The difference between classical and positivist theories of criminology centers on the role of free will and the stress on environmental and psychological factors.
The classical school of criminology places a premium on free will. They believe criminals are rational like everybody else. When a person commits a crime, they do so freely and willfully. As they are responsible for their decision to engage in criminal behavior, they have to be punished to prevent other individuals from choosing to commit criminal acts.
The positivist school of criminology highlights other factors. Here, criminal acts are usually a result of surrounding influences or psychological difficulties. In the summer of 2020, New York City congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aligned herself with the positivist school when she suggested a rise in crime was because of rising rents and the inability of parents to provide food for their kids. This is a positivist example because the individual isn’t acting according to their own free will but reacting to circumstances beyond their control. The mental condition of a person is also a consideration, with positivists emphasizing how brain injuries or intellectual disabilities can make people, like Lisa Montgomery, susceptible to crimes.
The social credit system—which is currently in China, although some believe the United States has a “soft” version—seems to reflect the classical theory since it punishes individuals for their misdeeds. The direct punishment indicates that the social credit system isn’t interested in environmental factors but in shaping the will of the individual so it’s compliant with existing laws, rules, and guidelines.