the idea that people commit crimes based on rational decisions, it reinforces the importance of fair and effective punishment as a deterrent. All in all, it’s a valuable perspective that helps us understand why people might choose to break the law.

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Last Modified: 06/30/2023


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