Deterrence in Criminology: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:01 What Is Deterrence?
  • 1:26 Specific Deterrence
  • 1:56 General Deterrence
  • 2:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dan Grossi

Dan is a retired police sergeant and has taught criminal justice and legal studies for 8 years. He has a Master's degree in Criminal Justice and is pursuing his PhD.

Sentencing can be more than just a punishment for a crime. When used properly, sentences can encourage people not to commit a crime. Find out how punishment can stop a crime before it occurs.

What Is Deterrence?

Oliver and his friends were walking down the road when someone suggested throwing eggs at passing cars. Oliver thought, 'If we get caught, we will get in a lot of trouble.' Because Oliver did not want to get in trouble, he decided not to participate in egging the cars, and he returned home. This is an example of deterrence, which is when the fear of punishment influences people to obey the laws.

Deterrence is the use of punishment to stop potential criminals from committing crimes. Cesare Beccaria, a classical criminologist, theorized that criminals would choose to break the law only after considering the risks and rewards of their actions. When the punishment for committing a certain crime outweighs the reward, then the criminal will not commit the crime. When the punishment is viewed as less severe than the possible rewards, offenders will be more likely to take the risk and commit a crime.

If offenders really do engage in this rational thought process prior to committing a crime, then it may be possible to use harsh punishments as a method of preventing future crimes. In order for a punishment to have a deterrent effect, it must be:

  • Swift - Offenders need to associate the punishment with the violation of the law, so the punishment must occur within a short time after the offense is committed.
  • Certain - Offenders must believe that if they are caught, there is no way to avoid the punishment.
  • Severe - The punishment must be serious enough to outweigh any pleasure or reward the offender will receive from committing the crime.

Specific Deterrence

Specific deterrence means that the punishment will stop an offender from re-offending. In this case, the punishment is designed to convince the specific offender not to offend again. Speeding tickets are one example of specific deterrence. Those drivers who do not obey the traffic laws will be pulled over and issued a citation. They will be faced with fines, increased auto insurance rates, and in some cases suspension of their driver's licenses. After receiving the citation, a particular driver may choose to obey traffic laws in order to avoid future tickets.

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