The Principle Behind Crime Deterrence

Incarceration prevents crime through incapacitation rather than deterrence, calling into question the effectiveness of policing and punishments.

The Principle Behind Crime Deterrence

Photo by Alec Favale on Unsplash

The deterrence principle dictates that punishment, if made severe enough, will force people to reconsider criminal action, thus reducing crime. However, deterrence often becomes a means of coercion and oppression used by states. Punishment has been a topic of discussion for centuries, and its benefits and harms have been compared and contrasted by psychologists, sociologists, and those alike for centuries as well.

Reprimands for deviant behavior have been administered and altered since the beginning of time. The severity and the justifications for such actions have changed with the ages as well. For example, in the past, methods such as the guillotine were a common practice; now however that sort of act is an outrage and is never implemented. Originally, punishment was seen as a way to rehabilitate the offenders, however there are four typical reasons we punish today: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and social protection.

Retribution is the oldest justification for punishments. Punishment that is equivalent to the crime committed is seen as society’s revenge to the wrong-doer. The United States is one of the top countries who follow the “an eye for an eye” belief. To put it simply, the United States believes in the death penalty and executes criminals. This type of final punishment is not uncommon and has been accepted throughout American history sense its beginnings. Despite its longevity, the use of capital punishment does not seem to significantly reduce the crime rate within the United States.

Punishment as a means for deterrence, attempts to discourage crimes by publicly announcing the punishment associated with the wrongful act. Theoretically, with society previously aware of the consequences of violating the law, there will be less crime committed. This is a method of instilling fear in individuals of society to deter them from doing wrongful deeds. Although some studies have shown a decline in offenses, they lack credibility and as a result the assessment is inconclusive (Discussion of Recent Deterrence Studies).

Rehabilitation is a modern approach that aims to provide treatment to the offenders. Crime is sometimes viewed as the result to a social problem such a poverty of mental illness. While this type of punishment is fruitful to some recipients, to others it bears no effect. Although the effectiveness of deterring crime is undeterminable, one thing is for certain, the state financial expenditures is exponential. Records depict that a total of $29.5 billion was spent in this matter throughout the 2001 fiscal year (United States Department of Justice, 2004).

Societal protection is a modern approach that is easier to carry out than rehabilitation. This method segregates the offenders as a way of preventing future offenses from occurring. Methods of segregation include, but are not limited to, varied lengths of imprisonment time, or premature death by execution. Imprisonment is a valid option because it cages the person, disallowing them to commit further crimes while still maintaining their right to life. Execution, on the other hand, is a permanent solution to a life-threatening problem.

Punishment brings to surface both beneficial and harmful aspects on society and the deterrence of crime itself. In the positive sense, it is perceived that a criminal will be able to realize his sins and rationalize that crime does not benefit him through the use of punishment. A negative aspect would be the effect on the family of the person incarcerated. In addition, imprisonment and confinement has many psychological and lasting mental effects on the individual and their ability to provide for their families. Financially they are unable to support their dependents, as well as emotionally. Children will go hungry and their educational development will suffer, pushing them deeper and deeper into poverty where crimes are in abundance; thusly creating a vicious, never ending cycle.

In addition, incarceration prevents crime through incapacitation rather than deterrence, therefore raising arguments about the actual effectiveness of policing and punishments. Some theorists speculate that imprisonment and execution themselves actually create a major apprehension in the citizens. In contrast, the death of the criminal has lasting psychological and emotional effects on his or her family. Despite the pros and cons of such punishment, crime throughout this century has not significantly declined.

Important factors as to why crime persists are poverty rate and lack of education (Castillo, 2007). Identifying the root of the crime problem might be beneficial in excavating a possible means to prevent or minimize such acts (Holzer, H., & Schanzenbach, D., 2007). For example, if a solution is created that eliminates or diminished poverty and lack of education, then perhaps the breeding grounds of criminals will lessen as well. Because minorities are typically more prone to poverty and lack of quality education it would be logical to assume that these groups have a higher probability of becoming deviant.



Castillo, F. (2007, April 27). Lack of education contributes to crime. Retrieved from

Death Penalty Information Center. (2003). Cost of the death penalty. Retrieved from

Discussion of recent deterrence studies. Retrieved from Death Penalty Information Center Online:

United States crime rates 1960–2006. from the Disaster Center Online:

Stephan, J. (June 2004). State prison expenditures, 2001. from US Department of Justice Online:

(2007). Holzer, H., Schanzenbach, D., et al. The economic costs of poverty in the United States: subsequent effects of children growing up poor. from


Vincent Triola. Tue, Jan 19, 2021. The Principle Behind Crime Deterrence Retrieved from

Need similar articles?

Criminal Justice | Politics