What is Deterrence?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Deterrence involves the establishment of clear consequences for criminal activities which are designed to make people think twice about engaging in those activities. The idea behind this approach is that people will be deterred from the commission of crimes by the awareness that they will be apprehended and punished. Since people often want to avoid punishment, they may opt not to commit a crime at all rather than run the risk of being caught. This theory has been debated among psychologists and legal scholars, some of whom question whether or not it is effective.

The possibility of jail time is one form of deterrence for committing crimes.
The possibility of jail time is one form of deterrence for committing crimes.

The practice of deterrence can focus both on specific individuals and general populations. For example, police officers can use a mobile radar truck to flash warnings to all drivers about their speed to act as a deterrent to speeding for the population in general. They can also ticket individual drivers to penalize them for speeding, reminding drivers of the fact that there are penalties for speeding, and the ticket can also act as a deterrence to recidivism because the ticketed driver wants to avoid another ticket.

The presence of law enforcement might work as a deterrent in some situations.
The presence of law enforcement might work as a deterrent in some situations.

People who argue against this approach as an effective method for addressing crime point to the fact that despite well established deterrence-based systems, rates of crime remain high in many regions of the world. If deterrence was truly effective, one would expect rates to drop in areas where punishments are swift and severe and people are reminded on a regular basis of the consequences for criminal actions. In fairness, however, rates may be kept lower than they would otherwise be with the assistance of this method, and the only way to find out for sure would be to remove deterrence from the legal system.

Opponents of deterrence believe that people may not think about consequences when they are desperate or acting in the heat of the moment. Others may believe that they can evade punishment; to borrow the example of drivers from above, for example, drivers might slow to the speed limit when they know that law enforcement officers are around.

Proponents believe that deterrence can be effective, through providing costs which outweigh benefits of criminal activities. While deterrence may not work on specific individuals, it can act to make society in general more law abiding. Controlling for the many factors which influence criminal behavior can be challenging, but proponents believe that deterrence is one of the things which keeps crime rates from growing larger.

Tickets may act as a deterrent to speeding.
Tickets may act as a deterrent to speeding.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


In the United States they need to come up with something other than putting someone to death.

I guess in one way I agree with some and disagree with others, but I think in all honesty, we the people of the United States have a problem.

We need to take out places instead of messing around and going to war then fixing the mess up that we made. Look at the soldier who just killed 16 civilians over there and now he is in deep trouble. I think the United States is dead wrong, because look at how many of our people they killed. Now they are talking about retaliating.

The sad part also is what person in their right mind would ever agree to giving up their guns? Believe me, I purchased a gun to carry on my person, just for the simple fact that people are really getting stupid and robbing homes for even the littlest things. Sadly enough, they are murdering people also. I don't agree so much with the idea of people getting put to death, because the simple fact is too many people have died innocently. There was a case in Texas in which they claimed a man killed his three daughters in a fire. Later down the road they found evidence that he was innocent. Not just him, but look it up; there are so many others who were found guilty and received clemency and more. How does that person get back years of their life? Imagine them saying oh yeah that's him or her. Think about what any person feels inside when they are definitely innocent and found guilty. You have no way of doing anything because the jury said you're guilty. That's sick!

I do agree that if they cut off a finger or your hand could affect a person in so many ways. For instance, you need your hand for the bathroom, eat, work, and more, I think it is horrible but we need to find something to deter them from doing it.


@miriam98 - I believe that the death penalty deterrence connection is a valid one. I think it’s only common sense. Most criminals nowadays know that if they commit a crime, especially murder, they can expect no harsher punishment than jail time in most cases, and even then they’ll get out in a few years. We have more violent crimes because we rarely impose the death penalty.

Do you want proof that deterrence works? Go to Saudi Arabia. They’ll cut your hand off if you steal. Show me how many thieves there are in Saudi Arabia. For that matter, try doing drugs in Singapore.

I went to Singapore once, and when I landed I had to fill out a disembarkation card. I vividly remember the warning on the card; in bright red capital letters it said: “Death to all drug traffickers in Singapore”-and they meant it.


@David09 - Sorry to rain on your parade here, but I have to disagree. The fact that Russia didn’t blow us up doesn’t validate the premise behind MAD (which I thought was a reckless policy back then, and even now). It just means that Russia was not as evil as people thought. What would they gain by nuking the United States?

The premise behind these deterrence arguments is that they are the bad guys and we are the good guys, and we have to show our might and stand them down so they don’t bully us. I don’t buy the premise.

Russians are people like everyone else, with the same desires and aspirations; nobody wants war, nuclear or otherwise.


@nony - I agree. It also applies to nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence was the basis of the MAD (mutually assured destruction) policy followed by the Reagan administration. Whatever your political views, you have to admit, we didn’t get nuked.

Russia doesn’t want itself blown up anymore than we do. There is no win-win situation in a nuclear showdown. However, if we had disarmed we would have put ourselves in a defenseless position.


I’m a strong believer in deterrence of all kinds. In my opinion a strong show of might by our government is sufficient to keep the criminal element in our society at bay.

Deterrence theory basically postulates that people have a strong desire for self-preservation, and when they are met by a show of force that threatens their survival, they will revert to their instinct for self-preservation and avoid criminal behavior.

Take gun control for example. Some people think if we outlaw guns, there will be fewer violent crimes in our society. My opinion is a familiar one: “If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.” Yes, it’s cliché, but I believe it’s been buttressed by a lot of empirical evidence. When citizens own guns, violent crimes go down. That’s just the way it is.

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