Adolphe Quetelet on crime

In Sur l'homme et le developpement de ses facult├ęs, essai d'une physique sociale (1835) Quetelet studied statistics gathered from the French criminal courts between 1826 and 1831. He presented his conclusions in a much quoted passage:-

The constancy with which the same crimes repeat themselves every year with the same frequency and provoke the same punishment in the same ratios, is one of the most curious facts we learn from the statistics of the courts; I have stressed it in several papers; I have repeated every year: There is an account paid with a terrifying regularity; that of the prisons, the galleys, and the scaffolds. This one must be reduced. And every year the numbers have confirmed my prevision in a way that I can even say: there is a tribute man pays more regularly than those owed to nature or to the Treasury; the tribute paid to crime! Sad condition of human race! We can tell beforehand how many will stain their hands with the blood of their fellow creatures, how many will be forgers, how many poisoners, almost as one can foretell the number of births and deaths.

Society contains the germs of all the crimes that will be committed, as well as the conditions under which they can develop. It is society that, in a sense, prepares the ground for them, and the criminal is the instrument ...

This observation, which seems discouraging at first sight, is comforting at closer view, since it shows the possibility of improving people by modifying their institutions, their habits, their education, and all that influences their behaviour. This is in principle nothing but an extension of the law well-known to philosophers: as long as the causes are unchanged, one has to expect the same effects.

Last Updated August 2006