Discourages the prison from crime

Deterrence theories

Theories of deterrence believe that punishing crimes will result in both actual and potential perpetrators avoiding future crime.

Main representative

Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, Franz von Liszt, Jack P. Gibbs, Alex Piquero, Raymond Paternoster, Stephan Tibbetts, M.C. Stafford, M. Warr, et al.


The Deterrence Theories are based on the classical and neoclassical assumptions of a will-free and rationally thinking individual who, according to the utilitarian principle, strives to gain pleasure and avoid pain (or, according to the rational principle of choice, to maximize benefits and reduce costs). If criminal acts meet this endeavor (if crime can increase one's own pleasure), it makes sense to choose them. However, if the act is punished, it is likely that the expected costs outweigh the expected benefits. It is also decisive with what probability and with what time delay the sanction is actually applied to the criminal act.

The deterrent thesis says that people can be deterred from criminal acts if threatened punishments follow the delinquent act with certainty and without delay and if these are so severe or so severe that the pain (costs) to be expected from the punishment is greater than the expected pleasure gain (benefit) through the criminal act.
A distinction must be made between general deterrence (corresponds to negative general prevention in German criminal law) and specific deterrence (corresponds to negative special prevention in German criminal law):

  • The former causes the general public, i.e. potential perpetrators, to refrain from criminal acts. Making the sanction publicly visible is therefore extremely important, so that the general public also knows what “would bloom for them” and therefore refrains from delinquent behavior.
  • The specific deterrent, however, describes the effect of the sanction on the punished person, who is now prevented from further criminal acts for fear of a renewed punishment. Von Liszt provides this form of punishment for the so-called occasional criminal, who has to be given a memorandum in order to clarify the line between conformity and criminality for the future.

Criminal policy implications

Obviously, in the opinion of the deterrent theorists, there is a requirement to react to crime always and without delay in severity, so that it becomes irrational to act criminally.
It should be noted, however, that it is not the actual penalties that act as a deterrent, but the penalties that are expected by the people (perceived deterrence), which in turn are influenced by the sanctions actually carried out and their media reporting.
In addition, theories of deterrence do not only relate to criminal sanctions, but also show up in other politically preventive concepts such as video surveillance and personal checks. The focus here is less on the anticipation of a harsh punishment than on the increased risk of detection, part of a situational crime prevention.

Critical appraisal / relevance to current issues

The deterrent effect of sanctions has been discussed in criminal policy for many years. In the US, where the Deterrence Theories enjoy a large following, the death penalty is a comparatively extreme form of deterrence. It is questionable whether the execution of criminal executions is actually based on the idea of ​​deterrence, or whether concepts such as 'just deserts', 'retribution' (retaliation) or 'incapacitation' (rendering harmless) do not provide the actual reason.
Even the assumption that the imposition of the death penalty is a deterrent has been widely researched in recent years and has often been refuted empirically. However, there are also studies that show the deterrent effect of the death penalty.
Overall, however, it appears extremely doubtful whether the deterrence theories can be upheld. With regard to video surveillance, too, there are increasing voices denying the deterrent effect of cameras and rather speaking of a spatial shift in crime in connection with a reduction in subjective fear of crime.


Primary literature

  • Beccaria, C. (1766): On Crimes and Punishments. Edited by Wilhelm Alff. Frankfurt am Main, 1988.
  • von Liszt, F. (1882/83): The concept of purpose in criminal law. Frankfurt am Main, 1943.
  • Paternoster, R .; Piquero, A. (1995): Reconceptualizing Deterrence: An empirical test of personal and vicarious experiences. In: Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 32, pp. 251-258.
  • Piquero, A .; Tibbetts, S. (1996): Specifying the direct and indirect effect of low self-control and situational factors in offenders ’decision. In: Justice Quarterly 13, pp. 481-510
  • Stafford, M. C .; Warr, M. (1993): A reconceptualization of general and specific deterrence. In: Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30, pp.123-135.


Additional information

Category: Crime TheoriesTags: Deterrence, Deterrence, Germany, Italy, Control, Micro / Macro, Penological, Rational Choice, Sanctioning, Situation, USA