Reflections on deterrence theory

Before we continue, we want to make a clear statement. It’s without doubt that social-economic factors play a key role in the occurrence of crime. As such improving social economic conditions and better education will be of great importance to reduce crime rates in future space settlements. However, even with proper social economic condition and subsequent low crime rates, some people will still turn to crime.

In modern theory on criminal punishment the concept of deterrence is a predominant one. First introduced by Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria, and latter refined and defended by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, deterrence theory assumes that criminals are rational actors. People commit crimes because they believe they will gain more than they will lose from these acts, and because the criminals believe that crime is the easiest way to get these gains.

According to deterrence theorists, the purpose of punishment is then simply to cancel the gains acquired by crime. In other words, due to punishment the costs of a crime will be greater than the expected gains (from the criminal’s perspective). Confronted with such an analysis  a rational person will decline to commit crimes.

If deterrence theory would be “true”, then we should expect that the mere threat of punishment would be sufficient to eliminate crime. But since it’s evident that despite the prospect of harsh punishments, crime is still an important problem in almost every society. Therefore defenders of this theory are facing a difficult challenge, since it seems that deterrence has failed in its objective.

As always the truth is these matters, is a little bit more complex than simply true or false. Let’s therefore look at the fundamental assumptions made by deterrence theory. First, defenders of the theory can make the following point. In order to be effective, the threat of punishment has to be credible. Aspirant-criminals has to believe that the government is willing to carry out the punishments it imposes on certain crimes. If however, the law provides high (maximum) punishments but courts hand out only lesser punishment, then criminals will less likely be deterred from committing crimes. This is even stronger the case if there will be no prosecution at all, and hence no punishment. Therefore simply raising punishments will not necessarily results in less crime.

Empirical evidence further shows that the probability of being caught is a more important consideration in deterring people to commit crimes than the severity of prospective punishments. Since we all know that the police cannot solve each and every committed crime, there’s always a chance that a criminal will get away with his or her crime. Consequently a rational aspirant-criminal will consider how likely it will be that the police will be able to arrest him or her, and the particular punishment (s)he might receive is only of secondary importance. Even if a criminal risks the death penalty, (s)he might still commit the crime if that person believes that the chance of being caught is quiet small.

Instead of raising the amount of punishment, governments should improve the quality of the police to solve crimes and to arrest criminals. The more crimes the police can solve, the less the probability of getting away with crimes will be. But again we hit a problem. Criminals do not act upon the actual probabilities, but on their perception of these chances.The authorities should provide the real probability of being caught, but it should also take care that potential criminals will believe those numbers.

This leads us to the most fundamental assumption of deterrence theory. Deterrence requires that all all people are able to rationally weigh the gains and losses of their actions. Unfortunately, we know that humans have a wide range in intellectual capabilities. Scientific studies have shown that the less intelligent a person is, the more likely it is that he will commit a crime. Less intelligent persons will have more difficulties with understanding and handling complex stuff such probabilities, and the impact of prospective punishments, than their more intelligent fellows.

There is no easy way to improve people’s intellectual capabilities, it would be great if there would be a drug which could raise your IQ with 20 points. In the absence of such drug, we have to face that a substantial part of the population might not be persuaded by the threat of punishment.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on deterrence theory”

  1. I have argued that knowing the punishment for murder is life imprisonment will not occur to me at the moment when am killing someone who has wronged me. If these were the case, I think we should have by now closed half the prison facilities in the world.

    1. You point to a serious problem of deterrence theory. Even the most rational people among us, might lose their temper at certain moments and do things regardless of their consequences.Those who came up with deterrence at the end of the 18th century ignored human psychology, which was only introduced at the end of the 19th.

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