Cesare Beccaria Essay

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Cesare Beccaria (1738–94) wrote one of the most influential essays on criminal behavior, advocating sweeping reforms to the justice system in Europe. He proposed utilitarian principles to eliminate barbaric criminal justice practices, such as torture. In his estimation, the primary purpose of punishment was to achieve deterrence and any punishment beyond that was not only unnecessary but also counterproductive to deterrence. Beccaria argued that to deter crime the state must institute punishments that are certain, proportionate, and swift. He believed that if the state were to adopt a more humane system of sanctions people would be less likely to engage in criminal behavior. Deterrence was the way to produce the greatest good for members of society.

Cesare Beccaria was an 18th-century Italian Enlightenment philosopher. In 1764, Beccaria published an essay, “Dei delitti e delle pene” (“On Crimes and Punishments”). His writing was a reaction to the European criminal justice system that he viewed as brutal and ineffective. Torture to extract confessions was commonplace, sentences were extremely inconsistent, and equal protection under the law did not exist in principle or in practice. Beccaria’s work was an attempt to shift the focus away from barbaric punishments to utilitarian principles of justice. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory. That is, an action is judged in terms of its consequences or results. A moral action produces something good and an immoral action produces something bad or harmful. Beccaria argued that people ought to choose actions that produce good for society.

Beccaria claimed that individuals possessed free will or had the power to choose a course of action. Humans, according to Beccaria, are rational, calculating actors who seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. When presented with a choice, they weigh and consider the potential consequences and choose the behavior that gives them the most pleasure. Beccaria concluded that individuals who commit crime received some kind of pleasure out of it. Therefore, to deter crime an offender must receive a punishment in which the pain slightly outweighs the pleasure received from the offense.

Beccaria believed that by applying the principles of utilitarianism the criminal justice system could be reformed and offenders would be treated more fairly. He argued that some punishments can never be justified because they produce more evil than good. For example, the use of torture to obtain confessions might provoke innocent people into confessing to crimes they did not commit. He believed such confessions were counterproductive to achieving true justice. Beccaria also protested punishment of the insane, saying it could do no good because the insane cannot accurately assess the consequences of their actions. He also objected to the imposition of ex post facto laws, laws passed after the fact, as unfair because a person could not calculate the risk of acting before a law against a specific action was passed.

In his essay, he argued for other sweeping changes to the European justice system. He argued that criminal laws should be clearly written so that all people could know and understand them. He believed that judges should be impartial and that they should not be the sole determiners of the guilt or innocence of people brought before them. Beccaria also argued for the elimination of secret accusations and imprisonment of people without trial. Finally, he thought the death penalty should be abolished except for extreme cases.

According to Beccaria, there are three components of punishment: certainty, celerity, and severity. When these three components are applied properly, deterrence can be achieved. Certainty refers to a person’s mental calculation of the probability of being caught doing something wrong. Beccaria argued that the certainty of the punishment is the most important element of punishment because if a person believes that the likelihood of being caught is relatively low, he or she may choose to commit a criminal act. However, if the individual calculates the certainty of punishment to be fairly high, he or she is less likely to engage in criminal behavior.

Celerity refers to the swiftness of the punishment. If the punishment immediately follows the crime, it increases the likelihood that offenders will associate the crime with the consequences. For example, if an offender is arrested moments after shoplifting, it is more likely he or she will associate the behavior with the punishment. Beccaria felt so strongly about the celerity of punishment that he argued that offenders should have the right to a speedy trial.

Severity has to do with the degree of the punishment. Beccaria argued that the punishment should fit the crime or that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed. That is, the punishment should be painful enough to outweigh the pleasure received from committing the crime, but it should not be unduly harsh. Beccaria believed that the severity of punishment was the least important component of deterrence. He pointed out that the potential or actual imposition of infinitely severe punishments had an exacerbating effect on crime. Specifically, he claimed that every punishment not soundly based upon absolute necessity was tyrannical, and the more cruel and severe the punishment, the more the minds of people became hardened and calloused.

“On Crimes and Punishments” had a significant influence in the United States. The Founding Fathers used it in framing the Constitution, and they felt that the application of Beccaria’s principles would produce a more just society. Many of Beccaria’s ideas are evident within the Bill of Rights. Due process, equal protection, and the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments

are ideas that originated with Beccaria.

Continuing Influence

His ideas continue to influence the criminal justice system today. One of the primary justifications for sanctioning offenders is deterrence. However, there is considerable debate among practitioners and scholars about whether deterrence has been implemented as Beccaria intended. In addition, there are numerous examples of policy makers misapplying the concepts of deterrence. For example, the popularity of “get tough” policies grew exponentially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Legislation implemented or increased the use of mandatory minimums, three-strike laws, and truth in sentencing. In other words, the trend among policy makers was away from prevention and rehabilitation and toward ratcheting up the severity of punishment. This is in direct opposition to the fundamental principles of deterrence as articulated by Beccaria. He specifically encouraged the use of proportionate punishments that were not unduly harsh to achieve deterrence.

Beccaria’s theory of deterrence has had an enormous impact on the study of criminal behavior and how to deter it. The research that examines the effectiveness of deterrence has mainly tested hypotheses related to the certainty and severity of punishment. The celerity element has received less empirical attention although scholars continue to call for tests of the full theory.

Research consistently shows that harsh punishments are ineffective. Juvenile awareness programs, for example, that are designed to “scare” juveniles “straight” lack empirical support. Likewise, the empirical evidence indicates that juvenile boot camps do not significantly reduce recidivism. As a matter of fact, some research suggests just the opposite, that is, recidivism actually increases among those who have completed such programs. These findings would seem to support Beccaria’s original assertion that overly harsh punishments do not deter criminal behavior. From a deterrence perspective, such punishments are unjust because their severity exceeds what is necessary to achieve deterrence. In addition, the findings of these studies show, consistent with Beccaria’s claims, excessive punishment will not reduce crime but only serve to increase it.

There is some empirical evidence that suggests that the certainty of punishment is important in reducing criminal behavior. The implementation of closed-circuit television in high crime areas puts offenders on notice that the police are watching them and that their actions are being recorded. Studies that have looked at the use of closed-circuit television in high crime areas indicate reductions in minor forms of theft and auto theft. Certain types of directed patrol that heighten the certainty of punishment have been shown to reduce criminal offending. For instance, hot-spot patrols are effective for reducing robbery and gun violence in inner cities. The results of these studies are supportive of Beccaria’s contention that the certainty of punishment is an important tool for reducing crime.

Academics and practitioners continue to test and apply Beccaria’s concepts. His utilitarian principles helped reform a system of justice that was barbaric and inhumane. Deterrence remains the fundamental foundation of the criminal justice system in the United States.


  1. Beccaria, Cesare. On Crimes and Punishments. Boston: International Pocket Library, 1764.
  2. Einstadter, Werner and Stuart Henry. Criminological Theory. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
  3. Whitehead, John T., Kimberly D. Dodson, and Bradley D. Edwards. Corrections: Exploring Crime, Punishment, and Justice in America. Waltham, MA: Anderson Publishing, 2013.
  4. Williams, Frank P., III and Marilyn McShane. Criminology Theory. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2009.

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