10 julio, 2024

Clinical criminology: what it is, background, methods, exponents

What is clinical criminology?

The clinical criminology It is a current of criminology that is responsible for studying the mental state of people who commit criminal acts. It is based on the belief that for a person to commit a crime, he must possess certain pathological personality traits or be suffering from mental illness.

In this sense, clinical criminology seeks to understand why criminal behavior occurs, in order to solve the underlying problem. Thus, one of the main objectives of this discipline is to reintegrate criminals into society.

This branch of criminology does not seek to take responsibility for their actions from people who commit a crime, but to re-educate them so that they stop being a danger to society. To do this, it combines tools from various disciplines such as traditional criminology, psychology and sociology.


Clinical criminology was born as a by-product of a 19th century current known as “criminological positivism”.

This theory, formulated by thinkers such as Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri and Rafael Garófolo, was far from the classical conception of criminology that had prevailed until then.

The main objective of the authors of this current was the application of the scientific method to study and explain criminal behavior.

Previously, in the so-called «classical school» of criminology, crimes were understood as isolated events, without giving importance to the social characteristics of the criminal or his environment.

The authors of the new theory made a coordinated effort to formulate ideas based on experimental knowledge, without being influenced by religious or moral ideas, or by concepts that were not proven by the scientific method.

This positivism spread very quickly, becoming a very important paradigm in criminology at the time.

Main aspects

Criminological positivism developed mainly in two directions. On the one hand, the anthropological aspect defended by Lombroso appeared.

He tried to explain the criminal behavior of people based on biological factors, considering that some individuals are born predisposed to commit crimes.

On the other hand, Ferri believed that the crimes were explained above all by sociological factors; that is, a person commits a crime due to the culture in which he has been immersed.

However, both currents complemented each other instead of disagreeing. This was achieved because both authors and their followers used the scientific method to verify their claims.

Influence on criminology

Over the next few decades, the discoveries made by these authors and their successors became part of the body of knowledge in criminology.

Thus, in 1925 the International Penitentiary Congress was held in London, in which it was declared that all criminals should undergo physical and mental examinations.

Over the ensuing decades, clinical criminology centers began to open around the world. Some of the most important were San Quintín (USA, 1944), Rome (Italy, 1954), Madrid (Spain, 1967) and Toluca (Mexico, 1966).

Methods in clinical criminology

Clinical criminology has several main objectives when it comes to studying why a person commits criminal acts.

These include knowing the subject’s motivations, diagnosing why they have committed a crime, proposing a treatment to avoid similar problems in the future, and evaluating the changes produced by the intervention once it has occurred.

For this, a series of tools and procedures are used that allow the criminologist to extract the maximum possible information about the offender and the relevant factors for the case. Next we will see some of the most important procedures.

Study of the file

To understand what goes on in the mind of a criminal, the first thing to do is study his criminal record and the types of crimes he has previously committed.

A person who has only acted against the law once in an isolated manner is not the same as someone who repeatedly breaks the rules.

Analysis of the reports

During a legal process, all kinds of psychic, sociological and biological reports of the accused are made. Therefore, a clinical criminologist who wants to know more about this person will review all the knowledge gathered by the experts during this process.

Thus, for example, a specialist can examine various personality or intelligence tests, medical examinations and the subject’s family history.


One of the easiest ways to learn more about an offender is simply by interviewing him.

This interview usually falls into the category of semi-structured interview; that is, some of the most relevant questions will be prepared in advance, leaving some freedom to improvisation.

Clinical study of the subject

If all these procedures were not enough, the clinical criminologist could apply other techniques to the subject such as personality tests or psychological tests.

You could also observe the offender in his day-to-day life, as well as interview people close to him to gather more information.

main exponents

The most influential authors within clinical criminology were those belonging to the Italian School. Among them stand out Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Raffaele Garofalo.

Cesare Lombroso

He was one of the founders of the Italian School. Lombroso was the main promoter of the practical application of pathology.

Your book Experimental anthropological treatise on delinquent manwhich was published in 1876, was one of the most influential for the development of modern criminology.

His main contribution was the classification of criminals into six different types, based on different anthropometric data that he collected in his studies.

These ideas became highly controversial in his field in the years since, but are still widely accepted.

Enrico Ferri

A disciple of Lombroso, Ferri decided to focus on the study of the social factors that lead a person to commit a crime instead of the biological ones. He was a great student of the scientific method and its application, and tried to develop different methods to prevent crime.

On the other hand, he was the founder of the magazine Positive Schoolin addition to being considered the founder of criminal sociology.

Raffaele Garofalo

Garofalo, the third most important author of the Italian School, was halfway between the ideas of the other two. He believed that both biological and social factors were of great importance in the development of a criminal personality.

His efforts focused on finding the «natural crime»; that is, in those actions that have been considered a crime throughout history by all kinds of cultures and societies.

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