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Deterrence Theory

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Deterrence Theory

Kyle McGuffey

            For many historical policymakers, deterrence has long been thought of as a way to help stem the inevitable onslaught of criminal activity. Recently, however, some studies have suggested that deterrence has little effect if any on criminal activity. These new studies and their findings have created controversy and great discussion as to the validity of deterrence as it relates to criminal activity or lack thereof (Sitren and Applegate, 2012). To better understand deterrence, this paper aims to explain what deterrence is as well as approach the issue that has been briefly touched upon, and at the end my thoughts on the issue as well as speculation on the policy implications of the studies that I have reviewed will be discussed.

            Since the 1960s, deterrence has been a major point of research in the criminal justice field. However, the deterrence theory was developed in the eighteenth century by philosophers who believed that humans control their behavior based on the perceived rewards and/or punishments that would result from such actions. The argument made for punishment holds that a person would not want to commit a criminal offense because they do not feel that the punishment would be worth the gain from the offense. More recently, the deterrence theory has been expanded to include extra-legal punishments (shaming, community service, etc.) (Tittle, et. al. 2010).

            More ideas have been added to the deterrence theory, one of the more important ones being absolute deterrence. Absolute deterrence refers to the fact that the existence of punishments does deter an unknown amount of crime and wrongdoing (Zimring and Hawkins, 1973). This finding points to the validity behind the theory of deterrence. So, not even one page in, and we have our answer as to whether or not deterrence works! Think again though, if we do

indeed know the answer and can learn of it so easily, why is there still discussion and division regarding the effect of deterrence?     

            The answer is to this question is that absolute deterrence is not relevant in the discussion of deterrence research. This is because most individuals obey the law because of the moral values that have been instilled in them by society. Agents of socialization such as the family, churches and schools have tried to instill morals into people which lead to less criminal activity. Many times, these moral values are the very same ones that are the basis of the laws. An example of this is most people do not commit burglary because they do not agree with it morally. So what we can take away from this is that absolute deterrence is in part based on socialization (Gibbs, 1975).  

            So, in order to be better informed on the issue of deterrence, we need to look at the research that has been done and study the results. Of course, we will not be able to have a definitive answer, but we can become more familiar with deterrence so as to be able to form our own opinions.

            The first piece of research is a study that focuses on the relation between being arrested and the thought processes that lead one to decide whether or not to commit crimes.  The researchers used young people enrolled in the Pathways to Desistance Study (which focused on adolescents who committed serious crimes, usually felonies) in Phoenix and Philadelphia as the data set. The researchers then calculated the value of the participants’ perceived risk three times and compared the results. Participants perceived risk started at .528 (meaning they felt they would be caught 52.8% of the time), then increased to .555 and increased again to .576 (Loughran, Anwar, 2011). This evidence shows that people who have been previously arrested

work to make sure they are not arrested again. However, the study did not ask if the individuals would be less likely to commit crimes so the previous statement is almost entirely conjecture. More evidence and research needs to be examined to find an answer based in fact.

            In 1994, then President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act which aimed to increase the deterrent power of the law. This power increase was in part due to an increase in the amount of police officers with numbers being estimated at somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000. To go along with the increase in police officers, the tactics and numbers of police officers were changed in areas with a high rate of crime. The deterrent effect of this was shown to have merit when it was noted that areas with increased police activity had a higher arrest rate for robberies and a higher deterrent effect. Studies have also found that cities that increase the size of their police department have a lower crime rate than what they previously had. However, other studies have found that police activity does not always lead to a decrease in crime rate (Paternoster, 2010) and thus one can infer that the deterrent effect did not change as well.

            Imprisonment is thought of as one of the key elements of deterrence; however it is being debated as to whether or not it actually does affect criminal thought processes. One study concluded that imprisonment did indeed have an impact on crime with a reduction of index crimes by 15 being measured. The issue with this study is that the decrease in index crimes could be attributed to criminals being incarcerated and thus unable to commit more crimes. More evidence that may support the deterrence theory can be found when examining crime data and incarceration rates. When comparing these two data sets one can see that as incarceration increased, crime decreased. Once again, though, the contributing factor has not been identified. (Paternoster, 2010).

             One study recruited inmates at the Orange County Corrections Department Work Release Center to attempt to gather more evidence regarding deterrence. The work release center is a facility that provides monitored, dormitory style living for inmates with jobs. To obtain data, surveys were sent out detailing three different scenarios and asking inmates if they would commit the offense described. Inmates were also asked to detail their own experiences with crime and punishment. Finally the survey gave punishment details as well as extra-legal costs that the inmates would incur if they were caught (Sitren and Applegate, 2012).

The drunk driving scenario had a mean score of 37.85% chance an inmate would drink and drive with a 47.49% certainty of punishment. Theft had a mean score of 26.71% and a measured 46.85% certainty of punishment. Lastly, the drug purchasing situation had a mean score of a 25.2% chance to offend and a certainty of punishment at 69.42%. An interesting point with regards to the drunk driving case is that there was a much higher rate (almost twice as much) of inmates responding that they believed they would avoid punishment if they committed the offense. The other two situations did have inmates respond that they believed they would get away with the crime but not nearly as high as drunk driving (Sitren and Applegate, 2012).

With the results in hand, the researchers concluded that legal punishments did little to deter the inmates from committing crimes. However, the researchers also found that extra-legal punishments, such as shame and financial loss, did have a deterrent effect on the inmates. The study does note that the way they conducted their research and gathered their data, specifically the highly localized and relatively small sample size, makes it difficult to suggest that these results would be common in other areas. The researchers recommend that the study be taken as

part of the discussion as a whole and not as a single, defining piece of evidence (Sitren and Applegate, 2012).

            For a global look at deterrence we turn to a study that received its data from by interviewing individuals living in Athens, Greece, Lviv, Ukraine and Nizhni Novgorod, Russia that were selected randomly. Researchers measured for individual’s perceived risk of punishment if they committed any of the offenses that were listed to them. Like the previous study that was discussed, the researchers found that there was very little deterrent effect by formal punishments. Informal punishments did however, have a deterrent effect on the individuals surveyed (Tittle, et. al. 2011).

            So what do all these results mean and what should be done with these findings? The answers are actually quite subjective, with no definitive way to properly use these results. Based on research that has been gathered it appears that there deterrence has very little, if any, effect on criminal acts occurring. It does appear that extra-legal deterrents, especially fines, do have an effect on the mindset of possible criminals. However, since many crimes are committed for financial gain (Paternoster, 2010), it does appear that the monetary aspect of deterrence may be limited. When looking at the policy implications related to the research that has been gathered, it is unclear what exactly should be done. Even if formal punishments have a small deterrent effect, it is still worth maintaining these punishments as any deterrence is good deterrence. Changing policy is hard enough to do and, because of the controversy behind deterrence, it is unclear if policy changes should be made because of these conclusions. Perhaps in due time we will learn enough about deterrence to make sound policies that will produce the desired effect.


ANWAR, S., & LOUGHRAN, T. A. (2011). Testing a Bayesian learning theory of deterrence among serious juvenile offenders. Criminology, 49(3), 667-698. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2011.00233.x.

GIBBS, J. P. (1975). Crime, punishment, & deterrence. CRIME, PUNISHMENT, & DETERRENCE.

PATERNOSTER, R. (2010). How much do we really know about criminal deterrence? Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 100(3), 765-823.

Sitren, A. H., & Applegate, B. K. (2012). Testing deterrence theory with offenders: The empirical validity of Stafford and Warr’s model. Deviant Behavior, 33(6), 492-506. doi: 10.1080/01639625.2011.636685.

Tittle, C., Botchkovar, E., & Antonaccio, O. (2011). Criminal contemplation, national context, and deterrence. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 27(2), 225-249. doi: 10.1007/s10940-010-9104-8.

ZIMRING, F. E., & HAWKINS, G. J. (1973). Deterrence - the legal threat in crime control.



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