deterrence | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminology

Deterrence is the idea that criminal punishments will prevent future crimes because the offenders have learned from their punishments (specific deterrence), and society learns from the example of the punished (general deterrence).

Deterrence is one of the primary objectives of criminal punishment. The idea behind deterrence is that if an individual is punished for a crime, they will be less likely to commit the same or a similar crime in the future. There are two types of deterrence: specific and general.

Specific deterrence is the idea that an individual who has been punished for a crime will be less likely to commit that crime again. The goal of specific deterrence is to prevent the offender from repeating the same behavior. This is accomplished by making the punishment severe enough to create a lasting impression on the offender, causing them to fear the consequences of their actions. For example, if an individual is caught stealing and is given a harsh sentence, they may be deterred from stealing again in the future.

General deterrence, on the other hand, aims to prevent future crimes by making an example of the offender. It is the idea that the fear of punishment will deter potential offenders from committing crimes. The goal of general deterrence is to create a deterrent effect on society as a whole. For example, if a high-profile individual is punished severely for a crime, it may serve as a warning to others that committing the same crime will result in serious consequences.

The concept is based on the assumption that individuals are rational actors who weigh the potential costs and benefits of their actions. If the potential costs of committing a crime outweigh the potential benefits, then the individual will be deterred from committing the crime. Therefore, the severity of punishment is crucial in the deterrence theory. If the punishment is too lenient, it will not deter future offenders, while if it is too severe, it may be deemed unjust and result in backlash.

However, the effectiveness of deterrence is subject to debate. Critics argue that individuals who commit crimes are not necessarily rational actors who carefully weigh the potential costs and benefits of their actions. Moreover, they argue that many crimes are committed in the heat of the moment, making it difficult for the offender to consider the potential consequences of their actions. Additionally, critics argue that general deterrence may not be effective if the offender does not believe they will be caught or punished for the crime.

Despite these criticisms, the idea remains a key component of the criminal justice system. In practice, many criminal justice policies and practices are aimed at achieving deterrence, such as mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, and the death penalty. The effectiveness of deterrence as a crime prevention strategy continues to be debated and studied by criminologists, policymakers, and legal scholars.

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Last Modified: 04/08/2023


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