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The Concept Of Deterrence

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The field of criminology is replete with theories explaining specific crimes as well as patterns of offending. One common factor theories share is the reliance on basic facts of criminal occurrences. However, the multitude of criminal theories, especially contemporary theories, has added more questions than answers to the study of crime. These questions arise, in part, because of the reliance on basic facts of criminal offending. What types of people are mostly likely to become involved in crime? Is this similar for all crimes or only specific types of crimes? What factors, social or within the individual, are most important in explaining criminal behaviors? Modern day criminologists are continually challenging old ideologies and testing existing ideas, uncovering problems with some theories and potential support for others.

Classical /deterrence theory originated in eighteenth century Europe with the writings of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. The basic premises of the theory are: 1) human beings are rational and have free will; 2) human beings are governed by the pleasure/pain principle. The decision-making process is used to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The classical theorists believed that punishment must be just severe enough to outweigh any pleasure to be gained from the commission of the illegal act. In order to facilitate the connection of the punishment with the crime- it must also be applied with swiftness and certainty. When so applied rational human beings should be deterred from committing crime (Akers 1997).

From this viewpoint we can shifts attention to the act of engaging in criminal or deviant activity. The issue becomes, what can be done to make the act of crime or deviance less attractive to the individual? How can crime or deviant behavior be prevented? “…crime prevention or at least crime reduction, may be achieved through policies that convince criminals to desist from criminal activities, delay their actions, or avoid a particular target.” (Siegel, 1992:133). Strategies that are relevant to this perspective include the following: target hardening (deadbolts, self-defense skills, “the club,” neighborhood watch programs, etc.), and legal deterrents (more police, mandatory sentencing, “three-strikes” laws, the death penalty, etc.). Research on deterrence seems to indicate that for some crimes, instrumental acts designed to produce economic gain and certain predatory “street crimes”, there is a significant correlation between these preventive strategies and the reduction or deflection of criminal/deviant activities. However, for other criminal and deviant activities, the expressive crimes of violence and the subculturally reinforced forms of deviance, the evidence is less conclusive. Let us examine deterrence concepts in this perspective (Keel 2003):

General Deterrence: People will engage in criminal and deviant activities if they do not fear apprehension and punishment. Norms, laws, and enforcement are to be designed and implemented to produce and maintain the image that “negative” and disruptive behaviors will receive attention and punishment. Although specific individuals become the object of enforcement activities, general deterrence theory focuses on reducing the probability of deviance in the general population. Examples of control activities reflecting the concerns of this concept include: Drunk-driving crackdowns, special gang-related crime task forces and police units, publication and highly visible notices of laws and policies, and the death penalty.

Specific Deterrence: General deterrence strategies focus on future behaviors, preventing individuals from engaging in crime or deviant by impacting their rational decision making process. Specific deterrence focuses on punishing known deviants in order to prevent them from ever again violating the specific norms they have broken. The concern here is that motives and rationales that lie behind the original behavior can, perhaps, never be delineated, but through the rational use of punishment as a negative sanction, problematic behavior can be extinguished. Examples: shock sentencing, corporal punishment, mandatory arrests for certain behaviors (domestic violence), etc.

According to Akers (1997), there are two main types of theory in the field of criminology. One strand of theory investigates the making and enforcing of laws and the second focuses on the explanation of criminal offending. Theories intended to explain occurrences of offending can further be separated into group level (why do males commit more crime than females?) versus individual level (why does one individual choose to commit crime in a given situation when another individual does not?) explanations (Akers 1997). The most intense theoretical efforts have focused on individual variations. Those theories can be classified by their dominant themes, although few theories can be regarded as completely limited to the theme they emphasize. The various themes appear to reflect prevailing modes of thought in academe and the larger society at the time the theories featuring them were first enunciated. Yet articulations have evolved beyond the intellectual contexts out of which the themes emerged, and some theories within each of the themes now incorporate elements from other themes.

Differential Association

Differential association theory is the work of twentieth century criminologist Edwin H. Sutherland. Although it is categorized as a sociological theory in some texts, differential association theory has such clear links with learning theory approaches to explaining crime that it merits a place in any discussion of this nature. Differential association was first described by Sutherland and slightly modified by him later (Sutherland 1973). The strength of the theory is that it not only describes the necessary social conditions to produce crime, but also attempts to explain the processes by which the individual becomes criminal. Thus, ‘crime’ is seen as political defined by those with the power to do so: however, while some people behave in accordance with these definitions, others act outside them. This latter group of people are ‘criminal’ in that their favoured ‘definitions’ of acceptable behavior  are seen as deviant by the lawmakers. The means by which an individual acquires these definitions conductive to a life of crime merits a detailed account. Sutherland (1973) states nine postulates to account for the process of acquisition:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned.
  2. The learning is through association with other people.
  3. The main part of the learning occurs within close personal groups.
  4. The learning includes techniques to execute particular crimes and also specific attitudes, drives, and motives conducive towards crime.
  5. The direction of the drives and motives is learned from perception of the law as either favorable or unfavorable.
  6. A person becomes criminal when their definitions favorable to breaking the law outweigh their definitions favorable to non-violation.
  7. The learning experiences – differential association – will vary in frequency, intensity, and importance for each individual.
  8. The process of learning criminal behavior is no different from the learning of any other behavior.
  9. Although criminal behavior is an expression of needs and values, crime cannot be explained in terms of those needs and values. For example, it is not the need for money that causes crime, rather the method used to acquire the money; the method is learned.

Therefore differential association theory is an attempt to explain crime in terms of learning, and social learning at that: it proposes that through contact with other people who hold favorable definitions towards crime that similar definitions are learned. It is important to note that the theory does not propose that the learning has to occur through association with criminals, but rather with people who hold definitions favorable to crime. Parents who steadfastly tell their children it is wrong to steal may, nevertheless, show examples of dishonesty such as not informing a shop assistant if they receive too much change in error. Further, varying definitions can co-exist: an individual might argue that it is perfectly reasonable to falsify a tax return, but would define burglary as a crime.

Ronald Akers added so-called differential reinforcement theory to the theory of differential association. He incorporated elements of behavioristic psychology in order to explain how learning takes place. His emphasis is on operant conditioning. People learn social behavior: 1) through the modeling of others, and 2) through the receipt of rewards or the avoidance of punishment. (Akers 1994).

Strain Theory

Strain Theory was developed by the sociologist Robert Merton in the 1940’s. It was an attempt to explain the role social stress plays on the development of deviant behavior, in particular crime.  Strain Theory is based on the concept anomie. Anomie first defined by Emile Durkhiem and means a state of normlessness.  The basic concept suggests that when social norms become disorganized an increase in deviant behavior will occur as a reaction to the loss of social cohesion.

Strain Theory states that anomie occurs whenever there is a gap between the goals a society expects from persons and the means that exsist to achieve the goals. Strain Theory suggests there are five possible reactions to this anomie (Agnew 1992) :

  • Conformity – Some people can continue to except the goals sactioned by society and the means that are available to them.
  • Ritualism- occurs when the person continues to perform traditional duties and behaviors when there is little change of that leading to achieving the accepted goals. In this situation the means in away becomes the goals. By carrying on the traditional behaviors the person finds structure in thier life.
  • Innovation – If a person chooses this reaction to anomie they will continue to accept the goals of the society however will not accpet the means to achieve the goals. they will instead innovate new means to achieve the goals. These new means may result in criminality.
  • Retreatism – In this reaction to anomie the person rejects both the goals of society, there is little desire to achieve societies expectations and the means. The person fills no obligation to behave in a way that society defines as acceptable. In this senerio crime cans emerge as a result of retreatist behaviors such as drug use, prostitution, and crimes related to alcohlism .
  • Rebellion – In the case of rebellion not only does the person reject society’s goals and means but wish to replace the goals and means with new goals and means that the rebellious group believes is more appropriate. Criminal acts can occure from this situation that are political in nature. Crimes such as assasinations, terrorism, and revolution are the result.

Applied to individuals, it concerns the effect of troublesome, depriving, or straining events or circumstances. When problems such as social failure, loss of positively valued things, abuse, or extreme poverty fall on individuals, theoretically they seek relief or boil with rage (Bernard 1990). Criminal behavior is one vehicle for relieving such distress or for venting the emotion associated with it.

The most complete and best articulated strain/deprivation theory is that formulated by Agnew. He expands previous thinking, first by identifying numerous sources of strain. In addition to the structural inconsistencies discussed by Merton, strain-generating conditions include negative relations with others. These negative relations may arise when one person has blocked another person’s goals, has endangered things that are valued, or is responsible for stimuli that are noxious to the individual. Strain can also result from unpleasant physical conditions, personal or environmental. All of these different kinds of strain can stimulate negative emotions, such as anger, depression, or anxiety, that then must be managed in either conventional or deviant ways.

Agnew’s account assumes that strained individuals want to alleviate the strain or transcend the emotions it causes. Criminal behavior may do that, but it is not the only option. Of three ways to cope—cognitive, emotional, and behavioral— only the last one involves the possibility of crime. In cognitive coping, the person mentally adjusts to reinterpret the straining inputs. In emotional coping, the person relieves the discomfort stemming from the strain or the feelings it produces. In behavioral coping, one actually tries to get rid of the straining element or tries to adapt to it. Almost everybody, most of the time, copes with strain or negative emotion by noncriminal means. Under some conditions, however, coping takes the form of criminal behavior.

Neutralization Theory

Neutralization theory is the work of Sykes and Matza. It differs from the social learning theories of Sutherland and Akers on a major point. According to Sutherland and Akers, delinquents and criminals have learned a different value system that encourages the commission of crime. Sykes and Matza argue, instead, that criminals and delinquents often hold conventional values and attitudes. However, they have learned certain techniques that allow them to neutralize those values and beliefs temporarily, so that they may engage in criminal activity. They do so through denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties. The techniques provide offenders with excuses for their behavior, while allowing them to espouse conventional attitudes the remainder of the time (Matza and Sykes 1960)

According to the theory people must learn to neutralize thier fundemental beliefs in order to commit the crime.They learn techniques of neutralization to prevent any internal conflicts in thier contradictory behavior. These techniques are as follows (Matza 1960) :

  • Denial of responsibility
  • Denial of injury
  • Denial of the victim
  • Condemnation of the condemner
  • Appeal to higher loyalies

In this way the person can rationalize that their criminal behavior had no negative consequence to the victim and so thier is no quilt.

Control theories

Control theories, which have existed for many years and endured many empirical tests, have also witnessed a shift in the direction toward inclusiveness. One of the most influential control theorists is Travis Hirschi, whose book Causes of Delinquency revolutionized this paradigm by introducing the multi-dimensional concepts of attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Bond theory, as it has come to be known, combines the social psychological (attachment, commitment, and belief) and social (involvement) elements to explain individual behaviors.

Bond theory has been cited as one of the most frequently discussed and researched criminal theories, but it is not absent of criticism. “Some have noted that in practice, commitment and involvement are difficult to distinguish from each other” (Gibbons 1994: 34). Other critiques of bond theory contend that it provides better explanations of minor offenses and those committed by females rather than explaining a wide variety of offenses and offenders (Gibbons 1994). However, some theorists conclude that bond theory has received enough empirical support to validate continued investigation (Akers 1997; Shoemaker 1996).

Self-control is intended to be an inclusive theory, capable of explaining all criminal and deviant behaviors, regardless of seriousness or demographic factors. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990:96) claim is that low self-control is developed through “ineffective or incomplete socialization.” The low self-control trait remains stable throughout life and, in combination with opportunity, is the ultimate cause of criminality (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Like Hirschi’s bond theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime has received attention by researchers and theorists alike (Shoemaker 1996; Akers 1997). However, the authors do not provide an explanation of the connection between this theory and bond theory. Akers (1997:91) states, “bonding theory rejects the self-control concept as unobservable and subsumes it under the concept of attachment.”

Theories tend to build one upon another and thus typically are not novel. Still, each theory tries to carve out its own special niche – to make the case that the previous works either were mistaken, omitted a key cause of crime, and/or can be interpreted in in a new way. Nevertheless, there are a lot of interrelations between theories. For example, the extent to which one has a belief in conventional values is the extent to which techniques of neutralization are also less likely to be invoked, since the techniques will be seen as an attempt to negate the legitimacy of rules. Differential association states that significant others have the most influence in molding beliefs about conventional (i.e., law-abiding) values. A person is exposed from infancy to a unique variety of significant others who affect the person’s beliefs about the legitimacy of rules and levels of attachment to the feelings of others.

In conclusion, I suppose deterrence to mean ‘preventing’ something. And indeed it does, for if you discourage something you are in effect preventing it. Yet this does not mean that the word is synonymous with ‘prevent’, as prevent encapsulates much more. As an example if I were to fall out of my window, the laws of physics would prevent me from flying. However it would be incorrect to say they ‘deter’ me from flying, as no human choice is involved. Deterrence implies choice; if I am falling (or have been executed) I have no choice in events therefore am not deterred from them. However in the above example the laws of gravity do actually act as a deterrent, as I am careful not to place myself in a situation where I could fall out of the window, for fear of the consequences. Thus, as you see legally the death penalty is a general deterrent as it is only deterrence in that it scares others into not committing the crime through example to others. Specific deterrents, ones that change the criminals behavior, are designed to stop the criminals committing the crimes through choice, as again they are scared of suffering the same punishments again.


Agnew, Robert (1992) Foundations for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency. Criminology 30:47-88.

Akers, Ronald L. (1997) Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation.  Los Angeles,CA.: Roxbury Publishing Company.

Bernard, Thomas J. (1990). Angry aggression among the “truly disadvantaged.” Criminology 28 (February): 73–96.

Gibbons, Don C. (1994) Talking About Crime and Criminals: Problems and Issues in Theory Development in Criminology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Gottfredson, Michael R., and Travis Hirschi (1990) A General Theory of Crime. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Keel Robert. (2003) Sociology of Deviant Behavior. Lecture Notes. University of Missouri – St. Louis. From http://www.umsl.edu/~rkeel/200/ratchoc.html

Matza, David and Gresham Sykes (1960) Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values. American Sociological Review 25:712-719.

Shoemaker, Donald J. (1996) Theories of Delinquency, Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sutherland, Edwin H. (1973) Edwin H. Sutherland: On Analyzing Crime. K. Schusessler (ed.) Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Seigel, L., (1992). Criminology. West Publishing Company: St. Paul, Minn

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