The concept of deterrence implies that the behavior of the human being can be controlled by means of punishment. Deterrence is one of the fundamental aspects of criminology and, to a large extent, the idea of deterrence lies at the heart of criminal justice systems of majority of countries. It is widely acknowledged that the theory of deterrence is based on the presumption of human`s rationality and the ability of people to calculate the consequences of their actions. The pain of legal punishment for a crime must offset the intention to commit an offense. (Akers, 1990, p. 654). In other words, the negative consequences of the crime must outweigh all benefits of the crime itself and deter a potential offender from the criminal act.
The modern theory of deterrence can be traced back to the ideas of Hobbes, Beccaria, and Bentham. These scholars developed an idea that the deterrence should be grounded on two main components: severity and certainty. The severity means that the punishment must be severe enough in order to make people obey the law and refrain from illegal acts. If the punishment is not severe enough, the deterrence, most likely, will be ineffective. Certainty of punishment implies that the offender must at all times suffer the consequences of his actions in the form of punishment; the crime must not go unpunished. Thus, the severity and certainty of punishment lie at the foundation of the modern deterrence concept. (Ihekwoaba, Odo, & Onyeozili, 2000 p.235)
Traditionally, the “severity” element of punishment is perceived as the most important, the one which makes deterrence function in the system of criminal justice. However, recent studies reveal that increasing of certainty of punishment gives a much higher deterrent effect than the severity of the sanctions for the crime. If an individual is aware of the high probability of his arrest resulting from an illegal act, then the possibility that this individual will commit a crime significantly decreases. The studies show that the distant perspective of suffering a severe punishment for the crime is less intimidating then the imminent possibility of being apprehended for the crime. Moreover, there is a growing amount of evidence that suggests that the “severity” element no longer plays a crucial role in the deterrence of crime. On the contrary, the statistics shows that if the punishment for a crime is too severe, it might cause converse effect and even contribute to an increase of crime rate. Statistics shows that the rate of recidivism, inter alia, depends on the duration of imprisonment; the longer a person is locked behind bars, the bigger chances of him reverting to criminal activity. (Wright, 2010, p.6)
As we can see, deterrence is one of the fundamental principles in criminology. The concept of deterrence is based on the assumption that the person will be deterred from engaging into criminal activity if there are effective means of punishment that are proportionate to the crime; the negative consequences of punishment must outweigh the benefits of crime. Therefore, modern criminal justice system is largely based on the strict laws that impose severe penalties for crimes. Even though such order fully conforms with the classic theory of deterrence, recent studies reveal that the method of harsh sanctions as a way to deter crimes is not as effective as it seems. In fact, certainty element of deterrence has a much higher deterrent effect than the severity of punishment. Thus, the classic theory of deterrence must be reevaluated in the context of this tendency.
- Ihekwoaba D., Odo J. and Onyeozili E. (2002), Deterrence theory, p 234-235
- Akers R.L. (1990), Rational Choice, Deterrence, and Social Learning Theory in Criminology: The Path Not Taken, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 81, 654
- Wright V.(2010) Deterrence in Criminal Justice. Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment, The Sentencing Project. p. 6-7