Criminology | Section 3.4


Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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Modern Deterrence Theory

The deterrence theory of the classical school has come back in recent years.  The new versions are more complex but tend to have the same basic features.  These we will consider in detail in later chapters.  Among the most influential of these reformulations has been Routine Activities Theory.

Does Deterrence Work?

Most of the scientific investigation of deterrence has focused on the death penalty.  In spite of the long history and continuing importance of deterrence theory, empirical research designed to test it was rare until the late 1960s.  Before then, most of the discussions of deterrence revolved around the philosophical and moral implications of punishment—not the validity of the theory.

The first studies on deterrence consisted primarily of comparisons between states that provided capital punishment and those that did not have the death penalty.  These studies found that the presence or absence of the death penalty had no effect on homicide rates.  Most research since then has made similar findings.  The consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty has little or no deterrent effect on homicide.

Researchers began to move beyond the death penalty to consider the effects of certainty and severity of punishment on a wide range of delinquent and illegal acts.  Most did not include celerity (speediness) of punishment—and for the most part still do not.

Researchers in this area have commonly used two basic research methods:   This first is to use criminal justice statistics—such as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the Crime Victimization Survey.  Certainty is often measured by looking at the arrest rate—the ratio of arrests to crimes known to the police.

The severity of the punishment can be examined in several ways.  Such things as the maximum penalty allowed by law, the average length of sentences, and the proportion of offenders sentenced to prison rather than probation have all been used.  Deterrence theory predicts an inverse or negative relationship between these official measures of legal penalties and the official crime rate measured by crimes known to police.  When the objective risk is high, the rates should be low.

Another approach is to measure individuals’ subjective (personal) perceptions of legal penalties.  Many people have no idea what the law says, and may seriously underestimate the penalty for a particular crime.  The threat of legal punishment means nothing if citizens are not aware of the official sanctions or do not believe that there is any high risk of penalty if they were to commit a crime.

Recognizing this critical dimension of deterrence, later researchers most often used “subjective” measures of the risk and severity of legal punishment.  Most research since the 1970s has used these perceptual measures.  Most use surveys to gather information on criminal history, perceptions of severity, and perceptions certainty.  The theory was refined to include the cognitive dimension: The higher the risk of apprehension and the stiffer the penalty of an offense perceived by individuals, the less likely they are to commit that offense.

Many criminologists believe that most of us would follow the law even if there were no penalties.

According to the author, crime would definitely get worse if we did away with criminal penalties.

Most people, most of the time and under most circumstances, conform to the law because they adhere to the same moral values as those embodied in the law, not because they are worried about imprisonment.  We generally do not steal and kill because it is morally wrong.

Another way to look at the deterrence theory is by asking, does formal punishment provide a significant deterrent effect beyond that assured by the informal social control system?

These informal controls are at the heart of community policing.

The best answer seems to be yes, but not very much.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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