Rational crime theories, often referred to as neoclassical, are based firstly on the individual’s freedom of will and thus on his personal responsibility for his own actions. In this respect, they differ substantially from etiological theories, which speak of a determinism of the individual. Criminality is the result of a cost-benefit analysis of free will actors. Criminal behaviour is rational if the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs. Crime can be controlled by increasing the cost side (e.g. by threatening a harsh and immediate punishment).
Crime is the result of a cost-benefit analysis of autonomous actors. Criminal behaviour is rational if the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs. Crime can be controlled by increasing the cost side (e.g. by imposing a harsh and immediate punishment).
Secondly, rational theories are based on human rationality, which conceals a notion of crime that occurs only when the benefits of criminal action outweigh the costs. According to the rational choice approach, all human beings are equal and thus differ only in their actions. Criminals can therefore only be differentiated from non-criminals on the basis of the crime they have committed. Therefore, the rationally oriented, classical school was already described as crime oriented and not – as under etiological paradigm – as offender oriented. The main focus of rational theories is therefore on the situation. In summary, crime is the result of free and rational choices made by people in different situations.
Historically rational theories date back to the origins of criminology. The so-called classical criminology of the 18th and early 19th centuries is described in most modern criminological textbooks as the beginning of criminological thought. The classical approach is a product of the Age of Enlightenment, rejecting the spiritualist and demonological explanatory patterns that prevailed in the Middle Ages, but following famous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers of state and law such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and others. Here man appears as a rational and self-responsible being, who has a claim to a just and appropriate justice and punishment system. The representatives of the classical school vary greatly in literature depending on the recipient, since in this historical epoch the boundaries between criminal lawyer, criminal dogmatist, legal philosopher and criminologist are still very difficult. Cesare Beccaria can, however, be uniformly described as the central figure of the classical school; Howard, Bentham, Romilly, Feuerbach, Peer, Pufendorf and others can also be mentioned.
Since the emergence of positivist criminal anthropology and biology, classical ideas and approaches have increasingly been pushed into the background. However, the idea of the free, rational and autonomous human being finds its contemporary equivalent in the original economic theory of rational choice theory, which has long since found its way into sociology and criminology. Representatives of so-called deterrence theories, however, use precisely those axioms of rational theories – the criminal acts out of free will and rationally weighing up the costs and benefits – for their approaches to criminal policy, and the so-called “Routine Activity Theory” is also situation- and crime oriented. In summary, it can be said that the rational-situational approach can be attributed great importance in the history of criminology, and still is frequently mentioned today, although the positivist search for the causes of crime has dominated the criminal sciences for many years. In addition, there are authors who describe Beccaria as a precursor of the labeling approach, since both classical and critical criminology reject the purely etiological view and emphasize the equality of all people.
Finally, another group of neoclassical theories should be mentioned: In literature, terms such as “neoclassicism” or “neoclassicism” are mostly used as generic terms for the rational theories mentioned above (rational choice, deterrence, routine activity). From time to time, however, there is also reference to an independent neoclassical school of the nineteenth century, which, based on the assumption of human free will, began to take into account additional (e.g. external) factors that could influence individual decisions. The current criminal law can be seen as the result of these neoclassical theories: The conviction is against free and rational thinking people, who can lose a part of their autonomy from internal and external influences.