In the criminology realm, deterrence refers to the conceptualization that the threat of punishment can deter people from committing crimes and, as such, reduce the likelihood and pervasiveness of offending in society. Deterrence theory delineates that people choose to obey or infringe a given law after evaluating the consequences of an act in terms of risks and rewards (Sullivan & Lugo, 2018). Underpinned by this philosophy, there exist two distinct types of deterrence – specific and general deterrence.
Specific deterrence entails a threat of punishment designed to deter an individual offender from re-offending in the future. Advocates of specific deterrence argue that criminal sanctions entailing provision for severe punishment to offenders will render them unwilling to re-offend. Hence, specific deterrence stems from actual experiences with punishing offenders and, as such, is the impact of the legal punishment on apprehended individuals (Sullivan & Lugo, 2018). An example of specific deterrence is traffic law enforcement. Arguably, suppose an individual convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol suffers unpleasant consequences such as paying a hefty fine. In that case, they are less likely to re-offend since the loss suffered due to their behavior outweighs the pleasure derived from driving under the influence.
Unlike specific deterrence, general deterrence seeks to curb crime in the general population. Law enforcers punish offenders in a manner designed to serve as examples for others in the general public who might be comprehending engaging in criminal activities. According to Nagin, Cullen, and Jonson (2018), general deterrence is aimed to make the public aware of the adverse consequences of official sanctions; thus, discouraging them from committing crimes. The pain inflicted on offenders sends a message to the general public, consequently making them fearful of the consequences of engaging in criminal activities (Brisman & Carrabine, 2018). An example of general deterrence is long-term imprisonment. An offender punished to serve a long-term prison sentence sends a message to the potential offenders that there is a risk of being caught, prosecution, and suffering severe consequences.
Effectiveness of Deterrence
Whereas deterrence may intimidate some people not to engage in criminal activities, it is not effective in fighting crime. Sanctions chiefly focusing on increasing the severity of punishment to deter offenders have an insignificant deterrence effect. For instance, over the years, the US has seen recidivism steadily increase despite implementing harsh sanctions on crimes such as illegal drug trade. This implies that offenders are more likely to offend if they are not rehabilitated. The fear of being caught and punishment has little effect on potential offenders; thus, it does not intimidate them into acting lawfully (Tomlinson, 2016). According to Gurantz and Hirsch (2017), although offenders and potential offenders know that there are consequences associated with their acts, before committing a crime, they justify their actions with the hope that they will not be caught. As a result, they perceive the reward associated with crime is worth the risk associated with deterrence.
Therefore, specific deterrence aims to dissuade offenders from re-offending, and general deterrence seeks to deter potential offenders (general public). Both are designed to prevent crime by implementing harsh sanctions to render the punishment associated with an unlawful act unworthy of the risk. However, research results have shown that deterrence is not an effective approach to preventing crimes since offenders engage in criminal activities with a strong belief that they will not be caught. This alludes to the need for reconceptualization of the specific and general deterrence to incorporate innovative approaches to preventing crime.