Deterrence Theory of Crime Research Paper

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1. Introduction

The word deterrence has been linked to different topics, including nuclear deterrence, but the focus here is on theories about the effects of punishment on crime. Criminal deterrence pertains to the omission or curtailment of crime out of fear of legal punishment, and the first theory can be traced to the utilitarian philosophers Cesare Beccaria (1738–94) and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) who believed that people are motivated fundamentally to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. To the extent that potential offenders anticipate pleasure from crime, they can be deterred by increasing the pain associated with it. In particular, potential offenders can be deterred by making legal punishment certain, celeritous, and se ere, with certainty being the likelihood of being caught and punished for crime, celerity being the swiftness of punishment, and severity being the amount of punishment (von Hirsch et al. 1999, p. 6). Reduced to one fairly simple statement: ‘The rate for a particular type of crime varies inversely [negatively] with the celerity, certainty, and severity of punishments of that type of crime’ (Gibbs 1975, p. 5).

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2. Complexities

Although that statement is still the basis for contemporary deterrence theory, there are several complexities, one of which has to do with the distinction between specific and general deterrence (Stafford and Warr 1993). Whereas specific deterrence refers to the deterrent effects of directly experiencing a legal punishment, general deterrence refers to the deterrent effects of indirectly experiencing it. So when a person is imprisoned for committing a burglary and is then released, the imprisonment deters specifically to the extent that the released offender refrains completely from burglary, or at least curtails the amount of burglary that he or she commits, out of a fear of further imprisonment. To the extent that people other than the imprisoned offender learn about the imprisonment and refrain completely or in part from committing burglary out of fear of being imprisoned, those people have been generally deterred. The distinction is important because a given punishment might deter only specifically or only generally instead of both.

Another complexity is implied in the foregoing discussion of specific and general deterrence. Critics sometimes dismiss the possibility of deterrence by arguing that the commission of a crime itself is evidence against deterrence. For example, it sometimes is argued in reference to criminal justice policy to imprison drug traffickers that continued drug trafficking reveals that the threatened imprisonment did not deter potential offenders. However, the argument ignores the distinction between absolute and restrictive deterrence (Gibbs 1975, pp. 32–4). To the extent that a person refrains completely from committing a crime out of fear of punishment, that person is deterred absolutely. However, a person may not be deterred absolutely but, instead, be deterred restrictively by curtailing or limiting his or her commission of a crime, as when a person limits the amount of drug trafficking in order to reduce the risk of punishment (perhaps out of a sense of cumulative risk). With restrictive deterrence, the key question is how much crime would occur if there were either no or less threatened punishment for it.

3. Premises Of Deterrence Theory

According to Gibbs (1975), there are three premises of deterrence theory:

(a) The greater the actual certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment, the greater the perceived certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment.

(b) The greater the perceived certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment, the less the crime.

(c) The greater the actual certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment, the less the crime.

Or stated diagrammatically: AP<–>PP>–< CR, where AP denotes actual punishments, PP denotes perceived punishments, CR denotes crime; the symbol <–> denotes a positive relationship, and >–< denotes a negative relationship. In contrast to the actual certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment in a given place and time for a given type of crime, perceived punishments pertain to people’s perceptions of the certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment (von Hirsch et al. 1999, p. 6). For example, if the actual certainty of arrest for burglary in a particular US state in a given year is 25 percent (law enforcement officials actually make 25 arrests for every 100 burglaries committed), people may perceive the certainty of arrest for burglary to be 25 percent or they may perceive it to be higher or lower than 25 percent.

Deterrence theorists since Beccaria and Bentham have assumed that there is a strong positive relationship between actual punishments and perceived punishments (Premise 1), and that assumption is important for two reasons. First, ‘to the extent that changes in actual penal policies do not alter potential offenders’ beliefs about the likelihood or severity [or celerity] of punishment, they cannot generate any … deterrence’ (von Hirsch et al. 1999, p. 6). Second, demonstration of a positive relationship between actual and perceived punishments is important to distinguish deterrence from other possible preventive consequences of punishment. To illustrate, suppose there was a strong negative relationship among US states between the actual certainty of imprisonment for auto theft and the auto theft rate. It may not be fear of legal punishment (deterrence) that accounts for the relatively low auto theft rates in states with a high certainty of imprisonment for auto theft; to the extent that imprisonment serves to limit the opportunities to commit auto theft (it is difficult to commit auto thefts in prison), the imprisonment of large numbers of auto thieves can cause a low auto theft rate through incapacitation and not fear of legal punishment. There would be evidence of deterrence only to the extent that (1) the people in states with a high actual certainty of imprisonment for auto theft perceived it to be high and (2) there were low auto theft rates in states with high actual and perceived certainty of imprisonment for auto theft.

4. Additional Complexities

An additional complexity is that the deterrent effects of legal punishment may be contingent. To begin with, the deterrent effects of a particular property of punishment—say, certainty—may be contingent on the levels of the other punishment properties—say celerity, and severity. For example, Tittle (1969, p. 47) reported in a study of the relationship among US states between the actual certainty and severity of imprisonment and rates for seven crime types (e.g., homicide) that the actual severity of imprisonment acted ‘as a deterrent only when there was a high [actual] certainty of punishment.’ Similarly, Grasmick and Bryjak (1980) reported in a study of the relationship among individuals between the perceived certainty and severity of punishment and self-reported crime that perceived certainty has stronger effects at higher levels of perceived severity and that perceived severity has stronger effects at higher levels of perceived certainty.

The deterrent effects of legal punishment also may be contingent on extralegal punishments, including self-imposed punishments (e.g., guilt, shame) and socially imposed punishments (e.g., divorce or employment loss). William and Hawkins (1986, p. 561) have indicated that extralegal punishment may result from legal punishment (e.g., an offender may experience loss of employment following imprisonment) and, thus, should be ‘part of the … deterrence process.’ However, extralegal punishment also may be inflicted independent of legal punishment. For example, Grasmick and Bursik (1990, p. 840) have argued that offenders may experience guilt or shame from committing a crime regardless of whether they are caught and legally punished. Hence, the deterrent effects of legal punishment may vary by the likelihood of experiencing swift and severe extralegal punishment for committing crime. For example, the deterrent effects of legal punishment may be greater among those who have little to risk in the way of extralegal punishment for crime because fear of legal punishment may be their only barrier to law-violating behavior. In that connection, Burkett and Ward (1993, pp. 128–9) found that those who believed marijuana use to be sinful were unlikely to contemplate engaging in the behavior; and, hence, the threat of legal punishment for marijuana use was irrelevant for them. Only those who did not consider marijuana use sinful were deterred ‘because they appear[ed] to contemplate the act and, by reasonable inference, the probable consequences of their behavior.’

Policymakers need not worry that punishment does not deter all potential offenders as long as enough potential offenders are deterred. However, there is evidence that legal punishment sometimes is counterproductive by causing potential offenders to commit more crime. In relation to specific deterrence, Sherman and Smith (1992) reported that arrests for domestic assaults produced more subsequent assaults by unemployed offenders because they did not perceive police intervention as legitimate and ‘displaced [their anger about being arrested] onto their present or future romantic partners or other citizens’ (Sherman 1993, p. 465). According to Sherman (1993, p. 460), legal punishment provokes such ‘defiance’ (persistent or more serious law-violating behavior) to the extent that offenders (1) perceive the punishment as unfair, (2) are weakly bonded to other community members, (3) perceive the punishment as stigmatizing, and (4) deny the shame associated with it.

5. Links Between Deterrence Theory And Other Theories

The connection between contemporary deterrence theory and the Beccaria-Bentham belief that people calculate the pleasure and pain associated with behavior means that deterrence theory can be linked to other, more general, theories of human behavior. Akers (1990) has argued that deterrence theory is subsumable under more general social learning or behavioral principles. ‘Threat of legal punishment is one source or indicator of aversive stimulus under the general concept of differential reinforcement (balance of rewarding and aversive stimuli)’ (Akers 1990, p. 658). Differential reinforcement refers to the overall balance of rewards and punishments for a behavior, including past, present, and future rewards and punishments. General deterrence is equivalent to observational vicarious learning in social learning theory, which involves observations of other people and how their behavior is rewarded and punished; and specific deterrence is equivalent to experiential learning, which involves direct, personal experience with the rewards and punishments for a behavior (Stafford and Warr 1993).

Both deterrence and social learning theory can be linked to rational choice theory in that both address the question of why people in certain situations decide or choose to engage in particular behaviors (Akers 1990). However, the meaning of ‘rational’ is ambiguous. To some deterrence researchers, rationality implies conscious and deliberate calculations about the rewards and punishments for crime (e.g., Bachman et al. 1992). In contrast, others deny that overt mental calculations of any kind are necessarily involved (e.g., Casey and Scholz 1991). Moreover, rational choices are sometimes conceived as willful rather than determined (e.g., Bachman et al. 1992), but Cornish and Clarke (1986, p. 13) have claimed that the ‘rational choice perspective is … neutral with respect to the free will-determinism debate.’

Disagreement about the meaning of the word ‘rational’ stems from the existence of different versions of rational choice theory: old rational choice theory and new rational choice theory, each with different assumptions about rationality (Felson, 1993). Old rational choice theory, as set forth by such utilitarian philosophers as Beccaria and Bentham assumed that people engage in conscious and deliberate cost benefit analysis in order to maximize the rewards and minimize the punishments for their behavior. The new version of rational choice theory entails weaker assumptions about rationality—that people intuit the rewards and punishments for a behavior and that they are imperfect processors of information and consequently must behave within the limits of their abilities to pursue what they perceive as most satisfying (e.g., Cornish and Clarke 1986). The assumption of ‘maximizing’ is rejected and replaced by alternative assumptions, such as ‘satisficing’ and ‘bounded’ or ‘situated rationality.’ As for the issue of free will versus determinism, new rational choice theory posits that ‘people make choices, but they cannot choose the choices available to them’ (Felson 1986, p. 119).

Like new rational choice theory, deterrence theory does not require a strong assumption about rationality. In particular, crime need not be preconceived or carefully planned for legal punishments to deter, only that potential offenders choose between crime and conformity to the law on the basis of their estimates of the rewards and punishments involved. Also like new rational choice theory, deterrence theory does not require that people have free will. Indeed, a negative relationship between properties of legal punishment (e.g., the perceived certainty of punishment) and crime is as compatible with a strictly deterministic conception of human behavior as it is with free will (Gibbs 1975, p. 24).


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