Column | Dismantling the domination of deterrence theory

Deterrence theory became widely popular in the 1970s, and it has had an enormous impact on contemporary crime control policies, particularly in the U.S.

Deterrence theory, originally coined by Cesare Beccaria in the 1760s, is the theory that crime can be deterred by punishment. Beccaria believed people are rational and pursue their own interests, maximizing their pleasure and minimizing their pain. He suggests people choose to commit crimes they believe are in their own interests. Therefore, the best way to prevent crime is through punishments that are swift, certain, and proportionately severe.

In the U.S., we have largely done away with the idea of rehabilitation in favor of this theory-turned-practice. However, rather than focusing on all three elements Beccaria outlined, the U.S. focuses on the severity of punishment, and to a lesser extent the certainty of punishment.

According to the National Institute of Justice, severe punishments do little to deter crime. Policy makers and practitioners believe that increasing the severity of the prison experience enhances the “chastening” effect, which would in turn decrease recidivism. The idea that severe punishments “chasten” individuals has no scientific evidence.

In fact, laws and policies which focus mainly on increasing the severity of punishment are ineffective because criminals don’t know sanctions related to specific crimes. Someone charged with rape (sexual assault) could get six months or 140 years, it just depends.

Whatever the case may be, sending someone convicted of a crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime. It incapacitates that one person, but long prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime. Not only from the rest of society, but also from that individual. Arguably, prisons have the opposite effect. Inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time spent in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment. On the other hand, studies are showing short to moderate prison sentences may have a deterrent effect.

Another piece to take into consideration when talking about deterrence is a person’s age. According to the NIJ, “even those individuals who commit crimes at the highest rates begin to change their criminal behavior as they age.” Data shows a steep decline at about 35 years old. Longer sentences for those who are naturally aging out of crime only achieves the goal of punishment and incapacitation. However, that incapacitation is a costly way to deter future crimes by aging individuals who, again, are already less likely to commit those crimes.

And what about the death penalty as a deterrent? If there is a threat of death, wouldn’t that make an individual less likely to commit a crime?

Well, no.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is uninformative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates.” In fact, most of the nation’s top criminologists believe that the death penalty is not, and has never been, a superior deterrent to criminal homicide than the alternative sentences of long confinement.

Again, though, it isn’t the threat of punishment which deters crime. It is the certainty of being caught which makes a would-be criminal think twice.

All of this said, there are aspects of deterrence theory that might work. The NIJ suggests that the certainty of incarceration lowers crime rates. Certainty refers to the likelihood of being caught and punished for a crime. It is the fear of being caught versus the fear of being punished or the severity of punishment which deters crime. Note that this isn’t the certainty of conviction or the certainty of imprisonment. It is merely the certainty of being caught.

How, then, would police go about deterring crime? How do we ensure would-be criminals have the fear of being caught?

The simplest solution is to have increased police presence. Treating police as “sentinels” or hot spot policing are considered particularly effective. A would-be criminal’s behavior is more likely to be influenced by seeing a police officer with handcuffs and a radio than by a new law increasing penalties.

Crime control proposals that attempt to prevent or reduce crime through increases in punishment severity are attractive to policymakers. If recidivism rates remain unchanged after the implementation of “get tough” policies, then the argument can always be made that the punishments were not harsh enough.

There is no golden solution to solving the criminal justice problem. However, with constant research showing that deterrence theory is a mediocre solution at best, perhaps policy makers should start looking at other options.