Deterrence in the Criminal Justice System


The United States (US) government at the federal, state, and local level carries a lot of responsibilities, including the duty to protect the citizenry from crime. The country is characterized by a high level of crime rate, with homicide and assault being the most common crimes (Bohm 2017). Other crimes include property crime, larceny, and drug violations. The government can use different means to prevent such crimes. The administration in the US has traditionally been inclined to use more enforcement and punishment, which are considered the harshest measures.

Literature Review

Forms of Deterrence Implements by the System

Sentencing policies and imprisonment that involve punishment, rehabilitation, retribution, and incapacitation commonly have a diversity of goals. They have long been preferred largely because of the reasoning that locking up people in cells for an extended period is the best way to guarantee public security and safety (Skotnicki 2019). The theory of incapacitation posits that locking up certain people in prison or jail will deter them from perpetrating new crimes. As convicted offenders serve imprisonment sentences behind bars for years or even decades, their desire and capacity to re-offend are curtailed through incapacitation. The theory of rehabilitation suggests that exposing criminals to some therapy or training programs will alter their thinking and shun their desire to commit new violations.

Additionally, retribution requires that an individual who intentionally decides to transgress the law ought to be penalized for that decision. The aim of the theory is to require the offender to pay a debt to the public and then return with nothing. Knight (2020) states that denunciation theory is derived from a combination of several other theories. It suggests that correcting someone publicly will stave off others from perpetrating the offense due to embarrassment; it also serves as a form of retribution. Each of the concepts can promote criminal justice and serve as a valid way through which to assess the policies.

Failure of the Traditional Forms of Punishment and the New Form of Deterrence

Over the past many decades, there has been a significant increase in the federal and state incarceration rates. At the same time, the legislature has enacted policies for harsher sentencing along with more punitive laws. According to Sawyer and Wagner (2022), close to two million people are locked up in cells across public, private, and federal prisons and jails. This represents a 500 percent increase over the past four decades, making the incarceration rate in the US the highest in the world (Wendy and Wagner 2020). In general, the trend has largely been a factor of changes in sentencing policy and laws as opposed to an increase in crime rates.

Consequently, the country now faces the challenge of overcrowded prisons, which are exerting fiscal pressure on limited resources at the state and federal levels. The governments are struggling to acclimate a quickly broadening penal system in the face of more and more proof that large-scale internment is not a beneficial means of securing public safety. The practice is largely expensive and convicting people to longer prison terms mainly seeks to cause economic injury to the populace, which is in excess of $81 billion annually (Peter and Rabuy 2017). According to Peter and Rabuy (2017), the burden is even higher and can cost families and the government in excess of $182 billion every year. Aside from the public spending on public prisons, private cells gobble up close to $4 billion every year. Incarceration also seeks to benefit companies at the expense of families who spend close to $3 billion yearly in commissary spending and phone calls (Peter and Rabuy 2017). Imprisonment further limits the prospects of the convicts to secure jobs after serving their sentences in addition to an annual average lifetime income loss of over half a million dollars.

Therefore, lowering the number of incarcerated non-violent lawbreakers could save taxpayers colossal resources without interfering with public safety. Research studies also find a high possibility that lower-risk delinquents will be more negatively impacted by incarceration (Knight 2020). Among low-risk wrongdoers, those who spend less time in jail are less likely to recidivate than low-risk culprits who serve longer prison time. In addition, shorter prison terms provide an opportunity for offenders to maintain their relations with kind, employers, and society. This seems to stimulate better reentry into the community. On the contrary, prisoners who spend a longer time in jail are more expected to become institutionalized. The prison denies them legitimate opportunities and they lose pro-social contacts in society, all of which cultivate recidivism. Research by Knight (2020) established that there was no significant variation in recidivism rates for prisoners held anywhere between six months to five years. Even as recidivism rates were generally high, they fluctuated in between 62 percent to 68 percent and there was no substantial decline in prisoners staying in jail for a longer time. Furthermore, findings suggest that if the prison terms are manipulated, reduced sentences are likely to cut down recidivism rates.

It is evident that the desire to sentence and punish offenders is a burden to the state and the country. Even as wrongdoers are kept away in jail, the country and the public suffer a great economic burden. In addition, there is no guarantee that the wrongdoers will reform and not commit other crimes once they are set free (Pereboom 2019). It is because of this reality that there is a greater focus on incorporating deterrence into the criminal law. In recent decades, legislators have been enacting laws and policies with the objective of strengthening the deterrent impact of the criminal justice system.

Deterrence is a prevention strategy against distasteful characters in society by instilling fear of punishment. It is expected to be the next major punishment ideology that is founded on the theories of classical criminology. Apart from aiming to penalize current behavior, deterrence also seeks to avoid future unlawful conduct through penalties or threats of punishment. In essence, deterrence seeks to restrain a person who might otherwise commit a crime. This is attained by making the potential offender to think of the dreadful outcomes of trial, conviction, and sentencing once caught (Lee 2017). There are two forms of deterrence: simple deterrence which embodies the impact of actual retribution on the offender, and general deterrence, which symbolizes the deterrent consequence of the threat of punishment. Simple deterrence is intended to enlighten an individual lawbreaker and to help the person not to recidivate. It makes deterrence a forward-looking form of punishment given that by castigating the offender or threatening punishment, it is likely that the person will not engage in wrongdoing for the first time or repeatedly.

Deterrence is founded on the thinking that criminal charges not just punish the wrongdoers but also dissuade other people from perpetrating related infractions. A lot of people advocate for the need that the criminal justice system must deter criminal conduct after a high-profile episode in which a culprit is discovered to have been awarded a light penalty. In many instances, the public feel that a harsher verdict would have discouraged the adversity and can curb similar occurrences from transpiring in the future. The theory works by counteracting the windfalls and costs of unlawful action. According to Sawyer and Wagner (2022), illegal acts are a result of intelligent and informed decisions. Hence, the prevention of crime entails finding the equilibrium between inflating the cost of crime and organizing an expansive police state that obliterates personal freedom. Once criminals establish that the cost of committing a crime is extremely high, they will find no motivation to engage in any wrongdoing. Deterrence theory presupposes that there is no distinction between delinquents and non-criminals, apart from their perception of the cost and usefulness of engaging in crime.

The effectiveness of deterrence is enhanced when the potential offender is sufficiently informed of the law and three elements must be installed in all individual members of society. That is, each person must have free will, and all people must exercise the same level of rationality and felicity. Free will denotes the capacity of every person to make ambitions about their future activities, such as deciding on when to offend and not offend (Skotnicki 2019). The rationalistic ability of each person refers to the capacity to ponder about the probable outcomes of their preferences. Felicity pertains to the desire for more enjoyable things than toxic ones. It is highly expected that crime will be restrained if all three of the ingredients are manifest in society. This is both a power and shortcoming of the deterrence theory.

Furthermore, the theory presupposes that people understand that the cost of committing an offense far exceeds the probable gains. This information must be synthesized by the potential criminal to the effect that the decision to engage in a criminal offense is deterred. However, it is not all people who know the law such that they understand the repercussion of their offences (Lee 2017). Even individuals who have been convicted before may not have a clear understanding of the law. Not everybody is interested in reading legal literature or even engaging in legal discussions. It is for the legal system to ensure that the public is sufficiently informed and there are enough cases to back the understanding that potential offenders have been deterred from committing an offense.

The effectiveness of deterrence is also limited by the capacity to set up a meaningful punishment rate that would make sense to conceivable felons. Even when the punishment rate may be effective, there is the need to ensure that retribution is not delayed to the extent that it erodes the deference effect of the cost. According to Fehr (2019), the aspect of increasing the cost of crime through deterrence involves three main components. These are the certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment. Together, the three factors effectively increase the cost of an offense. Therefore, a rationally thinking individual will stay away from committing the offense because of the understanding that the cost of committing the crime takes precedence and overshadows the benefit.

Certainty implies that there is a meaningful chance or likelihood that the potential offender will be being caught. Celerity denotes the speed at which punishment is imposed. An immediate punishment following criminal wrongdoing is considered more impactful than one that is inflicted after a considerable time from when an offense is committed. Lastly, the severity of a penalty is a crucial factor since a reasonable person might engage in a crime that gives rise to a net gain even if punishment is delivered swiftly (Bohm 2017). This transpires when the penalty is trivial compared to the crime itself. In addition, the penalty should serve as an example to other potential offenders in society in order for everybody to be informed that a particular action is not permissible.

In economic terms, increasing the cost to committing a crime should be sufficient to deter persons from executing the violation. People who consider it to be true that it is highly likely for them to be apprehended and sentenced are less inclined to engage in crime than those who do not foresee their capture and apprehension (Fehr, 2019). The cost of crime can be increased by the government by increasing the odds that a perpetrator will be arrested and speeding up the momentum with which punishment is delivered to the offender. Assessing the degree to which these changes literally prevent crime involves quizzing the belief that the crime rate will go down if there is a boost in the certainty, celerity, or severity of the proper sentence.

Of the three components, punishment certainty is far more invariably inclined to curtail the commitment of a crime compared to the severity of retribution. However, it can be difficult to implement because it needs to change police practices and enhance law enforcement policies (Pereboom 2019). Increasing the speed of a consequence is likely to interfere with constitutional requirements pertaining to the right of a fair process that has to involve the facts of active court proceedings. Increasing the severity of punishment is far much easier. The legislature simply undertakes to strike out or modify an existing sanction and replace or enhance the effect of a penalty.


The US criminal justice system has traditionally been grounded on imposing prolonged sentences as a punishment for criminal offenders. However, the increasing number of criminal acts has questioned the effectiveness of such a form of retribution. Despite heavy investments in putting up more jails and prisons, there has been no notable decline in the crime rate. This informed the need to consider deterrence as a probable measure in reducing the violations committed in the country. Deterrence simply entails preventing potential offenders from actualizing their desire to engage in criminal activity. A crime has both gains and a price the offender has to pay in order to realize the benefits. Deterrence is based on the economic principle that if the price for committing a crime is increased, the incentive to engage in crime goes down since the net gain will decrease. Deterrence is supported by guaranteeing the certainty of punishment that must be delivered in time. Certainty is supported by the severity of punishment, which essentially involves increasing the cost of committing an offense. The government should strike a proper balance between the certainty and severity of punishment in order to effectively deter the potential offender from actualizing their desire to engage in wrongdoing.

Reference List

Bohm, Robert M. 2017. Deathquest: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States. New York ; London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. Web.

Fehr, Colton. 2019. “Instrumental Rationality and General Deterrence.” Alberta Law Review, Web.

Knight, Ben. 2020. “Do Harsher Punishments Deter Crime?” UNSW Newsroom. Web.

Lee, Hsin-Wen. 2017. “Taking Deterrence Seriously: The Wide-Scope Deterrence Theory of Punishment.” Criminal Justice Ethics 36 (1): 2–24. Web.

Pereboom, Derk. 2019. “Self-Defense, Deterrence, and the Use Objection: A Comment on Victor Tadros’s Wrongs and Crimes.” Criminal Law and Philosophy 13 (3): 439–54. Web.

Skotnicki, Andrew. 2019. Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System : A Theological Rereading of Criminal Justice. New York: Oxford University Press. Web.

Wagner Peter and Bernadette Rabuy. 2017. “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration.” Prison Policy Initiative. 2017. Web.

Sawyer Wendy and Peter Wagner. 2022. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022.” Web.

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