Deterrence theory and its effect on crime

Since time began the human population of earth has produced its share of crimes, defined by a governing authority, and criminals. For nearly that long, those sitting in judgment theorized that a system of deterrents would prevent future crimes from occurring per the Classical theory of criminal justice. Thousands of years after its formation, has society cut down on crime due to deterrence? Has the system been proven ineffective or has the percentage of crimes compared to the population remained the same, or lessened? In attempting to answer these questions, I will first turn to the origins and evolution of Classical deterrence theory.

There are two principal types of deterrents (Best, Luckenbill, 1982). Specific deterrence is aimed at the criminal himself; the threat of some form of punishment acts as sufficient motivation to avoid committing a crime. Most of us learn this principle as infants; our mothers teach us that if we lie or cheat or steal, we can expect some sort of punishment as price. General deterrence works on the criminal’s peers. By publicly showing the effects to one person of committing a crime (being shamed and shunned by peers, incarceration, loss of familial support), the rest of society will take heed and be deterred from following the same path. This principle is illustrated in 17th century America when criminals were branded or ordered to wear a large letter sewn to their clothing signifying their crime.

Specific deterrence has been in place since the recorded beginning of time. The first such reference was made in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 17: 12-13, when the courts declared that anyone not paying heed their edicts be sentenced to death.

Deterrence has survived in many forms since Biblical days. In 1764 Cesare Beccaria published his declaration that all human beings are rational, possessed of free will and make decisions based purely on whether or not the outcome will be pleasure or pain (Keel, 2005). Beccaria was a proponent of a type of Rational Choice law of criminal theory advocating that a society create laws and establish appropriate punishments for breaking them in order to keep citizens compliant (Winfree & Abadinsky, 2003). The threat of punishment was, theoretically, enough to tamp down on a human’s desire to commit a crime.

The colonials who established America were greatly influenced by not only the Law of England system of justice but the strict enforcement of Biblical tenets. They were fond of putting criminals in stockades in the public square, often with some sort of added token to denote their crime. The infamous “ scarlet letter” informed everyone in town who was found guilty of the crime of adultery. In this way, the colonists were practicing deterrence theory long before the term was coined.

Part of the neoclassical theory of criminal justice advanced by Edwin Sutherland, in the 1940’s states that not only must punishment be certain, administered swiftly and proportional to the crime committed by a defendant found guilty but that it must be severe enough to negate any potential gratification. Therein lies the key to the effectiveness of deterrence on the modern criminal.

Society has changed drastically in the centuries we have written history available to peruse. The world hundreds of years ago was a drastically different place; towns were small, families were close-knit, religious tenets colored the definition of every crime, status lines were clearly drawn and most people’s view of the world was constrained by lack of transportation options and availability of news media to inform them of events occurring far away. Merely feeding one’s family was hard work and left little time for acting on base criminal desires.

In these societies of yore, the use of deterrence as a means to control crime worked well because so much of a citizen’s life depended on his place in society and a reliance on his family and peers. Punishment and subsequent ostracization due to performance of a criminal act exacted a much higher price. Crimes quickly became public knowledge, at least in the criminal’s own township, through word of mouth and conspicuous notice.

Fast forward several hundred years and we still saw many of the same values in place in the societies of the 1950’s. Crime was by no means rare, but neither had it skyrocketed to the highs of today. The difference between right and wrong was strongly advocated and even taught in the school system in addition to familial edicts and the church’s authority. Traditional morality was still hanging around, if only by a thread. The intervening half a century has loosened society’s hold on that morality ingrained in our forefathers; “ authority has become horizontal, not vertical” (Friedman, 1993).

In theory, deterrence should have a greater effect on today’s criminals that in societies of the past. News of crimes both petty and horrendous reach millions of people daily through television, newspapers, radio and the Internet. Television stations like Court TV even air portions of the trial and sentencing phases of criminal justice. There should be a clear distinction between what is right and wrong and a clear indication that today’s society will not countenance criminals living in our midst. The violent crime rate, based on crimes committed and population, rose from 160. 9% in 1960 to a high of 758. 1% in 1991, according to the US Department of Justice (2007). Why is the rate of crime higher today than it ever has been in history?

According to Friedman (1993), “ the criminal justice system cannot deliver a strong enough wallop of deterrence, beyond the way it is now, to justify a policy of toughening up.”

Punishment as a direct consequence of behavior does not have a greater effect if it if the sentence is raised. For example, to increase the sentence for someone convicted of dealing drugs from 10 years to 15 years is not going to have the same exponential effect on the criminals committing the crimes. Knowledge that a potential sentence is going to be raised by five years will not turn a drug dealer into a law-abiding citizen. For those of us who would not consider a life of crime, this increase in sentence time would probably sound like a good idea. For those of us who are already not influenced by the deterrence of punishment, it makes no difference.

The trend that we see in recidivism rates and the large proportion of criminals who come from families with criminals is an alarming one. Along with our traditional morals and values, the American family has given up on trying to teach their youngsters right from wrong and it could even be hypothesized that children are learning a life of crime from their elders. The fact that so many women in jail were once abused shows just how the cycle of violence can perpetuate not only generations of sexual abusers but of criminals as well.

No longer are class distinctions made as easily as they once were. The drug dealer can make as much money, if not more, than the business CEO and live in the same neighborhood. And while the information on crimes and who commits them is commonplace, it is perhaps too commonplace. How many of us have turned a blind eye to yet the latest report on crime in the world? We, as a society, have become inured to the effects of deterrence simply by being inundated with it. Although we have a great advantage in today’s world of being able to disseminate information quickly, accurately and to millions of people, this ability does little to make society take responsibility for making outcasts of criminals. Crimes are occurring on a regular basis now that were unheard of centuries ago – and not just involving drugs. How many of our grandfathers had ever heard of a sexual predator or a death cult?

Deterrence as a means of controlling crime is an archaic theory much as the Biblical notion of an “ eye for an eye” is archaic. Our penal system cannot be charged with cutting off the hand of someone who steals in retribution, nor can it exact the death penalty for every person convicted of murder. Referring once again to neoclassical theory, without the swift and sure execution of punishment, it loses its deterrence ability.

There is no sure cure for the modern criminal justice system and its plethora of over-run jails, recidivist criminals and the societal factors that force some citizens to live a life of crime. Neither is the American public ready for such sweeping reform, much as you would hear otherwise on the news. But the system is, indeed, ripe for change. One can only hope that through a series of gradual changes, in both the morals and structure of our society, as well as the criminal justice system itself, that a happy medium can be achieved. Never will we rid society of criminals, but instead we must redefine crime itself and the types of punishments to be enforced.