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 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.
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.