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Essay: Deterrence Theory

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  • Subject area(s): Criminology essays
  • Reading time: 4 minutes
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  • Published: October 1, 2015*
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  • Words: 1,089 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 5 (approx)
  • Deterrence Theory
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If I was attending a meeting on Deterrence Theory and was asked if I agreed with the belief that deterrence does not work and there is no point in studying it, I would counter with a differing opinion. I would explain the situations and types of individuals in which deterrence is successful. I would concede to the issues in the Deterrence Theory while also providing input as to the newest directions of the theory.

In looking at which type of people deterrence works well for, the answer is fairly simple. Those that have the most to lose are less likely to commit crimes. People with respectable careers are often deterred from committing crimes when those careers, as well as potential career growth, would be in jeopardy with a criminal conviction on their record. Also, individuals with families that are dependent upon them are less likely to commit crimes. The reason for this is the possibility of separation if incarcerated and/or the financial burden that often occurs following the commission of a crime. Ultimately, the decision to commit crime is a balance between the rewards and the costs. When the cost of a crime, whether it is a successful career or family, outweighs the reward of the crime, one is less likely to take that risk.
In contrast, deterrence/rational choice is less likely to be successful in preventing those who have little or nothing to lose from committing crimes. Those who are unemployed, or earning minimal incomes, have limited job opportunities and therefore are less concerned with losing their job or being incarcerated. Furthermore, deterrence from crime is less likely to occur for individuals who have limited family bonds or family support (lecture, 2015). The reason for this is that such people are less concerned with being a disappointment to or being separated from their children, spouses, parents, etc. Additionally, individuals who have a criminal history are less likely to be deterred from committing future crime. This is especially true if felony convictions are included in their record, as having only one such conviction can permanently restrict their housing, employment, etc. In such a scenario, certain felons may have the perceived notion that they have little to lose and therefore, the risk and reward from committing crime is believed to far outweigh the minimal cost to them.
An additional aspect to consider is the significance that consequence for committing crime has in relation to deterrence. For example, those that are successful in their criminal endeavors and are only reaping the rewards will ultimately have the notion that the criminal activity is of no cost to them. In these cases, the criminal is being positively reinforced for their crimes and the negatives of committing crime are unlikely going to impact their decision to be deterred from continuing criminal activity. As discussed previously, this situation is a prime example of how the success in deterrence appears to be directly linked to the balance between the rewards and costs associated with the commission of crime.
A problematic issue for the rational choice/deterrence theory is when crime is displaced or moved rather than prevented. Those that are truly intent of committing a crime are unlikely to be deterred from the activity. For instance, a burglar intent on burglarizing a business to perpetuate a drug addiction is likely to be deterred from their activity if, for instance, a patrol vehicle is observed nearby. Although the crime hadn’t been committed, if a burglar has no means to earn money legitimately and their desire to obtain such money overrides any sense of the perceived cost of the crime, then the criminal activity will most likely be relocated and no deterrence actually takes place. In this scenario, either the criminal will find a different business or residence to burglarize or perhaps decide to commit a different crime altogether.
There are some new and emerging directions in deterrence/rational choice theory. Obviously there is a need for punishing individuals who commit crimes, if there wasn’t, chaos would ensue. One direction is making sure that possible offenders are not only aware of the consequences of committing crime but understand the likelihood of being caught for such activity. This can be accomplished by media outlets displaying information about individuals that are apprehended for various crimes and the following punishments that follow the commission of such criminal activity.
Another aspect of emerging directions in deterrence/rational choice theory is the marketing of enforcement of certain crimes and the consequences in committing them. Instances of marketing include well-known driving under the influence and seatbelt enforcements by law enforcement. Such marketing is especially successful with the addition of informal sanctions that offenders could face are advertised. This includes job and career implications, loss of money through restitutions, court costs and attorney fees. One of the most significant reasons that marketing is successful is the importance of ones reputation. It is common knowledge that certain offenses often result in an offender’s mug shot being placed on media sites and newspapers, along with information regarding the crime they are alleged to have committed. This deterrent is especially significant for those living in smaller communities where local crime is prominently displayed in the media.
In conclusion, there is evidence that both support and counters the deterrence/rational choice theory. According to the lecture, ‘deterrence and rational choice have to be used on a crime by crime basis. There isn’t an overall model of punishment that works for everyone in all circumstances and offenses’ (lecture, 2015). Personally, I would disagree with the statement made by audience member, as I believe there is value in the rational choice/deterrence theory. Although I concede that there are many situations in which deterrence is highly unlikely to be prevented, whether it is due to the motive or type of person behind the criminal activity or the fact that the perceived reward is felt to outweigh the cost of committing the crime. With this in mind, the purpose of criminology is to study in hopes to ultimately prevent crime from occurring. In learning all aspects in relation to deterrence, whether it is the situations in which deterrence of crime is likely to be successful or not, can only expand ones knowledge and future advancements in the study of criminology.

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