Deterrence theory is paralle or even better compliments the Classical theory of Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) established in 1764 from his book titled, An Essay on Crimes and Punishment. The fundamental design of "classical theory" is the assumption that individuals are rational people who pursue their own interest that attempt to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In the pursuit of self-interest individuals are deterred by the threat of swift, certain, and severe punishments if they commit crimes. Beccaria developed this idea in reaction to the harsh corrupt and illogical nature of the legal system and justice in the 1700's. Beccaria built upon the theories of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes' (1588-1679) ideas of social contract. (Cullen & Agnew, 2006)
Deterrence theory assumes that people are rational and pursue their own interest in an attempt to maximize pleasure over pain. People choose to act in criminal activity if they believe it is to their gain. Deterrence theory also argues that the way to prevent crime is by punishments that are swift, certain, and severe; similar to what Classical theorists argue. Deterrence theorists focus on the impact of official punishments on crime. Not until the 1970's did this theory become popular which was fueled by economist Gary Becker (1930-present). Gary Becker's influence has impacted the U.S. criminal justice system so much that it is widely used in public policy and the "system" has widely abandoned rehabilitation as its main crime control strategy. Many states have passed "three strike" laws, mandatory sentencing laws, and juvenile mandates.
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Leaders in deterrence theory include Mark C. Stafford, Mark Warr, Derek B. Cornish, and Ronald V. Clarke. A branch of this theory is Specific Deterrence. Specific deterrence builds upon the assumption that the idea that punishment reduces the crime of those specific people who are punished. General Deterrence also is a branch that asks whether punishment deters crime among people in the general population. Also that punishment may deter crime in those who are not punished. Rational Choice Theory also builds upon classical and deterrence theories in that it assumes that offenders are rational people who seek to maximize their pleasure over pain. Offenders are rational decision makers that calculate their self-interest and pursue it. These rational offenders also compare the cost and benefits in determining to commit crime or not. (Cullen & Agnew, 2006)
The theory of Deterrence just like any other has been reviewed and researched. Studies that examine the relationship with perceived certainty of punishment and offending may suggest that policy based on deterrence may not be best used. According to Shelly Matthews and Robert Agnew deterrence studies that are longitudinal and that control the major causes of crime find that perceived certainty have a weak to no effect on offending. (Matthews & Agnew, 2008) Many researchers have found that perceived certainty of punishment only deters only some types of people but not others. Agnew and Matthews further consider that by examining the effect of perceived certainty on offending is conditioned by the individual's social environment, specifically the individual's level of association with delinquent peers. They continue that the best way to test deterrence policy is through longitudinal research to determine the direction of influence between perceptions of certainty and offending. They feel that their suggested studies will control the major predictors of crime such as prior crime, levels of self and social control, moral beliefs, and association with delinquent peers. (Matthews & Agnew, 2008)
In Raymond Dacey's and Kenneth Gallants' research they found that in using deterrence in policy making that the severity of both the punishment of the guilty and the harassment of the innocent, such as the war on crime; may induce criminal behavior among those who are at risk preferring and perceive similar likelihood of being rightfully punished or wrongfully harassed. (Dacey & Gallant, 1997) Both strongly feel that research is much needed in this area, primarily studies that build on earlier theoretical works.
Deterrence policies have been used and implemented since the beginning of time. Ancient tribes would exile members for crimes and violations of their code such as adultery, murder, or arson. Today much of the American Judicial system is formulated around the theory of deterrence. Apprehension from law enforcement and detention is the beginning of a series of deterrence's that is better known as the criminal justice system. Imprisonment after conviction is meant as a deterrent for society. Society is presumed to be deterred knowing that our governments laws are carried out in accordance to the legal system. The state of California like many other states implemented the famously "Three Strikes" policy in 1994. (Reynolds, 2009) The "Three Strikes" policy mandates those whom commit three violent felonies (hence three strikes) than be ordered to serve life imprisonment. This policy is very highly debated. Since the "Three Strikes" policy has been enforced according to the UCR crime is declining. Inversely courts and prisons cannot keep up with the overflow of criminals falling into this policy. The US criminal justice system including "three strikes" and capital punishment are directly linked or associated with Beccaria's Classical theory or better known today as Deterrence policy. Crime control policies will always be linked with deterring criminals as long we continue to have victimization. Carlsmith and Darley (2002) suggest that society seek harsher punishments for criminals. They suggest that the criminal justice system fails in leaving the victim vindicated. Together they conclude that a system "of a just desert system that aligns with people's everyday sense of justice" (Carlsmith and Darley, pg 297) is what is needed in our justice system.
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The theory of deterrence in its simplest form does not explain criminal behavior but rather is a solution to a social problem. The "father" of Criminology, Cesare Beccaria paved the way to research this social dilemma but one cannot stop with learning from him. There are many theories and branches of theories brought by many other prominent researchers in the field that can better explain why crime occurs than deterrence. Deterrence is an effective solution but the assumption of this theory is flawed in that some punishments based on this theory are inhuman, harsh, and ineffective because crime is an everyday part of life. The theories of: Social Disorganization, Strain, Control, Critical Criminology, Peacemaking can better explain why crime occurs and this is the major flaw in Deterrence theory. Deterrence has been applied since human existence where excommunication from nomadic tribes was used as punishment in order to maintain peace within the tribe. It has been used ever since, all nations use some form of deterrence policy in their criminal justice system. Deterrence is used in the hopes that presumed fear will prevent others from committing related crimes. Deterrence must be used but not solely deterrence; it must be combined by barrowing from other branches. It seems that deterrence is used to respond to neither the problem of crime but not the solution nor the prevention of it.
Deterrence is heavy linked or overlapped with Beccaria's Classical Theory but Control and Routine Activities assumptions can be similarly linked to one another. Control theory is based on the assumption that criminal motivation is widespread and that the cause of crime is the lack of certain controls or social bonds. (Cullen & Agnew, 2006) To better explain crime linking Control theory to deterrence we can better explain that people with lost or loose moral compasses will be more likely to commit crime. A person determining the potential consequences of committing a crime with loose or no control will be more likely to commit crimes. The assumption that crime is caused by Routine Activities may motivate offenders have to account for rational choice, deterrence, and controls. Most individuals are rational and just because a potential offender may see an opportunity to commit a crime may opt not to. A reasonable offender will weigh his options because of deterrence. Also, his or her self control of one's self. To better understand crime causation one must consider many factors and barrow from other theories, only one may not suffice.