Biological Criminality and New Criminal Thought


Biological Criminality and New Criminal Thought


The Chicago School and the Eugenics Movement

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Positivist Criminology

American criminologists and sociologists were influenced by the findings and approaches of the Positivist School of criminology

Chicago School

Sociological school that emphasized identifying and addressing the social and environmental causes of crime

Eugenics Movement

Emphasized preventing born criminals and other “delinquent” types from reproducing


The Chicago School and the Eugenics movement shared certain assumptions about crime and punishment:

Faith in scientific categorization and rationalized bureaucracies

Belief that punishment had to fit the criminal

Emphasis on courts’ use of experts—psychologists, sociologists, and social workers—to identify the roots of criminality in individual subjects

Social, environmental, and biological theories of crime were not in contradiction with each other

Advocates of environmentalism and advocates of eugenics were often the same people

Chief Justice, Chicago Municipal Court; Board Member of the American Eugenics Society

Chicago School of Sociology

Emphasized crime as a product of social and environmental disruptions

Denied or at very least minimized the role of individual agency in criminality

Advocated for “socialized law” that “purposefully reshaped society by directly addressing concrete problems of social life”

Thought that different classes of offenders should be addressed differently,

City of Chicago eliminated older court system and created a new system of Municipal Courts with specialized branches for different offender types

Branches utilized testimony of psychologists, social workers, and other experts

Chicago Courts

Biological Criminality and New Criminal Thought

Biological Criminality and New Criminal Thought

Courts took a much more active role in intervening in the lives of offenders and in learning their individual circumstances

Parole was popularized during this period

Created something of a mixed bag:

On one hand, courts emphasized the reform of prisoners through means other than incarceration and punishment

On the other hand, such reformation also involved a lot of judicial discretion

Chicago school reformers often prioritized social change over civil liberties


Pioneered and named by Francis Galton in the early 1880s

Involved mankind directing its own evolution by ensuring that the best heredities prospered

Positive eugenics

Encouraging reproduction of fit people

Negative eugenics

Preventing unfit people from breeding

In the late 19th century, eugenics rested heavily on Lamarckian notions of inheritance and heredity

The Jukes

In 1874, Richard Dugdale was working in a New York prison when he became interested in a set of related inmates

Studied their family, which he called the Jukes

Identified 709 “descendants”

Claimed 128 had been prostitutes, 76 convicted of crimes, 200 had received poor relief, and 72-125 had syphilis

The Jukes

Dugdale’s work on the Jukes came to be used as eugenics propaganda

Dugdale himself, however, advocated for a notion of soft inheritance

Believed that even those hereditarily disposed to crime could be reformed if reached at a young enough age and separated from negative environmental influences

It was only when reform failed that stronger measures were in order:

“In dealing with the typical habitual criminals who are contrivers of crime, criminal capitalists, and panders, where we cannot accomplish individual cure we must organize extinction of their race.”

“Shall we allow the Ada Jukes of today to continue this multiplication of misery?”

Rediscovery of mendel

The late 19th century saw a rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity

Idea of genetic inheritance replaced/challenged older ideas about soft inheritance

If genes were responsible for behavior and characteristics, then it was extremely important to keep people with “bad” genes from reproducing

Targets of Eugenics

Eugenicists fixated on a number of “types”:


Often people of low intelligence who did not control their sexual impulses well

Because of this, they were highly fecund and highly dangerous in the eyes of eugenicists


Highly intelligent but incapable of understanding morality

Defective Delinquents

People with slight mental deficits and consistent criminality

The Kallikaks

Study written by Henry H. Goddard in 1915

The Kallikak study was similar to the Juke study in tracing criminality through a family, but it left little room for environmental influences

Martin Kallikak slept with a barmaid and then married a respected Quaker woman and had children

Descendants of Quaker woman were respectable

Descendants of barmaid were deficient

Negative Eugenics

Kallikak study reinforced the need for negative eugenics

Eugenicists gave criminals IQ tests

Sometimes advocated for indeterminate incarceration for those who received low scores

Also advocated for forced sterilization

Progressive Era Intelligence Classifications

Eugenics and Pro-Sterilization Campaigns

U.S. Eugenics Poster, circa 1926

Eugenics Movement

Eugenics supporters on Wall Street, 1916

1907: First sterilization law was passed in Indiana

Authorized the compulsory sterilization of individuals in state custody in prisons, asylums, and other institutions

Eventually, 30 states passed forced sterilization laws

Between 1907 and 1930, U.S. states performed over 10,000 compulsory sterilizations

Most of the people subject to sterilization were immigrants

States with Eugenics Laws in 1913

Buck V. Bell

1927 Supreme Court case challenging the forcible sterilization of Carrie Buck, a woman who had been labeled feeble minded

Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes determined that compulsory sterilization did not violate the 14th Amendment

Sterilization necessary “in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence”

“Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Legacy of Eugenics

Elaine Riddick: Sterilized without her consent at age 14 after a neighbor raped her. (1968)

The compulsory sterilization of immigrants declined over time, but the sterilization of black women continued through the Civil Rights Era

At least 67,000 people were sterilized during the time that the sterilization laws existed

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