The Classification Of Criminals
By David Abrahamsen
A method for classifying offenders has to be based upon personal psychiatric-psychological
factors, situational environmental factors, and a combination of both psychological and
situational elements. Besides the personality-involvement in every criminal act and the
presence of a certain situation or set of circumstances, one thing that must be taken into
consideration when classifying any offender is the history of his criminal behavior. A
person who commits only a single crime differs in personality make-up from one who repeats
a criminal act several times or commits various crimes. The classification must reflect
this, and the history of the offender's antisocial and criminal behavior will indicate
whether he should be labeled an acute (momentary) or a chronic (habitual) offender.
Any classification, be it of plants, animals, or human beings, is to some extent artificial
because there will always be individual characteristics or a set of characteristics which
can properly be placed in more than one group. In our own attempt at classification,
dealing as we often do with emotionally and mentally abnormal offenders, it is frequently
difficult to distinguish between a criminal who is neurotic and one who suffers from a
character disorder. Yet in spite of the shortcomings inherent in classification, we must
attempt to categorize offenders if we are going to be successful in dealing with them. If
we can classify them in a rational way, we can diagnose their characteristics, treat them,
and predict their future behavior. However, such classification means that we will have to
examine carefully each criminal to be able to find the characteristic and predominant
traits that will tell us in which particular category he belongs.
One way of classifying offenders is to divide them according to those who commit crimes
which are primarily directed against society (manifest criminals, such as gangsters),
and those who commit crimes which primarily express their inner conflicts (symptomatic or
reactive criminals, such as the kleptomaniac, pyromaniac, sex offender, and a certain type
of murderer — on the whole, individuals suffering from a neurotic or psychotic condition or
from a character disturbance). However, the drawback to such a classification is that the
overwhelming majority of all offenders manifest inner conflicts.
In trying to arrive at a system of classification in the field of criminology, we are faced
with two problems — classifying the crimes and classifying the criminals. The first
classification is a legal one, having its origin in criminal law. The law differentiates
between crimes committed against the person (that is, crimes of violence, such as assault,
murder, or sexual attacks), those committed against property (burglary or robbery), and
crimes against the State. The law thus attempts to classify the criminal according to his
act. This legally and sociologically colored method of classification is imperfect and
unrealistic in the great majority of cases because an offender may very easily fit into two
or all three of the categories. For example, he may kill and commit a burglary, thus
committing crimes against person and property.
Theories of classification have been many. Lombroso expounded a type of classification
based upon different criminal types. He divided criminals into: 1) the born criminal;
2) the epileptic criminal; 3) the criminal of irresistible passion; 4) the insane and the
feeble-minded criminal, including those of border-line mentality; and 5) the occasional
criminal. The last group was subdivided into the pseudocriminal, the criminaloid, and the
persistent offender of nonabnormal type.
Enrico Ferri divided criminals into occasional offenders and habitual offenders. To the
first group belonged those whose criminal acts were due to external circumstances and who
were driven to commit crimes because of a special passion. To the second group belonged
those who were obviously insane or mentally defective, those mental deviates with inborn
criminal tendencies (the so-called psychopaths), and persistent early offenders whose
criminal behavior was caused by environmental elements.
Franz von Liszt criticized the classification based upon the motivation of the criminal
and instead followed a penological and sociological viewpoint, distinguishing between
momentary offenders and corrigible and incorrigible permanent offenders. Although this
classification is clear-cut, it neglects to include offenders who are legally insane and
is therefore incomplete and inaccurate. In order to avoid such a pitfall, Charles Goring
classified criminals into physical, mental, and moral types.
An interesting method of classification was proposed by Ernst Kretschmer, who was the first
to try to correlate the physical appearance of a person with his mental condition.
Kretschmer's constitutional classification is based upon the study of people as
psychobiological, or mental-physiological, entities. He established three types: the
athletic, the asthenic-schizothymic-leptosomic, and the pyknic. He stated that there exists
a clear biological connection between mental disposition toward schizophrenia and the
asthenic-schizothymic-leptosomic and the athletic body builds and also between mental
disposition toward a manic-depressive condition and the pyknic body type. His theory was
applied to the classification of criminals, noting in particular that offenders who
committed serious crimes were of the asthenic-schizothymic-leptosomic body build, while
those offenders who committed less serious crimes had a pyknic body build.
While Kretschmer's idea of constitution is limited to a person's hereditary qualities, Olof
Kinberg includes a person's reactions if they are the result of his predisposition or of
his environment. Kinberg, in collaboration with Sjobring, gives a psychological
classification wherein psychobiological correlation is not so predominant as in
Kretschmer's hypothesis. This classification, which has advantages over that of Kretschmer,
is, nevertheless, in the words of Hurwitz "open to substantial critical objections
particularly as to the too vague definition of the marks differentiating the types and
because no attempts have been made to control exactly the alleged correspondence with the
Classification of criminals can only be valid on an etiological basis. To classify according
to the crime committed is untenable because the cause or causes of the crime are
interrelated with the perpetrator and his environmental situation. Therefore, we can
classify an offender only if we see the seriousness of his crime in relation to his
personality make-up. This is as true for the momentary offender as for the habitual one,
even though the frequency of the commission of the crime must also be considered, since it
reflects the degree of inclination toward crime and of abnormality present in the offender.
Such classification, however, presupposes that criminals be carefully examined, particularly
to determine how much of the ego participated in the criminal act.
Recalling my discussion earlier of the formation of antisocial character, it is worth while
mentioning here a classification of juvenile delinquents set up by Kate Friedlander, who
divided them according to their antisocial character formation, organic disturbances, and
psychotic ego disturbances.
Burt, Healy, and Alexander and Staub have tried to classify offenders according to
etiological factors, but the difficulty here lies in determining exactly what the causes
are. Generally speaking, there is no single cause or set of causes that cannot be
considered as reasons both for criminal behavior and for disturbed mental conditions, or,
to put it positively, the same cause or set of causes can lead either to criminality or to
a disturbed mental condition. A valid classification of criminals can only be established
when we consider the causative factors together with the personality make-up of the
offender. These two elements are frequently so intimately tied to each other that we cannot
consider them separately.
In each case we examine, therefore, we must ask: How far do mentally abnormal conditions
present indicate the presence of criminological elements responsible for the criminal act?
But we must remember that nothing is ever clear-cut. A person who is slightly neurotic may
very well carry out a crime without being considered mentally abnormal. The borderline
between normal and abnormal is at times so fine that nobody really can say where it is.
To ascertain the causative factors responsible for criminal activities in the offender, we
must examine each person individually and give each case individual consideration. Sometimes
an offender manifests signs of a character disturbance and yet still may have anxieties and
feelings of guilt. Or, on the surface he may show signs indicating a neurosis, while deep
within he may have a character deformation, which will put him into another group altogether.
Another criminal may appear to be suffering from an anxiety hysteria, which may very well
cover up a schizophrenic condition. The latter condition will place him in the psychotic
classification, and not the neurotic one.
Another important point to consider is whether or not a criminal's aggressive drive, which
has become antisocial, is the product of his distorted emotional and mental condition. Only
a careful examination of, the criminal, including his psychobiological development and his
own personality reaction, will determine the causative factors responsible for his crime
and his place in the classification system.
A system of classification which is methodologically sound has to be limited in scope. The
purpose of the formation of categories in criminology is to determine how to deal with the
offender in a rational way, be it by the court, the district attorney, the prison official,
the probation officer, or the psychiatrist. An operational approach is therefore necessary,
which must take into consideration the offender's environmental background, immediate
situation, and personality make-up. The classification will therefore have to be based on
both sociological and psychological elements.
One factor reflecting both of these elements is the frequency and time factor, that is,
whether the offender has committed only one crime or is a recidivist and the span of time
over which he has committed his criminal acts. This factor is also applicable to medicine.
For example, a cough which is the result of a cold and which does not recur too often or
last for more than a short time is an acute condition and one which does not require great
concern. However, a cough that recurs often or lasts for a long time may in reality be a
chronic condition, such as tuberculosis.
The division of physical and mental diseases into acute and chronic ones gives us an
excellent picture of the degree of severity of the illness. This division can also be used
to great advantage in classifying offenders because it connotes at once the degree of
criminal involvement of the personality of the perpetrator. Therefore, offenders can be
divided into two groups — acute, or momentary, offenders and chronic, or habitual, offenders.
However, in designating a criminal as acute or chronic, we must take into consideration the
seriousness of the crime or crimes committed, as well as the frequency and time factor.
Otherwise, an individual who commits one premeditated murder would be considered simply an
acute criminal, while another individual who repeatedly commits harmless or nuisance thefts
would be considered a chronic offender. Obviously, this is wrong because the first
individual is more dangerous than the second, even though the latter in all probability
has a personality defect. Of course, this might very well be true of the murderer, too, and
although a man who commits murder may not necessarily be psychotic, he might display
emotional or mental symptoms. His personality make-up is involved too much with his act to
put him into the category of an acute offender.