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Specific Deterrence: Definition & Examples

Specific Deterrence: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:15 Specific vs. General…
  • 1:54 Deterrence vs. Retributivism
  • 2:27 Specific Deterrence…
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

Specific deterrence is a method of punishment in the criminal justice system intended to discourage criminal behavior in the specific individual charged with the crime. In this lesson, you will be introduced to this concept.

Definition

Imagine you're a middle-school teacher. For the most part, your students are very well behaved. However, there are times when they can get a little out of hand. One student in particular, Sam, can be a bit of a troublemaker. He can be loud and aggressive, and other students tend to copy his behavior.

One day, you catch Sam cheating off of a classmate's algebra exam. You know you must punish him for his bad behavior, and also persuade other classmates not to follow Sam's lead by cheating on exams. What kind of punishment will be most effective? Taking a cue from the criminal justice system may be your answer.

Specific deterrence refers to the use of punishment for criminal activity intended to discourage a specific individual from re-offending. The objective of specific deterrence is to persuade the person who committed the crime from breaking the law in the future.

Punishments for criminal behavior may include fines or prison sentences. Two factors generally determine the effectiveness of the deterrence: the severity of the punishment and the certainty of the punishment. For example, punishing Sam for cheating by giving him an automatic F on the exam is a very severe punishment-- one that he likely won't forget! But if Sam did try to copy off a classmate the following week and you didn't impose the same kind of severe punishment, he may continue cheating in the future because the punishment is not certain.

Specific vs. General Deterrence

Deterrence is a method of punishment intended to discourage criminal behavior through the imposition of punishments. While specific deterrence is tailored to the individual who committed a crime, general deterrence is intended to make the public at large, and would-be criminals, think twice about breaking the law.

In terms of punishment, specific and general deterrence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a judge should aim to impose a sentence that will achieve both goals of specific and general deterrence. That way, the punishment will discourage the accused from re-offending and will also discourage others from committing the same or similar offenses.

Deterrence vs. Retributivism

Retributivism is a legal theory of punishment that differs from deterrence. It is intended to assign a punishment that is proportionate to the crime. While deterrence aims to persuade people to obey the law, retributivism aims to punish people for their wrongs because punishment is the best response to criminal behavior.

A punishment may have both a specific deterrent effect as well as a retributive effect. If Sam is given an F on an exam for cheating, it will discourage him from cheating in the future, and it is an appropriate punishment given the nature of the offense.

Specific Deterrence Punishments

Consider the following examples to better understand how specific deterrence punishment is decided.

Don Driver is arrested and charged with driving under the influence (known as DUI). After a short jury trial, Don is found guilty. There are a variety of punishments that may be imposed on him. For example, he may receive a hefty fine or lose his license for a period of time. Or Don may be sentenced to a term of days, weeks, or years in prison. Imagine that you are the judge assigned to Don's case. Which punishment will deter Don (in particular) from driving under the influence in the future?

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