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Deterrence Theory, otherwise known as the "Classical Theory" was the predominate school of thought during the late 1700s and 1800s. One of the core ideas behind the theory is that of human agency, the ability of one to choose his or her actions. Deterrence theory poses that individuals make choices based on a cost/benefit analysis of the situations at hand. That is, they weigh the options for and against committing crime while seeking the maximum amount of pleasure (benefit) and the minimal amount of pain (cost). The theory suggests that certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment are the keys to deterring crime, each of these factors having a general and or specific affect. Since its revival in the early 1970's, it is once again at the forefront of today's criminological theories. The purpose of this essay is to determine the current state in which modern research has advanced the theory.
Early studies have shown the complexity of the issues surrounding Deterrence Theory. The concept of deterrence has proven time and again its abstract nature with continual measurement obstacles. During the initial reentry into deterrence theory many criminologist experimented with various measures and methodological strategies, moving from ecological data to self-report surveys, experiments, and case studies (Tittle, 1978). Booker (1972) sought to advance the direction of further research by suggesting a focus on specific crimes, noting the difficulties faced when attempting to isolate specific variables important in measuring deterrence. Cooper (1973) seems to agree, not enough is known about specific types of crimes or offenders to make a decision on the effectiveness of deterrence theory. He suggested a more concerted effort be placed in understanding our perceptions, target selection, and methods of measurement. Pontell et al. (1978) questioned the logic behind the simplistic one-way causation research design and found results that directly opposed deterrence research up to this time. These studies helped direct Lotz et al. (1978) in his replication of Claster's (1967) work where he narrowed the interpretation of his findings from the general deterrence approach used by Claster, to specific deterrence. In doing so he found inconsistent results for the support of deterrence theory. Numerous studies yielding mixed results fueled ongoing research in both general and specific deterrence.
The following years of research were strengthened with renewed interest from criminologists. The three key elements of deterrence, certainty, celerity, and severity began receiving more attention. Cook (1980) laid out five potential areas of research that would broaden the range of deterrence research and our understanding by way of experiment, and paying closer attention to dramatic policy change. Tittle and Rowe (1973), in a classroom cheating experiment, reported that females were more deterred by sanction threats than males. Nagin and Pogarski (1985) looked closer at the relationship between the key elements, by testing an integrated model. They found that extralegal consequences resulting from conviction appear to be at least as good of a deterrent as legal consequences. They also found support for certainty of punishment as a superior deterrent over severity. Green (1985) also found support of the deterrence theory through an experimentation strategy. His results indicated the threat of legal consequences for stealing cable television had a more pronounced affects on females than it did males. This study helped confirm results from Sigelman and Sigelman's 1976 experimental study of traffic violations, which concluded that women were more deterred by the presence of a uniformed figure. Some studies surrounding the subject of deterrence have not found supporting evidence.
Decker and Kohfeld (1985) examine deterrence by assessing the link between arrests and criminal behavior. Their study produced opposing elements suggesting that arrest ratios do not measure criminal perceptions and therefore should not be used for further measures of deterrence. Lanza-Kaduce (1988) also found results not in congruence with most previous specific deterrence research. Her research reported that certainty and severity did not have an effect on subsequent drinking and driving but moral tolerance and prior records of these incidents predicted them in the future. Chamlin et al. (1992) focused on the time aggregation and time lag used in previous studies and concluded that long time aggregations may not have uncovered the actual deterrent affects. These studies called for a reexamination of previous studies to clear up the discrepancies.
Klepper and Nagin (1989) revisited prior research looking into the deterrent affects of certainty and severity and found that in contrast to their previous findings, certainty and severity were strong deterrents. Kohfeld and Sprague (1990) looked closer at demography and deterrence finding that "arrests lead to generalized deterrence in the form of spatial and temporal displacement of burglary..." (p131). In another re-visitation of the literature Nagin and Paternoster (1991) find little support for Williams and Hawkins (1986) claim that the research prior was done in too narrow a conception of the deterrence process. More confirmations of deterrence have been found as the theory gained more controversy.
A test of deterrence theory by Decker et al. (1993) found that among burglars in a logit analysis were highly influenced by the risk of being caught and by the potential for gain. Foglia (1997) test perceptual deterrence in inner city teens and found that legal sanction threats were only mildly associated with the deterrent effect seen in teens from economically depressed neighborhoods. As the twenty-first century approached much more knowledge regarding the effects of the deterrence theory are known and more effort is attempting to focus on the policy implications this has brought about.
Nagin (1998) brought to the attention of criminologists and policy makers alike four major knowledge gaps that need be addressed in potential research. He points out effectiveness and our need to better understand how and why over time our responses to policy change, a shift from short-term consequences to predicting long-term effects. Thirdly he highlights the lack of knowledge on the sanction risk perceptions and actually policy. Lastly he indicates the fragmented link between intended and actual policy and the need to better understand that process. Jacobs et al. (2000) also found that "temporal gaps between detection, arrest, and conviction undermine the celerity of punishment."(pg192) This contribution lends to the need to further explore deterrence theory. More recently, Keleck et al. (2005) addressed the "missing" link between aggregate punishment levels and individual perceptions of punishment and found that increased punishment levels are not likely to increase deterrent effects. Deterrence research in the twenty-first century has brought the theory into a new understanding and well established its role in crime theory. The latest publication on the issues of deterrence by Jacobs (2010) has suggested that the difference between deterrence and an offender's actual deterrabilty be more closely examined for there is a distinct difference in the two. "The distinction between deterrence and prevention is important because of the role of situational measures in thwarting a risk-sensitive offender but not a risk-insensitive one." (Jacobs, 2010) (pg 141).
Throughout its revival, the Deterrence Theory has under gone many scrutinizes and will continue to receive them in the future. Methods for research are ever changing and more improved research designs have continued to aid in the development of this theory over the years. New directions for research are routinely popping up and improving the quality of our understandings. Policy and other known gaps addressed by Nagin (1998) and Jacobs (2010) shape the forward direction of this theory.
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