specific deterrence | Definition

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

Specific deterrence is a type of deterrence based on the idea that the individual offender will be dissuaded from future criminality by experiencing punishment.

To fully grasp specific deterrence, it’s crucial to understand the broader idea of deterrence in criminal justice. Deterrence is a theory that aims to discourage people from committing crimes. The basic idea is this: if the cost of committing a crime (the punishment) outweighs the potential benefits, then people will be less likely to commit crimes.

Deterrence comes in two main forms: general and specific. Both forms aim to prevent crime, but they differ in whom they target.

The Difference Between General and Specific Deterrence

General deterrence aims to prevent crime in the general public. It works on the principle that when people see the consequences of criminal behavior – like prison time – they’ll be scared off from committing similar crimes.

On the other hand, specific deterrence focuses on the individual who has already committed a crime. The idea is that if the punishment for the crime is severe enough, it will discourage the offender from committing any future crimes.

The difference, therefore, lies in the target. General deterrence targets the public at large, while specific deterrence targets the individual offender.

The Concept of Specific Deterrence

When we look closer at specific deterrence, the focus is on making the punishment so unpleasant that the offender won’t want to risk going through it again. It’s like touching a hot stove: once you’ve felt the pain of being burned, you’ll likely be careful not to touch a hot stove in the future.

In the context of criminal justice, punishments like prison sentences, fines, or community service are used to instill this fear. The unpleasant experience is meant to outweigh any potential benefits the offender might see in committing another crime.

How Specific Deterrence Works in Practice

After a person is found guilty of a crime, the judge will consider many factors before deciding on a punishment. One of these factors is how likely the person is to commit another crime in the future.

If a judge believes that a harsh punishment will stop the offender from committing more crimes, they may choose a more severe punishment. This is specific deterrence in action. In essence, the punishment is designed not only to penalize the individual for their actions but also to discourage them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future.

Critiques and Limitations of Specific Deterrence

Despite its widespread use, specific deterrence is not without criticism. Critics argue that this method fails to consider the reasons why people commit crimes in the first place. For example, if a person steals because they’re hungry, the fear of punishment may not be a sufficient deterrent.

Moreover, some offenders may not be deterred by harsh punishment. They may even become more likely to reoffend, especially if they don’t receive support to change their behavior or circumstances during their punishment.

Wrapping Up: The Significance of Specific Deterrence

In conclusion, specific deterrence is a critical component of the criminal justice system. It seeks to prevent crime by making the consequences so unpleasant that an individual offender will choose not to reoffend.

Understanding this type helps us see how the criminal justice system works to maintain order and safety in our society. All in all, it’s a concept that reminds us of the balance that needs to be struck between punishment and rehabilitation.

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Last Modified: 06/28/2023


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