Classical Criminology

V. Further Perspectives on Deterrence

Underlying much writing in the classical tradition is the objective of determining what a reasonable system of justice would look like, and this leads to the assessment of the effects of varying policy on criminal behavior. This includes evaluation of what the optimum level of enforcement and sanctions should be and whether deterrent measures have worthwhile prospects. Following the belief that criminal law must minimize the social cost of crime, and that social costs are calculated by adding the harm crime causes and the cost of punishment, researchers who focus on deterrence, which is an offshoot of classical criminology, analyze penalties and their effects.

Research that does not allow for varying perceptions of costs and benefits across types of would-be offenders, places, or time periods are referred to as objective deterrence studies. The study of the relationship between imprisonment rates and crime rates, for instance, usually falls within this category. In contrast, perceptual deterrence theorists focus on varied perceptions of costs and benefits across types of would-be offenders, places, or time periods. In practice, the distinction between the objective deterrence and perceptual deterrence/rational choice perspectives also rests on the former’s focus on aggregate variation and tendency to use macrolevel variables that reflect variation in opportunity for crime and spatial and temporal differences in payoff and punishment. Objective deterrence theorists are likely to use the most general economic variables and predictions that emphasize variation in state policies and economic conditions, whereas perceptual deterrence/rational choice theorists are more likely to focus on individual variation in crime and varying individual criminal propensity. They also are more likely to incorporate a wider array of variables into explanations, often drawing insight from traditional domains of psychology and sociology.

A small but increasing share of the voluminous literature on deterrence reflects emerging interest in modeling formally and testing game theoretic and other exchanges occurring between individuals who would deter crime and those who would commit it (Fender, 1999). One notion is that aggregate offender (and state) choices reflect the ongoing mouse-and-mousetrap relationship as crime fighters and the people who might consider illegal acts learn and react to changing environments of exchange. There also is increasing theoretical attention to the possibility that lawmakers can use deterrent penalties to shift moral and cultural qualms about crime and change the public’s cost–benefit analyses as a result (Dau-Schmidt, 1990). The integration of game theory and other dynamic views on feedback between penalties and assessments of crime into classical criminology is in its infancy, however. Investigating how changes in policies affect the subsequent behavior of population aggregates, such as by examining the effect on drunk driving of stringent enforcement of laws prohibiting drunk driving and accompanying public information campaigns (they worked), or the number of crimes prevented by executions (a highly contested series of findings), remains the thrust of deterrence research.

If there are contingencies in efforts to deter crime by raising its costs, the most apparent is that the point of diminishing return for investing in deterrent efforts varies by crime, probably according to the size and characteristics of the population that remains undeterred when a new policy is imposed. Crimes committed by many people, by nondesperate or lightly motivated people, or by legally informed people and crimes with currently lenient penalties must be easier to reduce with new measures than are crimes committed by a few desperate persons who are capable of ignoring penalties that already are stiff. In the former case, the easy work is yet to be done. Partially because natural consequences and shame are powerful deterrents (Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Madensen, 2006), relatively rare crimes that have tremendously devastating natural or informal consequences are difficult to deter further by formal means. For some of these reasons, the great classical criminologist Beccaria famously observed that 18th-century laws forbidding suicide necessarily are ineffective. Crimes with already stiff penalties also are unlikely to effect significant additional deterrence by adjusting formal penalties upward; some people do not scare easily. Even those who might be scared should they consider a consequence may not be deterred if, at the moment of decision, that consequence is not recalled, or if they are so intent on committing an act that little else matters.

Only a few criminology scholars use experimental methods to assess whether rewards and punishment affect cheating or risk-taking on assigned tasks (Ward, Stafford, & Gray 2006). There are numerous studies in which participants of varying background have put pen to paper to explain how they would evaluate costs and benefits presented in vignettes and have answered background questions about their own decisions and experiences to see whether they are able to predict costs and benefits. When presented vignettes that contain calculable and finite costs and benefits, respondents usually answer accordingly, leading to the conclusion that the decision to commit crime generally is predicted by cost–benefit assessments. On the whole, and with many caveats, there can be no doubt, on the basis of the results of this research, that deterrence works when other relevant factors can be controlled and that there is considerable rationality undergirding criminal choice.

Similar survey techniques for examining criminal decisions include exercises in which known offenders, responding to vignettes, describe in detail what they consider when deciding to commit or selecting real crimes. There also have been interviews about rationality in the target selection process and on how offenders sequentially proceed through decisions leading to crime. Here, it has been confirmed what researchers who study target selection and routine activities approaches have already shown by survey and geographic methods: Where crime is easy to commit and the odds of getting away with something are made high by environmental arrangements and circumstance, offending is likely.