There are two main types of deterrence. General deterrence states that by punishing one individual others will be deterred from committing the same act in order to avoid being punished themselves. Specific deterrence, on the other hand, states that punishing one individual will prevent that same individual from committing another act in order to avoid being punished a second time. The theory of deterrence, in regards to the criminal justice system, claims that individuals rationally weigh the threat of punishment against the benefits of illegal activities before deciding whether or not to commit a crime (Module II Notes). Overall, deterrent theory advocates claim that increasing the threat and severity of punishment across all types of crime will decrease the rate at which those crimes are committed (Reynolds, 1997).
Deterrence theory is based on rational choice theory. Rational choice theory states that all individuals seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain (Cullen, Pratt, Miceli & Moon, 2002). Although the concept of criminal offenders having some choice over the actions they choose has opened new areas of research within the field of criminal justice there are still those who argue that offenders are incapable of making completely rational decisions based on their limited knowledge of law enforcement actions and court processes. However, some evidence has been presented that shows the ability of interventions to change how offenders view criminal activities and thus change how they feel about committing illegal acts (Lynch, 1999).
Reynolds (1997), a conservative economist, believes that the most effective way of deterring individuals against committing criminal acts is to increase the certainty of a prison sentence while also increasing the length of that prison sentence. Reynolds believes that incarceration is the most effective way of reducing crime rates and increasing public safety. Additionally, by increasing incarceration rates the long term costs of the criminal justice system will be lowered due to the savings gained from the crimes that would have been committed had the individuals incarcerated been free amongst society.
In contrast, Lynch (1999) does not feel that deterrence theory is capable of producing the outcomes proposed by Reynolds (1997). Lynch ultimately disagrees with the notion that increasing incarceration rates will have the desired effect of lowering crime rates. Although Lynch does recognize that some offenders can be deterred individually by strengthening their ties within the community, in the end Lynch fails to find evidence that deterrent theory alone has the ability to provide long-term solutions to increasing crime rates. Additionally, Lynch expresses doubts that the “get tough” attitude towards crime will have the intended goal of lower crime rates.
Within the debate of the effectiveness of deterrence as a method of controlling crime rates there are those who believe that increased rates of incarceration coupled with longer prison terms and swifter punishments will have the desired effect of decreased crime rates (Nagin, 1998; Reynolds, 1997). Conversely, there are also those who believe that deterrence is not the best method of lowering crime rates (Cullen et al., 2002; Cullen, Wright & Applegate, 1996; Gendreau, Goggin, Cullen & Andrews, 2000; Lynch, 1999), although they acknowledge that the theory of deterrence does offer new avenues of research and possible intervention strategies.
Cullen, F. T., J. P. Wright, and B. K. Applegate. (1996). “Control in the Community: The Limits of Reform?” Pp. 69-116 in A. T. Harland (ed.), Choosing Correctional Interventions That Work: Defining the Demand and Evaluating the Supply. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Cullen, F. T., T. C. Pratt, S. L. Miceli, and M. M. Moon. (2002). “Dangerous Liason? Rational Choice Theory as a Basis for Correctional Intervention.” Pp. 279-296 in A. R. Piquero and S. G. Tibbetts (eds.), Rational Choice and Criminal Behavior: Recent Research and Future Challenges. New York: Taylor and Francis Books.
Gendreau, P., C. Goggin, F. T. Cullen, and D. A. Andrews. (2000). “The Effects of Community Sanctions and Incarceration on Recidivism.” Forum on Correctional Research 12 (May): 10-13.
Lynch, M. J. (1999). “Beating a Dead Horse: Is There Any Basic Empirical Evidence for the Deterrent Effect of Imprisonment?” Crime, Law and Social Change 31:347-362.
Nagin, D. S. (1998). “Criminal Deterrence Research at the Outset of the Twenty-First Century.” Pp. 1-42 in M. Tonry (ed.), Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Volume 23, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reynolds, M. O. (1997). Crime and Punishment in America: 1997 Update. Dallas, TX: National. Center for Policy Analysis.