Deterrence theories argue that the punishment of crimes results in both actual and potential perpetrators avoiding crime in the future.
Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, Franz von Liszt, Jack P. Gibbs, Alex Piquero, Raymond Paternoster, Stephan Tibbetts, M.C. Stafford, M. Warr, etc.
Deterrence theories are based on the classical and neoclassical assumptions of a free and rationally thinking individual who strives for utilitarian principles of pleasure gain and pain avoidance (or rational principles of choice maximization and cost reduction). If criminal actions accommodate this aspiration (i.e. if crime can increase one’s own desire), it makes sense to choose them. However, if the offence is punishable, it is likely that the expected costs will outweigh the expected benefits. It is also decisive with what probability and with what delay the sanction is actually enforced on the criminal act.
The deterrence hypothesis states that people can be deterred from criminal acts if threatened punishments follow the delinquent act with certainty and without delay and are so severe or so harsh that the expected pain (cost) from the punishment is greater than the expected pleasure (benefit) from the criminal act. A distinction must be made between macro-general deterrence (corresponds to negative general prevention in German criminal law) and micro-specific deterrence (corresponds to negative special prevention in German criminal law):
- The former causes the general public, i.e. potential perpetrators, to refrain from criminal acts. Making the sanction visible to the public is therefore extremely important so that the general public also knows what consequences would follow a criminal act and therefore refrains from delinquent behaviour.
- Micro-Specific deterrence, however, refers to the effect of the sanction on the punished person, who is now deterred from further criminal acts out of fear of further punishment. The German scholar von Liszt envisages this form of punishment for the so-called casual criminal, who must be given a lesson to show him the boundary between conformity and crime for the future.
Implications for Criminal Policy
Obviously, in the opinion of deterrence theorists, there is a demand to always react to crime and possibly without time delay, so that it becomes irrational to act criminally.
It should be noted, however, that it is not the actual punishments that act as a deterrent, but the perceived deterrence, which is influenced by the sanctions actually imposed and their media coverage.
In addition, deterrence theories do not only refer to criminal sanctions, but are also reflected in other policy preventive concepts such as video surveillance and personal checks. The focus here is less on anticipating a harsh punishment than on the increased risk of discovery, which is part of situational crime prevention.
Critical Appraisal & Relevance
The deterrent effect of sanctions has been discussed in criminal policy for many years. In the USA, where deterrence theories are widely supported, the death penalty is a comparatively extreme form of deterrence. It is questionable whether the implementation of criminal executions is actually based on the idea of deterrence, or whether concepts such as ‘just deserts’, ‘retribution’ or ‘incapacitation’ provide the actual justification.
Even the assumption that the imposition of death sentences has a deterrent effect has been widely studied and empirically disproved in recent years. However, there are also studies that prove the deterrent effect of the death penalty.
On the whole, however, it seems extremely doubtful whether the deterrence theories can be upheld. In the case of video surveillance, there is also an increasing number of voices denying the deterrent effect of cameras and speaking of a spatial shift in crime combined with a reduction in subjective fear of crime. In any case, a rational decision for or against committing a crime requires a rational actor. It therefore seems unlikely that an emotionally aroused – possibly alcoholized – perpetrator would consider the long-term consequences of his action at the time of the crime.
- Paternoster, R.; Piquero, A. (1995): Reconceptualizing Deterrence: An empirical test of personal and vicarious experiences. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 32, S. 251-258.
- Piquero, A.; Tibbetts, S. (1996): Specifying the direct and indirect effect of low self-control and situational factors in offenders’ decision. Justice Quarterly 13, S.481-510
- Stafford, M. C.; Warr, M. (1993): A reconceptualization of general and specific deterrence. In: Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30, S.123-135.