Jeremy Bentham’s influence on Criminology

Jeremy Bentham, a leading British Enlightenment philosopher, was a landmark not only in political philosophy but also in criminology, a field that in his time still lacked formal definition. This text explores Bentham’s life, his revolutionary thought and his lasting influence on criminology, emphasising how his ideas continue to resonate in current practices.

Biography of Jeremy Bentham

Born in London into a wealthy family, Bentham immersed himself in a rigorous academic environment from a young age. He studied at Westminster School and, at the early age of 12, entered Queen’s College, Oxford, where he graduated without the pressure of written examinations, but through oral assessments. This early training set the stage for his future intellectual explorations and reforms.

Although he trained as a barrister and was called to the Bar of England and Wales, Bentham chose not to practice law, but to immerse himself in politics and social reform. He vehemently criticised the political and legal system of his time, which was marked by inequalities and a strong resistance to the redistribution of power and wealth.

Influence on Criminology

Criticism of the Punishment System

Bentham was appalled by the cruel public punishments of his time, such as hanging and flogging, which were public spectacles. These punishments, often justified by the Bible, did not effectively deter crime and were morally questionable.

Utility Philosophy

Bentham introduced the principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” as the basis of morality and law. This utilitarian approach sought to reform the criminal justice system towards one that actually reduced suffering by reducing crime, rather than simply inflicting pain.

The Calculus of Happiness

Proposed a method for evaluating actions based on their tendency to increase happiness or decrease suffering by analysing factors such as proximity, certainty and purity of acts. This rational approach sought to base laws and punishments on a more scientific and ethical basis.

Crime Prevention and Punishment Reforms

Recognising that many criminals were driven by economic desperation, Bentham advocated more humane and effective conditions to prevent crime, such as better economic opportunities and reforms in living conditions, rather than simply harsh punishments.

Bentham’s Proposed Reforms

Jeremy Bentham proposed numerous reforms that sought to transform not only the criminal law but also the social and political structures of his time. His approach was based on logic and rationality, always aiming to improve the general welfare. Some of Bentham’s most significant reforms are explored below:

Criminal Law Reform

Bentham harshly criticised the penal system of his time, which was replete with disproportionate and arbitrary punishments. He proposed a more rationally calibrated system of punishment, where the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the harm caused by the crime. This approach sought to be preventive rather than punitive, attempting to deter crime effectively without resorting to cruelty.

Panopticon: Supervision and Prison Reform

One of Bentham’s most innovative concepts was the design of the Panopticon, an architectural structure for prisons that allowed constant surveillance of inmates with minimal effort on the part of the guards. The aim was to create a sense of ‘constant visibility’ that would serve as a strong deterrent against misbehaviour, promoting self-regulation among prisoners. Although the Panopticon itself was never built during Bentham’s lifetime, the concept influenced the design of modern prisons and surveillance systems.

Equality and Civil Rights

Bentham also advocated the extension of civil rights to more citizens, including women and minorities, who at the time were largely excluded from the political and social spheres. He promoted the idea that laws should apply equally to all citizens, regardless of their social or economic status. His proposals included reforms to make the voting system more inclusive and representative of the general population.

Education and Crime Prevention

Bentham believed strongly in the power of education as a means of preventing crime. He proposed that the state should invest in education for all social strata, arguing that a better informed and educated public would be less likely to commit crime. He saw education not only as a tool for personal development, but also as a crucial strategy for the betterment of society as a whole.

These reforms, profoundly ahead of their time, reflect Bentham’s utilitarian vision of a society in which laws and policies are designed to promote the greatest possible welfare. His ideas on legal and social reform remain relevant to contemporary debates on criminal justice, human rights and public policy.

Criticisms and Legacy

Bentham was critical of what he considered trivial offences and advocated a re-evaluation of what constituted a crime. He was also a pioneer in advocating gender equality, challenging the norms of his time that saw women as inferior and less capable.

Bentham’s ideas on criminal justice and equality have influenced numerous legal and criminological reforms over the centuries. His utilitarian principles remain a mainstay in the study of ethics and law, promoting a more humane and rational approach to solving social problems.


Jeremy Bentham was much more than a theorist; he was a reformer whose ideas were ahead of his time and whose principles continue to influence modern criminology. By rethinking morality, punishment and social justice from a utilitarian perspective, Bentham not only challenged the norms of his time, but also laid the foundations for a more ethical and effective approach to law and order.