Deterrence and rational choice theories
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Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories. Medieval Criminal Justice. Trial by ordeal Forced confessions Severe public punishment Burning (hell on earth) Mutilation (body subordinate to soul) “Ritual of a thousand deaths”. A Reform Movement. The Enlightenment

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Medieval criminal justice
Medieval Criminal Justice

  • Trial by ordeal

    • Forced confessions

  • Severe public punishment

    • Burning (hell on earth)

    • Mutilation (body subordinate to soul)

    • “Ritual of a thousand deaths”


A reform movement
A Reform Movement

  • The Enlightenment

    • Faith in rationality, social contract theory

  • Depart from “supernatural” theory

    • The Classical School of criminology is born

  • Assumptions about human nature

    • Rational, autonomous, hedonistic, calculating


A theory of deterrence
A Theory of Deterrence

  • On Crimes and Punishment, Beccaria (1764)

    • Punishment protects the social contract

    • Punishment should fit the crime, no more

  • Underlying theory

    • Prevention through deterrence is the primary justification for punishment

  • Condemned by the Catholic Church


Principles of deterrence
Principles of Deterrence

  • To deter, punishment should be:

    • Certain

      • To increase fear of consequences

    • Swift

      • To make association with punishment

    • Severe enough to outweigh the pleasure of crime

      • Any more is “tyrannical,” inefficient


Elaborations of deterrence
Elaborations of Deterrence

  • Specific v. general

  • Punishment v. non-punishment

  • Absolute v. restrictive

  • Formal v. informal sanctions



Punishment non punishment stafford and warr 1993
Punishment/Non-Punishment Stafford and Warr (1993)

  • Personal experience with punishment

  • Personal experience avoiding punishment

  • Vicarious experience with punishment

  • Vicarious experience avoiding punishment

  • Determines the deterrent effect


Absolute v restrictive deterrence
Absolute v. Restrictive Deterrence

  • Absolute deterrence

    • Abstention

  • Restrictive deterrence

    • Less frequent

    • Less severe

    • Displacement


Empirical research
Empirical Research

  • There is moderate support for certainty, little to none for severity

  • Why does certainty seem to work better than severity? What does this tell us about how offenders think?


Formal v informal sanctions
Formal v. Informal Sanctions

  • Informal = unofficial punishment

    • Disapproval from significant others

    • Feelings of remorse, guilt, shame

    • Expands the range of negative consequence

  • Informal sanctions enhance formal sanctions

    • But not for everyone, why?


In and out and back in favor
In and Out and Back In Favor

  • Deterrence theory fell out of favor in the 1800s, replaced by positivism

  • Deterrence reemerged in the late 1960s as a rationale for punishment

    • Coincided with a renewed emphasis on offender deterrence and retribution within the criminal justice system


Practical limits of deterrence
Practical Limits of Deterrence

  • Penalties often learned after arrest

  • Underestimate risk of being caught

  • Clearance rates are generally low

  • Crime displacement may occur

  • Rational abilities may be impaired

    • Drugs, alcohol, passion, mental disorder

  • Some people have little to lose


From deterrence to rational choice
From Deterrenceto Rational Choice

  • Deterrence theory focuses on the effect of punishment on criminal choices

  • Rational choice theory focuses on the effect of opportunity on criminal choices


Rational choice theory
Rational Choice Theory

  • Crime benefits the offender

    • Crime brings pleasure

  • People’s rationality is bounded

    • We gather, store, & use information imperfectly

    • We tend to focus on immediate gains, not long-term costs

  • Offenders focus on situational opportunities

    • Criminals are opportunistic


Rational motivations for crime
Rational Motivationsfor Crime

  • To obtain something

  • To obtain pleasure

  • To obtain sex

  • To obtain peer approval

  • To prove toughness

  • To escape negative or unwanted situations

  • To assert dominance or get one’s way in a dispute

  • To settle a grievance, revenge


Rational choices
Rational Choices?

  • A man beats his wife during an argument

  • A father rapes his stepdaughter

  • A man drives home drunk from a bar



Cheating on exams
Cheating on Exams

  • How would we control cheating using a rational choice perspective?

    • Assumptions about cheating

    • Interventions to prevent cheating


Assessment of choice theory
Assessment of Choice Theory

  • Opportunity rather than punishment

    • Offenders tend to ignore long-term costs

  • Situational factors rather than enduring motivational factors

    • Assume the presence of criminal motivation

    • Focus on offenders’ assessments of their immediate situations


Implications for policy
Implications for Policy

  • Situational crime prevention

    • Reduce crime by blocking opportunities

  • Consistent with the CJ emphasis on responsibility and punishment

    • All crime is based at least in part on a choice

  • Attempt to make criminal choices less attractive by reducing opportunities



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