Deterrence Research Paper

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The criminal justice system dispenses justice by apprehending, prosecuting, and punishing individuals who break the law. These activities may also prevent crime by three distinct mechanisms – incapacitation, specific deterrence, and general deterrence. Convicted offenders are often punished with imprisonment. Incapacitation refers to the crimes averted by their physical isolation during the period of their incarceration. Specific deterrence and general deterrence involve possible behavioral responses. Specific deterrence refers to the reduction in reoffending that is presumed to follow from the experience of actually being punished. However, there are many sound reasons for suspecting that the experience of punishment might instead increase reoffending. The threat of punishment might also discourage potential and actual criminals in the general public from committing crime. This effect is known as general deterrence and is the subject of this research paper.

Key Concepts Of Deterrence

Deterrence is a theory of choice in which wouldbe offenders balance the benefits and costs of crime. Benefits may be pecuniary in the case of property crime but may also involve intangibles such as defending one’s honor, expressing outrage, demonstrating dominance, cementing a reputation, or seeking a thrill. The potential costs of crime are comparably varied. For example, crime can entail personal risk if the victim resists, and it may also invoke pangs of conscience or shame. The theory of deterrence is predicated on the idea that if state-imposed sanction costs are sufficiently severe, criminal activity will be discouraged, at least for some. Thus, one of the key concepts of deterrence is the severity of punishment. In this research paper, the review of severity effects focuses on research findings concerning imprisonment.

Severity alone, however, cannot deter. There must also be some possibility that the sanction will be incurred if the crime is committed. For that to happen, the offender must be apprehended, usually by the police. He must next be charged and successfully prosecuted, and finally sentenced by the judiciary. None of these successive stages in processing through the criminal justice system are certain. Thus, another key concept in deterrence theory is the certainty of punishment. In this regard, the most important set of actors are the police – absent detection and apprehension, there is no possibility of conviction or punishment. For this reason, the present entry separately considers what is known about the deterrent effect of police.

One of the key conclusions that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s-era deterrence literature was that the certainty of punishment was a more powerful deterrent than the severity of punishment. The analyses of this era generally used cross-sectional data on states and involved testing the effects on the statewide crime rate of the certainty and severity of punishment, along with other demographic and socioeconomic control variables. The certainty of punishment was measured by the ratio of prison admissions to the number of reported crimes, while the severity of punishment was measured by median time served of recent prison releases. The basis for the “certainty not severity” deterrence conclusion was that punishment certainty was consistently found to have a negative and significant association with the crime rate, whereas punishment severity generally had no significant association.

This conclusion at the time was probably based on faulty statistical inference. Two primary criticisms were leveled. The first was that the negative association between the certainty measure and crime rate was an artifact of the number of crimes appearing in the denominator of the certainty measure and the numerator of the crime rate. It can be mathematically demonstrated that errors in the measurement of number of crimes, of which there are many, will force a negative, deterrent-like association between the crime rate and certainty even if, in fact, the certainty of punishment had no deterrent effect on crime. The second involved the use of theoretically indefensible statistical methods for parsing out the cause-effect relationship between sanction levels and the crime rate. After all, sanctions may deter crime, but crime may also affect sanction levels. For example, perhaps overcrowded prisons might reduce the chances of newly caught offenders going to prison. However, subsequent findings from the so-called perceptual deterrence literature and economic studies of the effects of contact with the criminal justice system on access to legal labor markets provide a far firmer empirical and theoretical basis for the “certainty principle.” Due to space constraints, this research paper will not cover these research traditions.

The Deterrent Effect Of Imprisonment

There have been two distinct waves of studies of the deterrent effect of imprisonment. As already noted, studies in the 1960s and 1970s examined the relationship of the crime rate to the certainty of punishment, measured by the ratio of prison admissions to reported crimes, and the severity of punishment as measured by median time served. These studies suffered from a number of serious statistical flaws that are detailed in Blumstein et al. (1978). In response to these deficiencies, a second generation of studies emerged in the 1990s. Unlike the first-generation studies, which primarily involved cross-sectional analyses of states, second-generation studies had a longitudinal component in which data were analyzed not only across states but also over time. Another important difference is that the second-generation studies did not attempt to estimate certainty and severity effects separately. Instead, they examined the relationship between the crime rate and rate of imprisonment as measured by prisoners per capita.

A review by Donohue (2007) identifies six such studies. All find statistically significant negative associations between imprisonment rates and crimes rates, implying a crime-prevention effect of imprisonment. However, the magnitude of the estimate varied widely – from nil for a study that allowed for the possibility of diminishing returns to an elasticity of – 0.4. (By an elasticity of 0.4, it is meant that 10 % growth in the imprisonment rate reduced the crime rate by 4 %.) It is important to note that these studies are actually measuring a combination of deterrent and incapacitation effects. Thus, it is impossible to decipher the degree to which crime prevention is occurring because of a behavioral response by the population at large or because of the physical isolation of crime-prone people.

Donohue (2007) goes on to show that the small elasticity estimates imply that the current imprisonment rate is too large, while the high-end estimates imply the rate is too small. He lists a variety of technical shortcomings of these studies that make it impossible to distinguish among the widely varying effect size estimates. The most important is the degree to which the studies were successful in separating cause from effect. While imprisonment prevents crime through a combination of deterrence and incapacitation, crime also generates the prison population. This is an example of what is called the “simultaneity problem,” whereby one wants to ascertain the effect of one variable (the imprisonment rate) on another variable (the crime rate) in a circumstance where it is known or suspected that reverse causation is also present, namely, that the crime rate simultaneously affects the imprisonment rate. Thus, statistical isolation of the crime-prevention effect requires properly accounting for the effect of crime on imprisonment. The Levitt (1996) study is arguably the most successful in this regard. It uses court-ordered prison releases as an instrument for untangling the cause-and-effect relationship. However, even the Levitt analysis suffers from many of the technical limitations detailed by Donohue.

More fundamentally, this literature suffers from more than just technical shortcomings that future research might strive to correct. It also suffers from important conceptual flaws that limit its usefulness in devising crime-control policy. Prison population is not a policy variable; rather, it is an outcome of sanction policies dictating who goes to prison and for how long, namely, the certainty and severity of punishment. In all incentive-based theories of criminal behavior, the deterrence response to sanction threats is posed in terms of the certainty and severity of punishment, not in terms of the imprisonment rate. Therefore, to predict how changes in certainty and severity might affect the crime rate requires knowledge of the relationship of the crime rate to certainty and severity as separate entities, which is not provided by the literature that analyzes the relationship of the crime rate to the imprisonment rate. The studies are also conducted at too global a level. There are good reasons for predicting differences in the crimereduction effects of different types of sanctions (e.g., mandatory minimums for repeat offenders vs. prison diversion programs for first-time offenders). Obvious sources of heterogeneity in offender response include factors such as prior contact with the criminal justice system, demographic characteristics, and the mechanism by which sanction threats are communicated to their intended audience.

Three studies nicely illustrate heterogeneity in the deterrence response to the threat of imprisonment: The Weisburd et al. (2008) study on the use of imprisonment to enforce fine payment finds a substantial deterrent effect; the Helland and Tabarrok (2007) analysis of the deterrent effect of California’s third-strike provision finds only a modest deterrent effect; and the Lee and McCrary (2009) examination of the heightened threat of imprisonment that attends coming under the jurisdiction of the adult courts at the age of majority finds no deterrent effect. These three important studies are considered in more detail below.

Weisburd et al. (2008) report on a randomized field trial of alternative strategies for incentivizing the payment of court-ordered fines. The most salient finding involves the “miracle of the cells,” namely, that the imminent threat of incarceration is a powerful incentive for paying delinquent fines. The miracle of the cells provides a valuable vantage point for considering the oft-repeated conclusion from the deterrence literature that the certainty rather the severity of punishment is the more powerful deterrent. Consistent with the “certainty principle,” the common feature of treatment conditions involving incarceration was a high certainty of imprisonment for failure to pay the fine. However, the fact that Weisburd and colleagues label the response the “miracle of the cells” and not the “miracle of certainty” is telling. Their choice of label is a reminder that certainty must result in a distasteful consequence, namely, incarceration in this experiment, in order for it to be a deterrent. The consequences need not be draconian, just sufficiently costly to deter proscribed behavior.

Helland and Tabarrok (2007) examine whether California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law deters offending among individuals previously convicted of strike-eligible offenses. The future offending of individuals convicted of two previous strike offenses was compared with that of individuals who had been convicted of only one strike offense but who, in addition, had been tried for a second-strike offense but were ultimately convicted of a non-strike offense. The study demonstrates that these two groups of individuals were comparable on many characteristics such as age, race, and time in prison. Even so, it finds that arrest rates were about 20 % lower for the group with convictions for two strike offenses. The authors attribute this reduction to the greatly enhanced sentence that would have accompanied conviction for a third-strike offense.

For most crimes, the certainty and severity of punishment increases discontinuously upon reaching the age of majority, when jurisdiction for criminal wrongdoing shifts from the juvenile to the adult court. In an extraordinarily careful analysis of individual-level crime histories from Florida, Lee and McCrary (2009) attempt to identify a discontinuous decline in the hazard of offending at age 18, the age of majority in Florida. Their point estimate of the discontinuous change is negative as predicted, but minute in magnitude and not even remotely close to achieving statistical significance.

In combination, these three studies nicely illustrate that the deterrent effect of the threat of punishment is context-specific and that debates about whether deterrence works or not are ill posed. Instead, the discussion should be in terms of whether the specific sanction deters or not and if it does, whether the benefits of crime reduction are sufficient to justify the costs of imposing the sanction. To illustrate, while Helland and Tabarrok (2007) conclude that the third-strike effect in California is a deterrent, they also conclude, based on a cost-benefit analysis, that the crime-saving benefits are likely far smaller than the increased costs of incarceration. The Helland and Tabarrok study is an exemplar of the approach that should be taken in evaluating different sanctioning regimes.

The Deterrent Effect Of Police

The police may prevent crime through many possible mechanisms. Apprehension of active offenders is a necessary first step for their conviction and punishment. If the sanction involves imprisonment, crime may be prevented by the incapacitation of the apprehended offender. The apprehension of active offenders may also deter would-be criminals by increasing their perception of the risk of apprehension and thereby the certainty of punishment. Many police tactics such as rapid response to calls for service at crime scenes or post-crime investigation are intended not only to capture the offender but to deter others by projecting a tangible threat of apprehension. Police may, however, deter without actually apprehending criminals because their very presence projects a threat of apprehension if a crime were to be committed. Indeed, some of the most compelling evidence of deterrence involve instances where there is complete or near-complete collapse of police presence. In September 1944, German soldiers occupying Denmark arrested the entire Danish police force. According to an account by Andeneas (1974), crime rates rose immediately but not uniformly. The frequency of street crimes like robbery, whose control depends heavily upon visible police presence, rose sharply. By contrast, crimes like fraud were less affected.

The Andenaes anecdote illustrates two important points. First, sanction threats (or the absence thereof) may not uniformly affect all types of crime and more generally all types of people. Second, it draws attention to the difference between absolute and marginal deterrence. Absolute deterrence refers to the difference in the crime rate between the status quo level of sanction threat and a complete (or near) absence of sanction threat. The Andenaes anecdote is a compelling demonstration that the absolute deterrent effect is large. However, from a policy perspective, the important question is whether, on the margin, crime deterrence can be affected by incrementally manipulating sanction threats.

Research on the marginal deterrent effect of police has evolved in two distinct literatures. One has focused on the deterrent effect of the aggregate police presence measured, for example, by the relationship between police per capita and crime rates. The other has focused on the crimeprevention effectiveness of different strategies for deploying police. These two literatures are reviewed separately.

Aggregate Police Presence And Crime

Studies of police hiring and crime rates have been plagued by a number of impediments to causal inference. Among these are cross-jurisdictional differences in the recording of crime, feedback effects from crime rates to police hiring, the confounding of deterrence with incapacitation, and aggregation of police manpower effects across heterogeneous units, among others. Yet the challenge that has received the most attention in empirical applications is the simultaneity problem referred to in the previous section – in the present case, the feedback from crime rates to police hiring.

The two studies of police manpower by Marvell and Moody (1996) and Levitt (1997) are notable for their different identification strategies. The Marvell and Moody (1996) study is based on an analysis of two panel data sets: one composed of 49 states for the years 1968–1993 and the other of 56 large cities for the years 1971–1992. To untangle the simultaneous causation problem, they regress the current crime rate on lags of the crime rate as well as lags of police manpower. If the lagged police measures are jointly significant, they are said to “Granger cause” crime. The strongest evidence for an impact of police hiring on total crime rates comes from the city-level analysis, with an estimated elasticity of 0.3, meaning that 10 % growth in police manpower produces a 3 % decline in the crime rate the following year.

However, regression analyses of this type do not generally provide a valid basis for making causal claims. But other forms of analysis can provide such a basis – one is instrumental variables regression. Levitt (1997) performs an instrumental variables (IV) analysis from a panel of 59 large cities for the years 1970–1992. Reasoning that political incumbents have incentives to devote resources to increasing the size of the police force in anticipation of upcoming elections, he uses election cycles to help untangle the cause-effect relationship between crime rates and police manpower. Levitt’s model produces elasticities of about 1.0 for the violent crime rate and 0.3 for the property crime rate. Following Levitt’s use of the electoral cycle as an instrument for the number of sworn police officers, other studies have employed alternative instrumental variables and reported comparable elasticities.

In recent years, a number of more targeted tests of the police-crime relationship have appeared. These studies investigate the impact on the crime rate of reductions in police presence and productivity as a result of massive budget cuts or lawsuits following racial profiling scandals. Each of these studies concludes that increases (decreases) in police presence and activity substantially decrease (increase) crime. By way of example, Shi (2009) studies the fallout from an incident in Cincinnati in which a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed African-American suspect. The incident was followed by 3 days of rioting, heavy media attention, the filing of a class action lawsuit, a federal civil rights investigation, and the indictment of the officer in question. These events created an unofficial incentive for officers from the Cincinnati Police Department to curtail their use of arrest for misdemeanor crimes, especially in communities with higher proportional representation of African-Americans out of concern for allegations of racial profiling. Shi demonstrates measurable declines in police productivity in the aftermath of the riot and also documents a substantial increase in criminal activity. The estimated elasticities of crime to policing based on her approach were 0.5 for violent crime and 0.3 for property crime.

The ongoing threat of terrorism has also provided a number of unique opportunities to study the impact of police resource allocation in cities around the world. The study by Klick and Tabarrok (2005) examines the effect on crime of the color-coded alert system devised by the US Department of Homeland Security (in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack) to denote the terrorism threat level. Its purpose was to signal federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to occasions when it might be prudent to divert resources to sensitive locations. Klick and Tabarrok (2005) use daily police reports of crime for the period March 2002 to July 2003, during which time the terrorism alert level rose from “elevated” (yellow) to “high” (orange) and back down to “elevated” on four occasions. During high alerts, anecdotal evidence suggested that police presence increased by 50 %. Their estimate of the elasticity of total crime to changes in police presence as the alert level rose and fell was 0.3.

To summarize, aggregate studies of police presence conducted since the mid-1990s consistently find that putting more police officers on the street – either by hiring new officers or by allocating existing officers in ways that put them on the street in larger numbers or for longer periods of time – has a substantial deterrent effect on serious crime. There is also consistency with respect to the size of the effect. Most estimates reveal that a 10 % increase in police presence yields a reduction in total crime in the neighborhood of 3 %, although studies that consider violent crime tend to find reductions ranging from 5 % to 10 %. Yet these police manpower studies speak only to the number and allocation of police officers and not to what police officers actually do on the street beyond making arrests. The next section proceeds from here by reviewing recent evaluations of deployment strategies used by police departments in order to control crime.

Police Deployment And Crime

Much research has examined the crimeprevention effectiveness of alternative strategies for deploying police resources. This research has largely been conducted by criminologists and sociologists. Among this group of researchers, the preferred research designs are quasiexperiments involving before-and-after studies of the effect of targeted interventions as well as true randomized experiments. The discussion that follows draws heavily upon two excellent reviews of this research by Weisburd and Eck (2004) and Braga (2008). As a preface to this summary, the theoretical link between police deployment and the certainty and severity of punishment is clarified. For the most part, deployment strategies affect the certainty of punishment through its impact on the probability of apprehension. There are, however, notable examples where severity may also be affected.

One way to increase apprehension risk is to mobilize police in a fashion that increases the probability that an offender is arrested after committing a crime. Strong evidence of a deterrent as opposed to an incapacitation effect resulting from the apprehension of criminals is limited. Studies of the effect of rapid response to calls for service (Spelman and Brown 1981) find no evidence of a crime-prevention effect, but this may be because most calls for service occur well after the crime event, with the result that the perpetrator has fled the scene. Thus, it is doubtful that rapid response materially affects apprehension risk. Similarly, because most arrests result from the presence of witnesses or physical evidence, improved investigations are not likely to yield material deterrent effects because, again, apprehension risk is not likely to be affected. A series of randomized experiments were conducted to test the deterrent effect of mandatory arrest for domestic violence. The initial experiment conducted in Minneapolis by Sherman and Berk (1984) found that mandatory arrest was effective in reducing domestic violence reoffending. However, findings from follow-up replication studies (as part of the so-called Spouse Assault Replication Program, or SARP) were inconsistent.

The second source of deterrence from police activities involves averting crime in the first place. In this circumstance, there is no apprehension because there was no offense. This is the primary source of deterrence from the presence of police. If an occupied police car is parked outside a liquor store, a would-be robber of the store will likely be deterred because apprehension is all but certain. Thus, measures of apprehension risk based only on enforcement actions and crimes that actually occur, such as arrest per reported crime, are seriously incomplete because such measures do not capture the apprehension risk that attends criminal opportunities that were not acted upon by potential offenders because the risk was deemed too high.

Two examples of police deployment strategies that have been shown to be effective in averting crime in the first place are “hot spots” policing and problem-oriented policing. Weisburd and Eck (2004) propose a two-dimensional taxonomy of policing strategies. One dimension is “level of focus” and the other is “diversity of focus.” Level of focus represents the degree to which police activities are targeted. Targeting can occur in variety of ways, but Weisburd and Eck give special attention to policing strategies that target police resources in small geographic areas (e.g., blocks or specific addresses) that have very high levels of criminal activity, so-called crime “hot spots.” Just like in the liquor store example, the rationale for concentrating police in crime hot spots is to create a prohibitively high risk of apprehension and thereby to deter crime at the hot spot in the first place.

Braga’s (2008) informative review of hot spots policing summarizes the findings from nine experimental or quasi-experimental evaluations. The studies were conducted in five large US cities and one suburb of Australia. Crime-incident reports and citizen calls for service were used to evaluate impacts in and around the geographic area of the crime hot spot. The targets of the police actions varied. Some hot spots were generally high-crime locations, whereas others were characterized by specific crime problems like drug trafficking. All but two of the studies found evidence of significant reductions in crime. Further, no evidence was found of material crime displacement to immediately surrounding locations. On the contrary, some studies found evidence of crime reductions, not increases, in the surrounding locations – a “diffusion of crimecontrol benefits” to non-targeted locales.

The second dimension of the Weisburd and Eck taxonomy is diversity of approaches. This dimension concerns the variety of approaches that police use to impact public safety. Low diversity is associated with reliance on time-honored law enforcement strategies for affecting the threat of apprehension, for example, by dramatically increasing police presence. High diversity involves expanding beyond conventional practice to prevent crime. One example of a high-diversity approach is problem-oriented policing. Problem-oriented policy comes in so many different forms that it is regrettably hard to define.

One of the most visible examples of problemoriented policing is Boston’s Operation Cease Fire (Kennedy et al. 2001). The objective of the collaborative operation was to prevent inter-gang gun violence using two deterrence-based strategies. One was to target enforcement against weapons traffickers who were supplying weapons to Boston’s violent youth gangs. The second involved a more innovative use of deterrence. The youth gangs themselves were assembled (and reassembled) to send the message that the response to any instance of serious violence would be “pulling every lever” legally available to punish gang members collectively. This included a salient severity-related dimension – vigorous prosecution for unrelated, nonviolent crime such as drug dealing. Thus, the aim of Operation Cease Fire was to deter violent crime by increasing the certainty and severity of punishment but only in targeted circumstances, namely, if the gang members were perpetrators of a violent crime. Just as important, Operation

Cease Fire illustrates the potential for combining elements of both certainty and severity enhancement to generate a targeted deterrent effect. Further evaluations of the efficacy of this strategy should be a high priority.


This research paper has reviewed the evidence on the general deterrent effect of sanctions. Evidence of a substantial effect is overwhelming. Just as important is the evidence that the effect is not uniform across different sanctions, jurisdictions, and individuals. Both conclusions are important to devising crimecontrol policies that make effective use of sanctions to prevent crime. The first conclusion implies that a well-balanced portfolio of strategies and programs to prevent crime must necessarily include deterrence-based policies. However, the second conclusion implies that not all deterrence policies will be effective in reducing crime or, if effective, that the crime-reduction benefits may fall short of the social and economic costs of the sanction.

Future research on sanction effects will be most useful for policy evaluation if it moves closer to a medical model. Medical research is not organized around the theme of whether medical care cures diseases, the analog to the question of whether sanctions prevent crime. Instead, medical researchers address far more specific questions. Is a specific drug or procedure effective in treating a specific disease? Does the drug or procedure have adverse side effects for certain types of people? Furthermore, most such research is comparative – is the specific drug or procedure more effective than the status quo alternative? The analogous questions for deterrence research are whether and in what circumstances are sanction threats effective, and which threats are more effective and in what circumstances.


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