Deterrence theory and scientific findings on the deterrence value of severe punishment

Deterrence theory

Deterrence theory stems from behavioral psychology and concerns with the prevention or control of inappropriate actions through instillation of fear of punishments. Deterrence theory is a theory in criminology and has found persistent use in criminal justice system. The theory states that governments can significantly reduce crimes within their jurisdictions by raising the probability of arrest, probability of conviction and the severity of punishments (Mendes 60).

Deterrence theory views punishment in two ways. In the first case, criminals receive severe public punishment with a view to deter (prevent) other persons from committing similar offences in future. In the second instance, deterrence focuses on the deviance of the individual and attempts to correct behavior through punishment in order to discourage the individual from repetition of such behavior.

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Deterrence theory justifies the enforcement of punishment in lieu of the offence committed. One of the most severe punishments that authorities enforce on criminals is the capital punishment.

Capital punishment achieves deterrence since the executed individual cannot commit additional crimes. However, there is no consensus on whether it achieves general deterrence. According to Amlie & Mitschow (1162), there is unsettled debate on whether the penalty can dissuade others from committing similar crimes.

Historical development of deterrence theory

Punishment with regard to crime can be traced back to the biblical times with the slogan “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” However, Christians later emphasized tolerance and forgiveness as opposed to punishment to the extent of turning the other cheek. Formulated by utilitarian philosophers Cesare Beccaria (1764), Jeremy Bentham (1789) and Montsquieu (1748), deterrence theory both explains crime as well as means of reducing it.

They argued that crimes were attacks not only on individuals but also on the society (Mendes 61). This led to the advocacy of punishment with a view to protect the society through prevention of crime. Immanuel Kant was unequivocal in condemning the crime of murder and subsequently stated that whoever commits murder must die (Amlie & Mitschow 1161).

Throughout history, severe punishment, more so capital punishment received approval by mainstream religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) under proper circumstances although Buddhists and Quakers persistently oppose the death penalty (Amlie & Mitschow 1161). Plato supports the practice and argues that any individual found guilty of robbery either through fraud or violence, is incurable and should be punished by death.

Arguments against deterrent theory

Debate has raged on with regard to the real impact of severe punishment on the general welfare of the society. There are those that endorse capital punishment while others plainly denounce the practice. Arguments surrounding capital punishment depend on the moral view of those raising the arguments (Paternoster 776). Opponents of capital punishment raise several reasons why the practice should be discontinued in human beings.

Universal sanctity of human life emerges as the sole reason why capital punishment should be abolished. The notion bases on the moral principle that condemns any attempt to take the life of a person. This is central to many religious traditions, and the argument acts both as a premise and a conclusion without any further reasoning (Amlie & Mitschow 1165).

Fears exist due to the irreversible nature of capital punishment. This aspect renders it detrimental if applied on an innocent person. Opponents further cite faults in statistics and argue that these pauses a risk that should cause states to improve their judicial processes. Opponents of capital punishment cite numerous cases where inmates on death sentence had their sentences overturned (Amlie & Mitschow 1164). The implicit argument is that these cases concern wrongful conviction of innocent individuals.

There is an argument that capital punishment deprives the culprit of the opportunity to express their remorse and make a contribution to society. It is possible for people to be transformed and compensate the society. However, this argument fails in the sense that justice should not be traded for some unknown future concern from the convict (Amlie & Mitschow 1164).

Scientific data report on the value of severe punishment

Dolling et al (204) report on a meta-study of 700 different studies conducted to test the validity of the deterrence theory. The meta-analysis covers studies conducted between 1952 and 2006. Out of all the studies, the deterrent hypothesis receives approval in 53% of the studies and a rejection in 34% of the studies. The researchers, however, find that deterrence is more evident on mild crimes and punishment and comparatively low with regard to the death penalty (Dolling et al 205).

According to Mendes (61) the effects of probabilities of arrest and conviction and the severity of punishment receive different perceptions by individuals. There are ambiguous findings with regard to the effects of severe punishments in deterrence theory. Many empirical studies report that the severity of punishments does not have deterrent effects.

Even in circumstances where it has an effect, it is weak relative to the effect of the certainty of punishment. Empirical research that incorporates risks suggests that criminals are more risk acceptant (Mendes 70). This leads to the conclusion that certainty of punishment has greater deterrent effects as compared to the severity of the punishment.

Mendes and McDonald (596) report on scientific findings conducted on 33 studies that show little evidence of the severity of punishment and deterrence. They argue that the problem is not theory but rather the doubts of analysts with regard to the most appropriate statistical model to formulate deterrence theory.

Components in the deterrence theory all act in unison and criminals consider all of them jointly and not individually. Statistical models formulated and estimated with the deterrence package intact shows an effect of the severity of punishment in deterrence (Mendes & McDonald 600).

Statistical data aimed at comparisons between states has not yielded much success. This is because of differences in demographics within and between states. Besides, other factors that change over the span of the study affect inter-temporal studies (Amlie & Mitschow 1162). Most countries have abolished capital punishment, and even where practiced, its application is uncertain and untimely.


According to the deterrence theory, prevention of crime requires a combination of the probability of arrest, probability of conviction given arrest, and a severe punishment given conviction. It is essential to consider the three components jointly, as no single component acting alone is sufficient. Empirical findings of the effect of severity of punishment in deterrence have yielded mixed results.

Analysts who have studied the deterrence components independently have majorly brought negative results. On the other side, models that combine probability of punishment with severity of such punishment yield result consistent with the expectations of deterrence theory. Therefore, it is crucial to treat all the three elements of the theory as a package as the components fail when unbundled.

Works Cited

Amlie, Thomas T. & Mitschow, Mark C. “Arthur Andersen and the capital punishment debate.” Managerial Auditing Journal 19, 9 (2004): 1160-1172.

Dolling, Dieter, et al. “Is deterrence effective? Results of a Meta-Analysis of punishment.” European Journal of Criminology Research 15 (2009): 201-224.

Mendes, Silvia M. “Certainty, Severity, and Their Relative Deterrent Effects: Questioning the Implications of the Role of Risk in Criminal Deterrence Policy.” Policy Studies Journal 32, 1 (2004): 59-74.

Mendes, Silvia M. & McDonald, Michael D. “Putting severity of punishment back in the deterrence package.” Policy Studies Journal 29, 4 (2001): 588-610.

Paternoster, Raymond. “How much do we really know about criminal deterrence?” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology100, 3(Summer 2010): 765-823.