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It has been a popular notion throughout the ages that fear of punishment can reduce or eliminate undesirable behavior. This notion has always been popular among criminal justice thinkers. These ideas have been formalized in several different ways. The Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham is credited with articulating the three elements that must be present if deterrence is to work: The punishment must be administered with celerity, certainty, and appropriate severity. These elements are applied under a type rational choice theory. Rational choice theory is the simple idea that people think about committing a crime before they do it. If the rewards of the crime outweigh the punishment, then they do the prohibited act. If the punishment is seen as outweighing the rewards, then they do not do it. Sometimes criminologists borrow the phrase cost-benefit analysis from economists to describe this sort of decision-making process.
When evaluating whether deterrence works or not, it is important to differentiate between general deterrence and specific deterrence. General deterrence is the idea that every person punished by the law serves as an example to others contemplating the same unlawful act. Specific deterrence is the idea that the individuals punished by the law will not commit their crimes again because they "learned a lesson."
Critics of deterrence theory point to high recidivism rates as proof that the theory does not work. Recidivism means a relapse into crime. In other words, those who are punished by the criminal justice system tend to reoffend at a very high rate. Some critics also argue that rational choice theory does not work. They argue that such things as crimes of passion and crimes committed by those under the influence of drugs and alcohol are not the product of a rational cost-benefit analysis.
As unpopular as rational choice theories may be with particular schools of modern academic criminology, they are critically important to understanding how the criminal justice system works. This is because nearly the entire criminal justice system is based on rational choice theory. The idea that people commit crimes because they decide to do so is the very foundation of criminal law in the United States. In fact, the intent element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in almost every felony known to American criminal law before a conviction can be secured. Without a culpable mental state, there is no crime (with very few exceptions).