In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deterrence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Theoretical Work on Deterrence
  • Early Work on Testing and Measuring Deterrence
  • Perceptual Deterrence
  • Deterrence Perception Formation
  • Offender Decision-Making and Situational Factors
  • Individual Differences
  • Some Tests of Deterrence

Criminology Deterrence
Thomas A. Loughran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0167


Criminologists have long been interested in the effectiveness of sanctions and sanction threats on subsequent criminal activities. Deterrence, which has its roots in Enlightenment philosophy and the works of Jeremy Bentham and Cesar Beccaria, assumes that sanctions that are delivered in a certain, swift, and severe manner will serve to increase sanction risk perceptions, and subsequently reduce criminal activity. However, after its introduction and despite its highly logical connection to crime, criminologists tended to ignore the deterrence doctrine for most of the next two centuries. Scholars tended to discount deterrence theory for a host of ideological reasons, including the popular belief that punishment was barbaric and ineffective, that large groups of offenders were probably immune to sanction threats, or that punishment would need to be harsh and repeated in order to be effective. However, starting in the late 1960s, due mainly to the work of influential scholars in economics and sociology, the deterrence doctrine was revitalized. In the two decades that followed, research into deterrence exploded, with many important empirical tests and advances to methods designed to test the theory. Shortly thereafter, interest emerged in the concept of perceptual deterrence, in which the process of threat communication was treated as the important mechanism in deterring individuals. The current state of deterrence literature also involves the importation of key concepts from research on judgment and decision making and behavioral economics to study differences in how certain groups of individuals are deterred. Deterrence is often thought of in two distinct ways: general deterrence, or the impact of sanction threats on the public at large, and specific or individual deterrence, the impact of sanction threats on a certain individual. Other central concepts include the certainty of punishment, which is often operationalized as either the certainty of detection or an individual’s subjective perception of it (i.e., risk perceptions); the severity of punishment, which is often operationalized as sentence length; and subjective beliefs about formal and informal costs (i.e., cost perceptions). Much of the empirical literature focuses on the relative impacts of the certainty and severity of punishment. The potential swiftness of punishment, or what is often referred to as its “celerity,” has been studied to a much smaller extent than these other two mechanisms. There have also been arguments advanced that some empirical deterrence research, particularly work related to the deterrence effect of the death penalty, is perhaps prone to confirmation biases, and hence is not credible.

General Overviews

This set of books and articles can be thought of as giving important overviews of the current issues in and literature on deterrence, as well as providing important future directions for research. Much of the deterrence literature is rooted in rational choice theory, a perspective that is laid out by the important work Cornish and Clarke 1986. Important reviews of the literature are offered in Cook 1981, Nagin 1998 and more recently, Paternoster 2010. A slightly different perspective on the role of sanctions and the deterrence process is offered in Sherman 1993 on the concept of defiance. A recent important review is given in Piquero, et al. 2011, which summarizes the role of Individual Differences in the deterrence process, and lays out future directions for exploration. More recent books Kennedy 2009 and Kleiman 2009 talk about deterrence more broadly as a policy issue and provide new ideas for how scholars and policymakers might think about deterrence in the future.

  • Cook, Phillip. 1981. Research in criminal deterrence: Laying the groundwork for the second decade. In Crime and justice: An annual review of research. Vol. 2. Edited by Norval Morris and Michael Tonry. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Deterrence is of interest not only to criminologists but other types of social scientists as well. Cook provides the perspective of an economist interested in crime reduction through deterrence.

  • Cornish, Derek B., and Ronald V. Clarke, eds. 1986. The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4613-8625-4

    Compilation of essays that applies the rational choice framework to various crime types. The first chapter is by Cornish and Clarke and outlines their rational choice perspective, which includes a distinction between crime and the criminal event, choice structuring properties, and identifying factors beyond official sanctions that are relevant for offending decisions.

  • Kennedy, David M. 2009. Deterrence and crime prevention: Reconsidering the prospect of sanction. New York: Routledge.

    This early-21st-century book argues for a reframing of ways in which we think about and produce deterrence, including through basic criteria such as the clarity of information, the level of sanctions, and the focus of policies on groups rather than individual offenders.

  • Kleiman, Mark A. R. 2009. When brute force fails. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This book contrasts the rising prison population and crime rate, and Kleiman argues that it is possible to reduce both the prison population and the crime rate through effective policies.

  • Nagin, Daniel S. 1998. Criminal deterrence research at the outset of the twenty-first century. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 23. Edited by Michael Tonry, 1–42. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A thorough review of the early deterrence literature, this essential article also lays out important directions for future deterrence research. Required reading for scholars interested in learning about key issues in deterrence research.

  • Paternoster, Ray. 2010. How much do we really know about criminal deterrence? Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 100.3: 765–823.

    Required reading as an essential summary of the state of deterrence research—at publication an up-to-date review of the historical development of the deterrence doctrine and the state of the literature.

  • Piquero, Alex, Ray Paternoster, Greg Pogarsky, and Thomas Loughran. 2011. Elaborating the individual difference component of deterrence theory. Annual Review of Law and Social Science 7 (December): 335–360.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-102510-105404

    This review considers the conditions under which sanctions affect compliance, specifically focusing on the “kinds of people” dimension of deterrence to include Individual Differences (e.g., social bonding, social network position) and situational differences (e.g., emotions). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sherman, Lawrence W. 1993. Defiance, deterrence and irrelevance: A theory of the criminal sanction. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30 (November): 445–473.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427893030004006

    The question of whether or not formal sanctions decrease offending is the wrong question. A more appropriate question to ask is: When do formal sanctions decrease offending? When individuals are bonded to society, and view the sanction is perceived as fair—i.e., proportionate to the crime—and consistently applied. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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