Deterrence Theory Essay

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Deterrence occurs when people refrain from crime because of fear of legal punishment. Whereas specific deterrence pertains to people who have personally experienced legal punishment, general deterrence involves people who have observed or otherwise learned about others’ punishment experiences.

The relevant properties of legal punishment for deterrence theory are certainty, severity, and celerity, with certainty being the probability that a type of crime will be legally punished (e.g., by imprisonment), severity being the punishment’s magnitude, and celerity being its swiftness. The actions of legal officials affect the actual certainty, severity, and celerity of legal punishment, for example by making arrests and convicting offenders. However, there is a distinction between actual legal punishments and people’s perceptions of them, which is important because, according to deterrence theory, actual legal punishments deter only to the extent that people perceive them as certain, severe, and celeritous. The distinction between actual and perceived punishments is reflected in these three deterrence propositions, the third of which is deducible from the first two:

  1. The greater the actual certainty, severity, and celerity of legal punishment for a type of crime, the greater the perceived certainty, severity, and celerity of legal punishment for that crime.
  2. The greater the perceived certainty, severity, and celerity of legal punishment for a type of crime, the less the rate of that crime.
  3. The greater the actual certainty, severity, and celerity of legal punishment for a type of crime, the less the rate of that crime.

Bibliography:

  • Gibbs, J. D. (1975) Crime, Punishment, and Deterrence. Elsevier, New York.

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