Most people are not deterred by the threat of punishment, but by their own sense of right and wrong. Most who do commit crimes do so without considering the possible punishment. Deterrence is only a factor in those small number of crimes where the offender consciously weighs the pros and cons of committing a crime. Not crimes of passion, not crimes of desperation, not crimes of mistake, not unthinking crimes, not most crimes of opportunity.


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Join the conversation! There are now 15 comments on this chapter's page 16. Does Deterrence Work?. What are your thoughts?
  1. Just some guy says

    Really, it doesn’t work for crimes of mistake? You gave “I thought she was 21” as the example. You don’t think that person is going to become a little paranoid and start checking IDs?

    And how about strict liability “crimes?” Deterrence is the only reason anyone ever obeys those. There’s no right or wrong to consider in the first place.

    I don’t slow down when I see a cop because I’m suddenly reminded that I’m driving so fast that someone could be hurt. If I saw the cop then I’m alert and already fairly safe from causing a collision too. (Whether true or not: it’s what I think, and what I think is what matters when we talk about deterrence.) I slow down because I don’t want a ticket.

    [Interestingly, if I _don’t_ slow down (because I didn’t notice the cop) that’s probably when I’m also more of a danger to others (if I don’t notice a cop, what else am I not noticing?), and the right/wrong aspect starts to become more real… But this is the case where I’m too oblivious to be deterred. Oops.]

    • Interesting points, and I like where you’re coming from. But I still have to disagree. Hear me out…

      As for mistake: The threat of punishment only works as a deterrent when one thinks what they’re doing is something they might be punished for. When one believes, mistakenly, that what they’re doing is not something that would be punished, the threat of punishment isn’t in their head at all, so it can’t deter them. Your example is of someone who is no longer mistaken.

      As for strict liability crimes (more on them in a later section, by the way): The punishment happens whether you meant to commit the act or not. People who didn’t mean to do it are in the same boat as those who were mistaken — they didn’t think they were doing something that might be punished. And so they are just as incapable of being deterred. (For those who did mean to do it, they fall into the same camp as those who commit any other kind of crime.)

      As for rules that exist regardless of right or wrong (which is different from strict liability, though the two often go together): I’d argue that people who decide not to break these rules tend to do so more because they think it’s wrong to break the rules, than because they think they might get punished for doing so.

      With respect to your speeding example (a strict liability crime, by the way) — you know there’s a threat of punishment, but you’ve chosen to speed anyway. You were not deterred by that threat of punishment. What deterred you (momentarily) was the immediate threat of being caught — which would probably deter almost any crime. A cop by the register would deter most store robberies, for example. You weren’t deterred from committing the crime, but from committing it under a cop’s nose.

      I’m not saying deterrence never happens. It does. I’m just saying it’s nowhere near as important as people seem to think it is when talking about crime.

      • I think you’ve missed a nuance of general deterrence here. By imposing sentences which are generally seen as proportional by the public, on criminals, we can tailor the social pressure over how ‘bad’ a certain act is deemed. So most people don’t even consider robbing the corner shop as an option because being convicted of it carries such a steep penalty that it’s been removed from the list of options, if the only punishment was to give the money back and a minimal fine then more people would consider it and be deterred by factors such as social disapprobation/internal moral arguments.

        By then tailoring the size of the punishment you can affect how society views a crime. Which makes the incentive not to commit it larger. Society views fraud the way it does because of the way the state views fraud in societies where fraud laws are weakest there’s more of an attitude that the victim is a sucker. It’s no a perfect system but this is an effect of general deterrence.

        • But tailoring punishment only works if people have some inkling of what the actual penalty is likely to be.

          The truth is, most people have no clue what the actual “going rate” is for a given offense, and are often shocked to the core when they find out.

          Add to that the fact that there are literally — not figuratively, but literally — uncountable numbers of crimes that hardly anyone even knows are crimes.

          All most people really have is an idea that criminal acts result in some unknown, but undesirable punishment. You can tailor those punishments as much as you want, but unless you do a better job of informing the public of what the crimes are and what their punishments are, the severity of those punishments won’t act as much of a deterrent.

          Perception is all when it comes to deterrence. So an interesting corollary is that you could get just as much deterrent effect without actually punishing anyone — without the costs and externalities and incivility of actually carrying out such punishments — if you merely created the perception in the public mind that the guilty tend to be caught and tend to be punished.

          Of course, we’re doing such a bad job of instilling a perception of what actually is, that it’s hard to see how we could do a decent job creating an impression of something that’s disprovable. But practicality aside, the concept is the same.

          • A different way of thinking about whether deterrence is successful is to take note of what happens when the threat of state retribution is temporarily gone – either due to a natural disaster, or some other exceptional event.

            The london riots started as people were arrestsed in protests caused by the police killing Mark Duggan. However as the law enforcement become overloaded and the expectation of oversight was overturned, people came out to loot shops and burn cars.

            So, as the police become too busy to actually react to lootings, people start taking advantage of it. This implies the lootings werent happening because perpetrators were deterred by the justice system. Yay!

            • Are you really giving an example of how the law fails to deter crimes of opportunity and crimes of passion?

              Looting and violence during mob riots have a variety of causes, of course, but most of the crimes are committed by people who have gotten the sense that everyone else is doing it, nobody’s doing anything about it, so here’s my chance.

              “Here’s my chance” crimes are committed all the time. By definition, there’s no premeditation or forethought involved. It’s a spur-of-the-moment “nobody’s looking, so I’ll do it” thing.

              Violence tends to be less a crime of opportunity, than a crime of passion. But it is also usually a spur-of-the-moment thing, lashing out in the heat of emotion rather than with premeditated consideration of right & wrong & consequences.

              In riot crimes, what you’re mostly seeing is the exact same stuff as usual, just at a larger scale and more concentrated. People who would have committed more scattered, isolated incidents are now doing it all at the same time. People who would have shoplifted a little item are now hauling out televisions. But all that’s different are that more people are in a passion at the same time, and the perceived opportunities are greater. And the same law that failed to deter the assaulter during a riot wouldn’t have deterred him in any other heated situation.

              And there’s also the mob mentality where “everyone is doing it, so it’s okay to do this.” Even a kind of exhilarated party atmosphere at times. Does deterrence play a role when you think what you’re doing is acceptable? Hmm…

              • The example is of law failing to deter crime when there is a perception of it not being applicable (because it won’t be executed, or for some other reason).

                This suggests that in the ‘normal’ situation it’s the fact that they might be caught that stops all those possible rioters from acting on their desires. Deterrence.

              • Quite the opposite – I’m showing how the law deters crime in usual situations, by pointing out what happens when people start thinking the law does not apply for some reason.

                The example is of law failing to deter crime when there is a perception of it not being applicable (because it won’t be executed, or for some other reason).

                This suggests that in the ‘normal’ situation it’s the fact that they might be caught that stops all those possible rioters from acting on their desires.

                p.s. It’s really hard to reply when box gets so small. If my point is still not clear, we should start a new top level thread to elaborate.

        • I would love to hear your reasoning for why societies view on fraud follows the state’s punishment for it, and not the other way around.

  2. Prisoner's Dillema says

    I think there’s an element of deterrence that we’re forgetting here. People as a general rule tend to place their respect with the authorities. As a result, the law (or at least the perception of it) tends to affect people’s values. There’s a sort of osmosis between what the law considers right and wrong (expressed in the form of the punishments it prescribes) and our own moral values.

    Often, there are moral disconnects and dissonances between popular ethics and the written law. One example is the omnipresent public disregard for speed limits, especially on freeways. Another is the increasing public contempt with marijuana laws as well as drug laws in particular, a movement which is causing some diffusion back into the law by way of the state legislatures.

    For many of these laws, deterrence is the only way to encourage compliance. When people’s conviction that the law is unjust becomes too strong to be held back by deterrence, the result is a breakdown in law and order. Civil disobedience breaks out. Jury nullification can exacerbate the situation by decreasing the perceived likelihood of punishment. If the state tries to use force directly to plug the dam, the increased pressure can lead to political violence, riots, and in the extreme case, outright revolution.

    With regard to the above examples of looting in the absence of effective authority, I suspect that part of the circumstances may be that people tend to have a much lower respect for corporate property than they do for personal property. During natural disasters, people are already in need of scarce supplies, and they likely perceive that a large corporation is more than capable of absorbing the losses. That’s also probably a large part of why we perceive shoplifting as a fairly minor sin compared to the theft of an equivalent amount of value from an individual. I’m not sure if any empirical studies were ever done, but I strongly suspect that if one were to tabulate the value of items stolen from each business as a fraction of the total value of the inventory, I suspect it would be noticeably higher for large chain stores like Wal-Mart than it would be for non-franchise small businesses.

  3. NIgil says

    If the only reprisal to fear from punching my boss in the face, was getting fired and having to deal with a fistfight with my boss, I’d have punched him in the face. Deterrence in action.

  4. Kereth says

    A lot of valid points in the discussion here. The explanation given is more-or-less the standard one, but it takes a fairly narrow view of cost-benefit analysis and crime.

    Focusing on the big things (theft, murder, vandalism, etc), the riot example is still valid. Not just in cases where “everyone’s doing it,” but in cases where there’s a perception that the police or unable or unwilling to intevene, or simply not present, crime rates increase quite drastically. Nobody worries about the exact punishments, per se, most of the time (except for minor offenses where they need to be reminded that the punishment IS harsh enough to matter, such as underage drivers being reminded about not getting their licenses until they’re 21 or similar), but they worry about the notion of getting caught and the likelihood of it. Stores with low security (such as thrift stores) get stolen from more often exactly because there’s a perception that there won’t be punishment. To define such crimes as “crimes of opportunity” and thereby dismiss them is to define them as crimes that got committed “because the perpetrator wouldn’t get caught,” which is exactly the same as saying that they’re committed because there was a lack of deterence. Crimes that occur when enforcement lapses demonstrate just how many possible “crimes of opportunity” are routinely avoided by having appropraite deterence (i.e. by denying the opportunity).

    That’s where we’re taking too narrow of a view on cost-benefit analysis. “Will I get caught” is a lot the same as “will I be punished” (and quite often, getting caught is punishment enough to deter), and people clearly show a preference for crimes that are easy to get away with or are perceived as not being enforced.

    The problem with the perception of crime is that it’s assumed that people’s sense of right and wrong necessarily falls in line with what is and isn’t criminal. Sure, people respect authority (this varies by region, nationality and culture the degree to which they do this on average) but there are many cases where something is perceived as not wrong but still illegal and thus avoided. We could use the “She looked 21!” example, but the age of consent issues are still pretty contested, so let’s go for a really simple one, like fireworks restrictions.

    Many areas have laws restricting the use of fireworks to certain dates or restricting people to only certain types of fireworks or similar. Generally this is on account of fire hazards. Now, starting a brush fire seems morally wrong to most people, sure, but the average person probably thinks they can be careful and safely deploy a firecracker on their driveway in the middle of a suburban neighborhood without lighting up a distant mountainside, and they’re usually right (but it only takes one, and with enough people. . .). It is genuinely not unreasonable to assume that a large number of illegal fireworks usage cases are prevented by the knowledge that somebody would hear it going off and that thereby the individual might be caught. There seems little evidence that they might feel guilty about such behaviors, and the prevelance of firework stands along state borders in areas of the U.S. where adjoining states have sharply different firework laws, as well as the lack of evidence of use of fireworks in the vicinity of those stands (suggesting that they’re catering to a large market on the other side of the border and that people on the other side are taking them home, not using them in the legal area). Many laws are perceived as being there “to stop someone else from doing something stupid” and those laws are rarely followed on the grounds of moral agency. Jaywalking is a crime, but it’s okay, because I looked both ways and won’t get hit. She’s a few months short of the legal age, but it’s okay, because I can tell she’s emotionally mature enough to know what she’s consenting to. The speed limit says that, yeah, but there’s nobody else on the road, and I’m being careful. Of these kinds of crimes, the ones that get most often committed are demonstrably the ones that are hardest to enforce or which are perceived that way (the one’s people think they can get away with and therefore can pursue undeterred).

  5. Ben G says

    I’m sorry but I don’t believe this part of the comic. People’s sense of right/wrong are at least in some part molded by external factors such as what will get them punished. People are sociologically controlled. Deep down we like to think we are moral but then again so do criminals. That is why deterrent is a worthy effort, at least in theory. The problem might lie not with the concepts of deterrent and rehabilitation themselves, but the fact that the criminal justice system is not stringently focused on deterring crime or helping criminals as it is at punishing criminals for the sake of punishing criminals.

    p.s. I read a part in a book iirc The God Delusion what happened in a certain city when the police went on strike. People were not so moral then, huh?

  6. anon says

    Wouldn’t crimes of desperation be a yes? Take the example of stealing food because you can’t afford it. You either die of starvation or get a punishment, which typically isn’t a death sentence. The better choice should be obvious.

    • In my mind, desperation is less “is it worth the downside” than “I don’t care what the downside is.” Closer to having no choice, than to making a careful decision.

      But I could be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. What do other readers here think?

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