Deterrence (legal)

Deterrence (legal)
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Deterrence is the use of punishment as a threat to deter people from committing a crime. Deterrence is often contrasted with retributivism, which holds that punishment is a necessary consequence of a crime and should be calculated based on the gravity of the wrong done.


Deterrence can be divided into three separate categories.

Specific deterrence focuses on the individual in question. The aim of these punishments is to discourage the criminal from future criminal acts by instilling an understanding of the consequences.

General or indirect deterrence focuses on general prevention of crime by making examples of specific deviants. The individual actor is not the focus of the attempt at behavioral change, but rather receives punishment in public view in order to deter other individuals from deviance in the future. The argument that deterrence, rather than retribution, is the main justification for punishment is a hallmark of the rational choice theory and can be traced to Cesare Beccaria whose well-known treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), condemned torture and the death penalty and Jeremy Bentham who made two distinct attempts during his life to critique the death penalty.[1]

Incapacitation is considered by some to be a subset of specific deterrence. Incapacitation aims to prevent future crimes not by rehabilitating the individual but rather from taking away his ability to commit such acts. Under this theory, criminals are put in jail not so that they will learn the consequence of their actions but rather so that while there they will be unable to engage in crime.

Not all crime deterrence is caused by the criminal justice system. Evidence also suggests that the private ownership and use of firearms deters criminal behavior.[2]


It has been argued that deterrence is ineffective at achieving its ultimate goal. Critics of specific deterrence argue that offenders do not pause to consider the possible punishment for a crime they are about to commit, especially in the heat of the moment, and when drugs or alcohol are involved. Some suggest that potential offenders are more likely to be deterred by the threat of being caught rather than the threat of punishment, citing an example of the crime rate falling dramatically in areas where closed-circuit television surveillance systems were introduced.[citation needed] General deterrence has also been heavily criticised for relying on publicity of heavy punishments; it has been described as "the least effective and least fair principle of sentencing".[3]


  1. ^ JSTOR: The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-)Vol. 74, No. 3 (Autumn, 1983), pp. 1033-1065. Northwestern University School of Law. 1983. JSTOR 1143143. 
  2. ^ Gary Kleck (Feb., 1988), Crime Control through the Private Use of Armed Force, 35, Social Problems, pp. 1–21 
  3. ^ Martin, Jacqueline (2005). The English Legal System (4th ed.), p. 176. London: Hodder Arnold. ISBN 0-340-89991-3.

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