Five Things About Deterrence

Does punishment prevent crime? If so, how, and to what extent? Deterrence — the crime prevention effects of the threat of punishment — is a theory of choice in which would-be offenders balance the benefits and costs of crime.

In his 2013 essay in Crime and Justice in America: 1975-2025, Daniel S. Nagin succinctly summarized the current state of theory and empirical knowledge about deterrence. "When deterrence effects are unpacked, it is clear that sanction threats are not universally efficacious: Magnitudes of deterrent effects range from none to seemingly very large." [1]

The "Five Things About Deterrence" web page and PDF flyer are drawn from Nagin’s essay and are presented here to help those who make policies and laws that are based on science.

1. The certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment.

Research shows clearly: If criminals think there’s only a slim chance they will be caught, the severity of punishment — even draconian punishment — is an ineffective deterrent to crime.

2. Sending an offender to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime.

Prisons are good for punishing criminals and keeping them off the street, but prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime. Prisons actually may have the opposite effect: Inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time spent in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment.

3. Police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished.

The police deter crime when they do things that strengthen a criminal’s perception of the certainty of being caught. Strategies that use the police as “sentinels,” such as hot spots policing, are particularly effective.

4. Increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.

Laws and policies designed to deter crime are ineffective partly because criminals know little about the sanctions for specific crimes. Seeing a police officer with handcuffs and a radio is more likely to influence a criminal’s behavior than passing a new law increasing penalties.

5. There is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, "Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is uninformative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates."


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[1] Nagin, Daniel S., "Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century," in Crime and Justice in America: 1975-2025, ed. M. Tonry, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2013: 199-264. The essays in Crime and Justice in America: 1975-2025 explain how policy and knowledge did and did not interact over time and charts prospects for the future. The essays discuss where we are now, and, perhaps even more important, where we are going. Since 1979, the Crime and Justice series has provided expertise to enhance the work of sociologists, psychologists, criminal lawyers, justice scholars and political scientists. The series explores a full range of issues concerning crime, its causes and its cures. View an abstract Exit Notice.

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Date Created: September 12, 2014