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Deterrence Theory 1


Deterrence Theory: Four Branches

Jake J. Koppenhaver

Criminal Justice Capstone

Professor Scott

June 24, 2007

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Deterrence Theory: Four Branches

The concept of deterrence is one that all human beings are familiar with. We see

examples of many types of deterrence at almost all times in our daily lives, everywhere from the

gas station where we fill up on fuel, the grocery store we bring our children to, and the bank we

withdrawal our money from. While we may be familiar with the concept, due to the constant

bombardment of this deterrence tactic we have surely begun to be desensitized to it. Due to this

constant exposure we have become forgetful of where deterrence comes from, its purpose, the

tactics employed by the sources of deterrence, and how effective it truly is. As it relates to the

Criminal Justice system, deterrence goes to great lengths in an attempt to help keep the citizens

of our communities—our families—safe, and on many levels it succeeds.

Deterrence, as it has become known by the criminal justice system, is not a new concept,

and has been used throughout the history of man in various facets. The earliest known example

of deterrence as it relates to crime and punishment is the Code of Hammurabi. This ancient text

was the first of its kind, a document set forth by a ruling party which categorized crimes and

their corresponding punishments. This code, carved upon a large stone slab and placed in public

view, was intended to educate members of society on what is expected of their conduct and what

would happen should they violate those expectations (King, 1998). The Code of Hammurabi also

made it clear that ignorance of the law is no excuse for its breaking, another step along the path

of crime deterrence.

Cesare Beccaria, an eighteenth-century philosopher, was among the first to conduct

information gathering on the correlation between the imposed punishment of crimes and

complaint behavior of society (Keel, 2005). Beccaria believed that criminal decisions were based

on a few simple factors, being that humans have free will (they have the power to act upon their

own accord); humans are rational creatures and able to weigh prospective outcomes of their
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actions, seeing which may benefit or detract from the quality of their lives; human decisions are

based on the simplest views of man (primarily, pleasure is preferable over pain); finally that an

organized system of laws and punishments which catered to these human traits is necessary to

help keep society compliant (Winfree & Abadinsky, 2003). As these traits heavily involve human

choice and rationality, Beccaria’s theories fall into the Rational Choice school of criminal theory

and are closely related to rational choice itself, being that humans are notorious for considering

their actions and weighing the pros and cons as it relates to themselves before acting.

Beccaria’s studies into deterrence theory waned, and for over a century criminology

theorists focused on the criminal mind instead of preventing the mind from acting. In the early

1960’s, a rapidly changing United Stated refreshed the criminal justice community’s view in

deterrence. While it has always been in place, interest surfaced once more and governments

began to invest more time and effort into acting on these theories. Initially, two forms of

deterrence consumed theorists: general, and individual (or specific). Later on, theorists have

added two more major types of deterrence to the fray, being absolute deterrence and restrictive

deterrence (Winfree & Abadinsky, 2003). All four types of deterrence target various types of

potential offenders. One thing to keep in mind is that deterrence is a very difficult concept to

measure as it produces no solid, tangible primary results. All results seen from deterrent methods

are dependant upon something else (secondary).

The concept of general deterrence is the most proactive of all as it seeks to target

potential crimes before they happen. This branch of theory is a starting point in the deterrence

continuum and often targets the crime in general, not the offender. One may ask how a rule

deters a crime instead of a person. I believe that general deterrence does so by issuing blanket

knowledge that if one commits a crime then there will be punishment. As first time offenders do

not have a criminal history, they could be anyone. General deterrence is the going about of
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issuing a law and making it known that it is not permitted, and that there will be consequences

should one commit such an act. For example, a “No Trespassing” sign which quotes a state law,

such as the State of Washington’s, is aimed at the general public, reminding or educating them

that if they “knowingly enter or remain unlawfully in or upon premises of another” it is viewed

as Criminal Trespass in the second degree (Chapter 9A.52 RCW: Burglary and Trespass, 2007).

Many examples of general deterrence we see everyday do not even have to quote the law itself:

Electronic article surveillance is a popular deterrence method in many grocery and department

stores, ominous tags attached to clothing and causing pillars to sound each time tags pass

between them (this also appeals to the human aversion to public shaming); video surveillance

cameras which watch our every move in retail establishments, convenience stores, banks, and

government buildings; uniformed personnel. All of these security measures help deter the

commission of crimes, and are aimed at the general public. It is also important to note that

general deterrence is the most common, widespread form of this theory.

Individual deterrence, the second branch of deterrence theory and often a following step

after general deterrence, is a bit more intimate when it comes to dealing with crime. Instead of

being aimed at the general public and deterring crime in a general manner, it is used to target

new offenders, often in their first stages of following a potentially criminal path. Individual

deterrence is usually decided by the probation or parole system, often by the power of a judge or

similar presiding power. Whereas the general branch informs the public of the law and

punishment associated with their misdeed, individual deterrence helps to promote better decision

making by giving the courts a measure of discretion when dealing with first time offenders. For

example, a group of youths who string toilet tissue around an ill-favored teacher’s home using

the ever popular tactic of “teepeeing” have technically committed the crime of defacing private

property. Other crimes may be committed depending on youth curfews and when the event took
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place, if any real damage was done to the property, etc. While defacing private property may be

punishable by a fine and, say, 15 days in jail, a judge is not likely to tie up valuable resources in

the justice system on this. Taking into account that all of the youths present are fairly successful

students, have never been in any trouble with the law before, and are remorseful after the fact,

the judge may issue community service on a graffiti cleaning crew in a nearby public park, six

months probation, and a formal letter of apology to the victim. This discretionary sentence seeks

to show the youths what kind of impact property defacement has on those victimized, and helps

to show them that crimes—no matter how fun—are punishable, and steer them from a life of

further crime.

An example on the opposite side of the individual deterrence spectrum may be a repeat

DUI offender: Being caught three times driving under the influence a person has shown that they

likely face alcoholism issues and are unable or unwilling to seek help on their own, or they may

convey through their actions that they simply do not care about the safety of other drivers and

pedestrians on the road. Taking their prior offences for the same crime and their apparent lack of

seriousness for the situation, a judge may take it upon him or herself to show the offender how

serious they have erred. A suggested sentence for this may be attending a DUI victim’s panel,

mandatory alcohol treatment, and serving thirty days in county jail. This example shows

individual deterrence at its strongest form, meaning harsher sanctions against those who

continually commit a type of crime.

Since the time of Beccaria, social scientists have added two other forms of deterrence to

this theory: Absolute and restrictive deterrence. Absolute deterrence is the knowledge of what

will happen when one commits a crime and their unwillingness to do so in the future (Winfree &

Abadinsky, 2003). For example, a man who has previously robbed a convenience store has been

released from prison after serving six years of his life for this act. Upon being released he secures
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an entry level job with a small moving company making low wages. As a mover he has access to

property and valuables, however knowing that crime has gotten him in trouble before, and

despite the fact that stealing from clients could go virtually unnoticed he decides to resist the

thefts. He has decided that crime, even though his original crime was much more serious and

garnered more time of his life than simple theft would, is not worth the price that he may pay

should he be caught. This is absolute deterrence.

Absolute deterrence does not need to involve an offender who has been punished for any

crime to exist (Winfree & Abadinsky, 2003). Take for example a man who usually solicits

prostitutes in a certain area of town when he is unable to find an upscale escort service. He

knows of a few friends at work who have regularly frequented this area for sex over the past few

years along with him. At one point a friend of his is arrested, his behaviors emerge to his friends

and family, and he enters a period of life involving the consequences of this action. Our subject

decides that the risk is too great to continue looking for sex in this or any area and cannot

imagine what would happen to his life, his family, and his children should he be arrested for this

crime. Even though he was not the target of this punishment he decides that both prostitution and

so called “escort” services are not worth the risk of being involved in. This is also absolute


Restrictive deterrence, the fourth and final concept, does not involve the satiation of

crime by a previous offender, only a modification of one’s habits in order to avoid being caught.

This may involve modifying the types of crimes one commits in order to remain free and reap

the benefits of their actions (Siegel & Senna 2006). Take for example an offender who seeks

monetary gain without the traditional actions. She prefers to make small amounts of money

without rousing suspicion so she passes off several bad checks in another person’s name. After

being caught for this fairly quickly due to the surge in measures relating to identity theft,
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ordering to pay it all back, and serving sixty days in county jail she embarks on other criminal

endeavors with the same goal but less risk. She instead turns to an elaborate scheme where she

purports to be a caretaker for the elderly all while helping her self to their bank accounts by

having legitimate access. Her ends have not changed as she is still stealing from others’ bank

accounts; however her means has in order to reduce the risk of further punishment.

Deterrence is a deeply rooted concept in our society, and I believe goes to great lengths to

help keep society in working order. Many studies have factored in previous crime statistics

before a deterrence idea has been implemented, such as red light cameras. Others have gone to

the source of the criminal behavior, and relied upon offenders to say what deters them from

future criminal activity. Unfortunately lack of measurable and solid results means the concept is

difficult to gauge, as human word and explanations of what may be coincidence due not prove a

concept to be true. What is true is that deterrence is a concept that humans are familiar with on

their very basest of human emotions, that good is better than bad, a concept that will likely

always work in one form or another, and will continue to work towards society’s benefit.
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Keel, Robert (2005). Rational Choice and Deterrence Theory Lecture Notes. Retrieved June 20,

2007, from University of Missouri, St. Louis Web site:

King, L.W. (1998). Ancient History Sourcebook: Code of Hammurabi, c. 1780 BCE . Retrieved

June 20, 2007, from Fordham University web site Web site:

Siegel, L, & Senna, J (2006). Introduction to Criminal Justice.Mason: Thomson Wadsworth.

State of Washington (2007). Chapter 9A.52 RCW: Burglary and trespass. Retrieved June 18,

2007, from web site:

Summerfield, Morgan (2006). Evolution of Deterrence Crime Theory. Retrieved June 20, 2007,

from Associated Content Web site:

Wikipedia (2006). Code of Hammurabi. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from web site:

Winfree, L.T., & Abadinsky, H (2003). Understanding crime: Theory and practice.Belmont:

Thomson Wadsworth.