general deterrence | Definition

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

General Deterrence is a type of deterrence based on the premise that society, in general, will avoid crime because of the example of those that have been punished.

Contrast with specific deterrence

General deterrence is a widely accepted concept in criminology that refers to the belief that potential offenders are deterred from committing crimes because they see others being punished. The idea is that the fear of punishment will serve as a warning to would-be offenders and reduce the likelihood of criminal behavior in the general population.

General deterrence can be contrasted with specific deterrence, which refers to the idea that individuals who have already been punished for a crime will be less likely to reoffend. General deterrence is aimed at the general population, while specific deterrence is targeted at the individual offender.

The theory of general deterrence is based on the assumption that individuals are rational and will weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. If the costs of committing a crime are perceived to be high, including the risk of being caught and punished, individuals are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. Conversely, if the perceived benefits of committing a crime outweigh the costs, such as the potential for financial gain or social status, individuals are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

To achieve general deterrence, the criminal justice system must ensure that the punishments for crimes are perceived as being severe enough to outweigh the potential benefits of committing the crime. This can be achieved through a variety of means, such as increasing the likelihood of being caught through increased police presence, imposing longer prison sentences, and imposing more severe fines.

One example of a program aimed at achieving general deterrence is community policing, which emphasizes building relationships between police officers and members of the community. By increasing police visibility and engaging with community members, the hope is that potential offenders will be deterred from committing crimes because they know they are being watched and because they feel a sense of responsibility to their community.

Another example of a program aimed at achieving general deterrence is the use of public shaming, such as posting the names and photographs of individuals convicted of crimes in public places. The idea is that the shame and social stigma associated with having one’s name and face associated with criminal behavior will deter potential offenders from committing crimes.

Critics of general deterrence argue that it is not an effective approach to reducing crime. Some argue that the threat of punishment is not enough to deter individuals who are already facing difficult life circumstances, such as poverty or addiction. Others argue that the criminal justice system is often perceived as biased or unfair, which reduces the perceived severity of punishment and undermines the effectiveness of general deterrence.

Despite these criticisms, general deterrence remains a widely accepted concept in criminology and is a key part of many criminal justice programs and policies. The idea that punishment can serve as a deterrent to crime is deeply ingrained in our legal and social systems, and efforts to reduce crime through general deterrence will likely continue to be a major focus of criminal justice policy for the foreseeable future.

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Last Modified: 04/08/2023


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