Other Free Encyclopedias » Law Library - American Law and Legal Information » Crime and Criminal Law » Deterrence - The Concept, A Historical Perspective, Empirical And Ethical Questions, General Deterrence: Myth Or Reality?

Deterrence - General Deterrence: Myth Or Reality?

police criminal justice crime

The strongest basis for the belief in deterrence is the eminent plausibility of the theory from the viewpoint of common sense. That the foresight of unpleasant consequences is a strong motivating factor is a familiar experience of everyday life. It would be a bold statement that this well-known mechanism of motivation is of no importance in the decision to commit or not commit an offense. Most offenders, and even more so most potential offenders, are within the borders of psychological normalcy. There is no prima facie reason to assume that they are insensitive to negative inducements.

Historical experiences from police strikes and similar situations show that even a short breakdown of criminal justice leads to great increases in offenses such as burglary and robbery (Andenaes, 1974, pp. 16–18, 50–51). By introspection many know that the risk of detection and negative sanctions plays a role for their own compliance with rules about taxation, customs, drinking and driving, and other traffic offenses. It seems to be a universal experience that police regulations that are not enforced gradually cease to be taken seriously. Paradoxically, the consequences of police corruption can be mentioned as a demonstration of the deterrent impact that the criminal law has when the machinery of justice is working normally and properly (Andenaes, 1975, pp. 360–361). All available data indicate that organized crime flourishes most where the local police have been corrupted. Police corruption paralyzes enforcement and gives professional criminals a feeling of immunity from punishment. That crime flourishes when the criminal justice system is paralyzed through corruption is another way of stating that a criminal justice system that works normally does deter crime, or at least some forms of crime, to some degree.

It seems safe to conclude that criminal law and law enforcement play an indispensable role in the functioning of a modern, complex society. However, from a practical point of view, this insight is of limited value. Policymakers are not confronted with the choice of retaining or abolishing the whole system of criminal justice. The choices are of a much more narrow kind. The legislator sometimes has the choice between criminalization or decriminalization of a certain type of behavior, such as homosexual conduct, abortion, pornography, or blasphemy. More often the choice is between a somewhat stricter or milder penalty or between somewhat higher or lower appropriations for the police or other control agencies. For the police, the prosecutor, the judge, and the prison administrator the choices are still more limited. The questions of practical importance do not refer to the total effects of criminal law but to the marginal effects of this or that change in the level of punishment or the allotment of resources (Zimring and Hawkins, pp. 7–8). These effects are difficult to foresee. Decisions on whether to change or not to change are often made on the basis of overly simplistic assumptions.

Deterrence - Factors In Deterrence [next] [back] Deterrence - Empirical And Ethical Questions

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or