General Deterrence Strategies



General Deterrence Strategies

Crime generates multiple threats to various societies as well as the State at large. However, a number of objectives such as complete suppression of crime might sometimes be unattainable. As such, general deterrence strategies to crime are increasingly being deployed as more promising crime deterrent alternatives. Overall, general deterrence strategies are designed to minimize criminal behavior and/or to maximize some kinds of desirable behavior that is mostly displayed by criminals (Porter, 2011). This paper explores society’s attempt to employ “general deterrence” through strategies such as legislative enactments, community involvement, incapacitation, youth transfers, and punishment among other strategies. The aim of general deterrence crime prevention strategies can possible be achieved by incorporating the practical implications of classical and rational choice theories.

Rational Choice and Deterrence Theories

Rational choice theory (originating from classical criminology) cites that, people make decisions and take actions based on free will rational exercise (Vito & Maahs, 2012). This theory suggests that, prior to committing crime the criminals or those intending to commit the crime often take into account the possible legal penalties, the potential benefits that can be achieved through such crime, and possibilities of being arrested for committing the crime (Vito and Maahs, 2012). Such calculations are based on the criminals’ own experience with crime either through past punishment or their knowledge regarding the legal sanctions and punishments that they faced for committing crime in the past. Deterrence theorists affirm that, if deterrence strategies increase in severity, then such measures would become more effective in preventing future crime (Vito & Maahs, 2012). For instance, hanging of criminals serves as an example to potential offenders by proactively deterring them from engaging in criminal activities, the so called general deterrence. This is particularly owed to the fact that those with an intention to commit crime will perceive crime to be associated with death by hanging.

Some scholars argue that, imprisonment, legislative enactment, youth transfer, community engagement, and police intervention provide an effective approach for general deterrence against crime. Owing to the growing popularity of general deterrence strategies and the conflicting views regarding its crime prevention value, a systematic exploration of the evidence on the reliability of general deterrence intervention strategies is important. This process will enable an evaluation of the value of general deterrence as a strategy of crime prevention.


The objective of this study is to assess the existing published evidence on the effectiveness of general deterrence strategies on crime. It is worth noting that, general deterrence strategies do not use crime-oriented interventions to deter offenders from continuing with the crime and/or violence.

Community Policing to Deter Crime

This is an attempt to involve the community in crime deterrence in the society. According to Palmiotto (1999), community involvement entails building strong bonds of trust, respect, and mutual support between the residents and police in the community. Community involvement assists in dealing with the problem of imperfect information that is required to promote the detection of crime and monitoring the behavior that is portrayed by potential offenders. Increase in crime and changes in the manner in which the police management think have resulted to the dependence on community in deterring crime. General deterrence relies further on the idea that, if people believe that the whole society intends to punish criminal acts and that they have the capacity to do so, then individuals will be deterred from engaging in any criminal acts because of the awareness and factors.

Community policing addresses the underlying causes of crime by applying long-term problem solving to issues through police-community partnership. Wadman (2009) believes that, the community’s involvement in crime deterrence play an important role in deterring criminals from committing three kinds of crime in the community. The first form of crime that community deters effectively is civil unrest. Civil unrest is a type of crime that might include gang violence and confrontations among different segments in the community such as the police. The other crime that can be deterred through community involvement in deterrence is individual violence; this is a type of crime which constitutes street crime and domestic abuse of drug-related violence.

The Use of Punishment to Deter Crime

The society through courts uses punishment to deter people from committing crime. Mandery and Mandery (2011) assert that, the purpose of general deterrence is to discourage people from committing crime. This strategy is often achieved whenever examples of the possible effects of committing a particular crime are made known to the public. For instance, crime prevention authorities can use capital punishment to deter potential crimes. Mandery and Mandery (2011) acknowledge that, the United States uses capital punishment to deter people from committing certain crimes such as murder. Another example of punishment is decimation like the case of the Ancient Roman military law which involved killing one out of every ten soldiers when a serious crime was committed and no one took the blame. Although this is one of the harshest forms of punishment under general deterrence ever enacted, it assists in ensuring that the police remain vigilant in deterring crime within the society.

Ideally, in general deterrence, the aim is to intimidate people to conform into laws by setting a severe example of what could happen to those who commit crime. Mandery and Mandery (2011) are certain that, the threat of punishment can be a strong deterrent, but should be harsh enough to deter individuals from committing crime. Therefore, it is arguable that, punishment is a major strategy that can be used in reducing criminal activities, and that capital punishment produces a far more law-abiding society than lack of capital punishment.


Society by means of execution or prison can deter an offender from committing further crimes. Such argument concurs with Cole and Smith’s (2006) assertion that, criminals should be imprisoned. In primitive societies, offenders might be banned from the community. In early American societies, individuals could choose either to move away from the society or to join army as an alternative to primitive punishments, “in America, imprisonment is the usual incapacitation method” (Cole & Smith, 2006, p. 386). This implies that, confining offenders within secure institutions can deter them from committing additional arms to the society for the duration of their imprisonment and probably after they are released. At the same time, when potential criminals are aware that committing a particular crime would result to incapacitation, they would avoid committing such crime.

It is worth noting that, most of sentences based on incapacitation are future oriented (Cole & Smith, 2006). That is, incapacitation focuses on the offender’s potential action. For instance, if the offender is likely to commit future crime, then more severe sentence might be imposed compared to offenders who are not likely to commit crime in future. Based on incapacitation’s theory, if a woman kills her abusive husband as an emotional reaction to verbal insults and physical assaults such women might face a light sentence. This is because, as a one-time impulse killer who was driven to kill by unique circumstance, the woman is not likely to commit more crime. In contrasts, an individual who shoplifts and is convicted of previous offenses might receive a severe sentence. In other words, incapacitation focuses on offender’s characteristics as opposed to offenses’ characteristics.

Such arguments regarding incapacitation based sentences raise various concerns. For instance, it would be unjustified that a person could receive a severe penalty for shoplifting compared to manslaughter. Secondly, it is not clear how to determine the length of sentence. Perhaps, the offenders will not be released until the court is convinced that the offender is not likely to commit additional crime. Therefore, critics might point that, there are no grounds for punishing people for anticipated future behavior that cannot be predicted. Owing to the fact that it is not possible to predict person’s behavior, incapacitation might not be effective in deterring crime.

Youth Transfers and General Deterrence

Deterrence theory cites that, transferring youth offenders into criminal courts and sentencing each of them into adult correctional facilities have deterrent effects on juvenile crime rates (Lawrence and Hesse, 2010). This implies that, potential young criminals, including those who have not yet engaged in criminal behavior and those who have, should be deterred from committing future crime from fear that, if caught in the act, they will be handled like adult criminals.

A study conducted by Lawrence and Hesse (2010) sought to establish whether severity of punishment has a deterrent impacts on juvenile crime. The study involved youths aged between 15 and 17 years in circumstances where they are either defined as adults or juvenile. It was hypothesized that, youths as adults will show lower arrest rates compared to youths defined as juvenile. The results indicated that, in less than seven years, juvenile were associated with more criminal activities than those defined as adults. Therefore, it is justified that transferring young criminals into adults courts would deter them from committing crime.

Legislative Enactment

Legislative enactments involve actions such as waivers. Pyle’s (2001) research to assess the effects of legislative waivers and arrests on crime prevention provided different deterrent effects. As far as the effects of legislative waivers were concerned, the criminal rates increased in the society. In contrast, there was a decrease in arrest rates of persons associated with criminal activities since they realized that they would be arrested after committing a crime. As Pyle (2001) acknowledged, there are possible explanations for the failure of legislative waivers to prevent crime. First and foremost, most likely the judges were charging offenders with serious crimes with slighter offenses. Secondly, probably the offenders might not have been aware that they could be arrested and arraigned in court and possibly sentenced to prison for committing crime.

Policing for Crime Deterrence

Policing also assists in preventing crime. However, the number of police deployed in the society determines the rates of crimes. Although social scientists often dispute this argument, it is worth noting that, whether the police deter crime or not depends on how well the police is focused on its objectives, places, tasks, time, and people (Wadman, 2009). Moreover, crime deterrence success depends on whether the police are send to places where crimes are concentrated, at the time it is likely to take place. Directed patrols, problem-solving at high-crime zones, and proactive arrests have supportive impacts on crime prevention. For instance, Wadman (2009) is confident that, police can deter crimes such as gun violence, robbery, disorder, and drunk driving among other domestic violence, if only they use certain methods under particular conditions.

Summary and Conclusion

General deterrence is a phenomenon that is based on individual behavior. That is, the weighing of benefits, costs, and subsequent action associated with a particular crime. Research on this topic is limited largely to the study of information regarding punishment and crime. Punishment, community involvement, incapacitation, legislative enactment, and youth transfers have significant effects on deterring crime. For instance, capital punishment is associated with harsh treatment thereby preventing people from committing crime. Similarly, youth transfers from juvenile courts into adult correctional facilities results into more severe penalties thereby deterring young from engaging in delinquent activities.

On the other hand, community involvement promotes public awareness thereby creating a perception that, even in the absence of the police, neighbors can report criminal acts to the police and even prevent crime. This is particularly possible because of the fact that the entire community is often committed to preventing crime through community policing. This implies that, for general deterrence to be effective, the society must be reminded constantly about the likelihood and severity of punishment of various acts that are categorized as crime. That is, people must believe that if they commit a particular crime, they will be arrested, prosecuted, and punished severely. However, there is a challenge in interpreting the results on the general deterrent effect of incarceration. This concerns the view that, the effects of incapacitation are neither predictable nor controlled. Consequently, this confounds the estimated effects of deterrence through incapacitation.




Cole, G. F., & Smith, C. E. (2006). The American system of criminal justice. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Lawrence, R., & Hesse, M. (2010). Juvenile justice: The essentials. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications.

Mandery, E. J., & Mandery, E. J. (2011). Capital punishment in America: A balanced examination. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Palmiotto, M. (1999). Community policing: A policing strategy for the 21st century. Gaithersburg, Md: Aspen.

Porter, B. E. (2011). Handbook of Traffic Psychology. Burlington: Elsevier Science.

Pyle, C. H. (2001). Extradition, politics, and human rights. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Vito, G. F., & Maahs, J. R. (2012). Criminology: Theory, research, and policy. Sudbury, Mass: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Wadman, R. C. (2009). Police theory in America: Old traditions and new opportunities. Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

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