Deterrence programs rest on the belief that society can reduce crime by taking action that makes it more difficult for a criminal to commit a crime or by developing punishment that is so severe that an individual will not commit the crime so as to avoid the stated punishment. Philosophers during the latter part of the 18th century originated this belief. Jeremy Bentham stated in his “Utilitarianism” that people, after reviewing the benefits and possible detriments of committing a crime, will always seek pleasure and avoid pain. Cesare Beccaria echoed Bentham’s words in his “On Crime and Punishment” essay, in which he stated that people want to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, to deter crime, the pain administered as punishment for the crime must be in a proportionate amount to offset the pleasure obtained from the crime. Beccaria also taught that the certainty and swiftness of the punishment is even more important than the level of severity of the punishment in deterring crime, thus making the stated purpose of punishment to be the prevention of crime.
General deterrence is the belief that effective public action reduces crime within the general population. If people fear being caught and punished for committing a crime, they will not commit the crime. The fear of apprehension is tied to the certainty of being caught and the swiftness of the trial and punishment, as much as it is to the severity of the punishment. When people believe that they are not going to be caught for committing a crime, they have little incentive to obey the law. Therefore, if a society can increase the certainty of apprehension and punishment, it can logically expect a reduction in the amount of crime.
Specific deterrence is the belief that, for certain crimes, if the chance of being caught and convicted is great enough or the punishment is severe enough, the rate for that specific crime will be reduced. This design includes harsher punishment for specific crimes that the public finds to be especially offensive and for repeat offenders. Whereas many believe that the severity of punishment will decrease crime, studies show that the correlation between the severity of punishment and crime reduction is not proportional in relation to crime rates.
Incapacitation is an action that eliminates the possibly of a crime being committed. A criminal cannot commit the crime if the methods, the opportunity, or the tools needed to commit the crime are eliminated. Such deterrence programs may take a number of different forms: incarceration, capital punishment, or police activity.
Selective incapacitation is a deterrence program based on the premise that a small number of offenders commit a large amount of crime. If society can eliminate the opportunity to commit crime for this selective group of offenders, then the crime rate will decrease. One example of this type of program is the Supervision for Life Program, now existing in many states for sex offenders. Parole authorities supervise convicted sex offenders even after they complete their periods of incarceration. The program rests on the belief that such extended supervision will reduce the opportunity of the sex offender to re-offend.
Incarceration is the primary method of incapacitation used in the United States. Because U.S. culture places great value on freedom of movement, the greatest deprivation that society can inflict as punishment is to imprison someone. Public officials express the belief that, as the number of imprisoned criminals increases, a corresponding drop in the crime rate follows. Today, more than 2.2 million people are in federal, state, and local correctional institutions. Although a causal relationship is still unproven, since the use of imprisonment for felons has increased, the crime rate has, on average, dropped each year since 1990. In addition, the belief that strong punishment reduces crime led to enactment of mandatory sentencing laws in every state. The “three strikes and you’re out” law for repeat offenders operates on the assumption that offenders will make a stronger effort to stay within the law and avoid a third conviction if that conviction means an automatic life sentence.
The most commonly recognized deterrence program is capital punishment, the ultimate form of punishment. During the U.S. colonial period, the death penalty was the punishment for more than 245 different types of crime. Over the years the public’s attitude toward capital punishment and findings from additional criminal justice research led to reduced application of the death penalty to crimes of murder at the state level and treason at the federal level. Public support for the death penalty appears to be based more on the issue of revenge than a general belief that capital punishment really is a deterrent.
Another form of deterrence program is police activity. Many people believe that the simple presence of additional police will reduce crime because criminals will be less likely to commit a crime if they are aware of a police presence. However, studies show that mere presence is not as effective as directive assignment or a change in police tactics. However, the redeployment of police resources to specific troubled areas reduces crime in those areas if the police officers enforce the laws aggressively. Another approach, community policing, encourages police officers to patrol on foot or on bikes to reduce the isolation between officers in cars and the community. Improved communication between officers and community members has reduced crime rates in select neighborhoods because it enlists the help of the community in preventing and solving crimes, which in turn increases the chances of apprehension of the criminal. Also, the increased use of guns and the growing amount of violence in life has made gun control into a major deterrence program. Officials believe that by reducing the number of firearms in the community, the number of murders, particularly of young people, will decrease. Many states have enacted legislation to reduce the number of firearms and to restrict those who can possess firearms.
- Champion, Dean J. 2004. Corrections in the United States. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Champion, Dean J. 2007. Probation, Parole, and Community Corrections. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Dunham, Roger G. and Paul F. Cromwell, eds. 2001. Crime & Justice in America: Present Realities and Future Prospects. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Fairchild, Ericka and Harry R. Dammer. 2005. Comparative Criminal Justice Systems. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Kane, Robert J. 2006. “On the Limits of Social Control: Structural Deterrence and the Policing of Suppressible Crimes.” Justice Quarterly 23(2):186-213.
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