7.3. Deterrence

David Carter and Kate McLean


Forward-looking ideologies are designed to provide punishment, but also to reduce the level of reoffending (recidivism). Philosophies of deterrence specifically evolved during the Enlightenment, which also gave rise to the “classical era” of criminology, which regarded crime as a rational – and thus preventable – behavior. Deterrence is designed to punish current behavior(s), while also warding off future criminality through the threat of sanctions. Moreover, deterrence can be focused on a group or on one individual. Thus, the basic concept of deterrence is “the reduction of offending (and future offending) through the sanction or threat of sanction.”

Deterrence is often discussed within two categories: general and specific. Specific deterrence is geared toward the existing, individual offender. It is meant to better that individual so they will not recidivate. By punishing the offender (or threatening a sanction), it is assumed they will avoid future criminality, having experience the pains of punishment. It is this point that makes deterrence a forward-looking theory of punishment. General deterrence runs along the same track as specific deterrence; however, general deterrence intends to dissuade would-be offenders who observe the punishment of others. For example, if an instructor “makes an example” of a late student, refusing to admit them to class, other students may increase their efforts to arrive on time.

In order for deterrence to work, the people to be deterred (including society as a whole) must have some knowledge, and understanding, of the punishments they might receive. Theories of deterrence operate on 3 basic assumptions. Individuals have free will, some level of rationality, and orientation toward pleasure. Free will refers to everyone’s ability to make choices about their future actions, like choosing when to offend and not offend. They must also the ability to rationally predict the outcomes of their chosen behaviors. Finally, individuals must be oriented toward feelings of pleasure, and the avoidance of pain. This is known as “hedonistic calculus,” or the tendency to balance pleasure with pain. Applied to offending, it means that individuals will weigh the pleasures associated with offending, against the pains they may suffer if caught and sanctioned.  It is more probable that crime will be deterred if all three of these elements are in place within society. This is both a strength and weakness of the deterrence theory.

The success of deterrence also requires that punishments are certain, swift, and proportionately severe. First, by making punishment certain (or at least making the public think that their offenses will not go unpunished), would-be offenders may be appropriately deterred. According to classical criminologist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), this is the most important of these three preconditions of effective deterrence. The celerity, or swiftness of punishment, is a secondary factor in preventing crime. If offenders know that punishment will be quickly delivered, they may be more afraid to break the law. Finally, in order for the law to retain its legitimacy, punishment must only be as severe as necessary. According to Beccaria, “For punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantage derivable from the crime… All beyond this is superfluous and for that reason tyrannical.” [1]



Today, we have a more scientific understanding of the effectiveness of deterrence, based in crime statistics. It does appear to work for some lower-level offenses, and for individuals that are generally prosocial. However, the overall effect of deterrence is limited. Want to know more about the science of deterrence? Check out this data brief from the National Institute of Justice.

  1. Beccaria, 1764/1963, 43.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book