Deterrence is a theory from behavioral psychology about preventing or controlling actions or behavior through fear of punishment or retribution. This theory of criminology is shaping the criminal justice system of the United States and various other countries.
Deterrence can be divided into two separate categories.
General deterrence manifests itself in policy whereby examples are made of 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.
For example, in the Islamic Crime & Punishment system (Hodood, i.e. plural of Hadd), applied 1400 years ago, the punishment for crimes was performed in public, and was aimed at general social deterrence.
Specific deterrence focuses on the individual deviant and attempts to correct his or her behavior. Punishment is meant to discourage the individual from recidivating.
At the military level, the principle is expressed in deterrence theory.
There is some debate over whether deterrence is achieved through
- the higher probability of arrest and conviction, and/or,
- severity of punishment, or
and whether it is aimed at others or the offender themselves or both.
The history of punishment in reaction to crime began in biblical times with the “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” guideline, although later Christians interpreted this literally, emphasizing compassion and tolerance rather than punishment, even to the extent of "turning the other cheek."
Although most Western populations eventually embraced some version of Judeo-Christian values, medieval Europe displayed little of the restraint prescribed by this religious tradition. On the contrary, the level of violence among medieval populations was only exceeded by the force applied by emerging states in attempting to maintain control and suppress it. Deciding guilt in an offender was more important than the nature of the offense. Once the guilt was announced, the question was not so much whether an execution should take place, but how dramatic it should be. There were not many punishments besides exile and execution.
Two utilitarian philosophers of the eighteenth century, Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, formulated the deterrence theory as both an explanation of crime and a method for reducing it. Beccaria argued that crime was not only an attack on an individual but on society as well. This extended the issue of punishment beyond retribution and restitution to aggrieved individuals. Society was cast as victim, not merely bystander, and what had been seen as a dispute between individuals, expanded to an issue of criminal law. For the utilitarians, the purpose of punishment became the protection of society through the prevention of crime.
There is an ongoing debate about deterrence correlation with capital punishment, one theory being that the existence of capital punishment does serve as an effective deterrence to premeditated murder, while an opposing theory holds that it does not. Today, there is no conclusive evidence for either theory.
- Deterrence and the Death Penalty Statistical information and studies
Hagan, John, A.R. Gillis, and David Brownfield. Criminological Controversies: A Methodical Primer. Boulder: Westview, 1996. 81-3.
To read more about severity of punishment in relation to deterrence, see Mendes, M. & McDonald, M. D.,  “Putting Severity of Punishment Back in the Deterrence Package” in Policy Studies Journal, vol. 29, no. 4, p.588-610, and Moberly, Sir W. H.,  The Ethics of Punishment.
To read more about the argument concerning who deterrence is aimed at see Beccaria and Bentham’s ideas as presented in Moberly, Sir W. H.,  The Ethics of Punishment.
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