Controversies: Does Deterrence Reduce Crime?

About the controversies series: Controversies publications present the academic literature pertaining to an issue, and take one empirically-based side. These publications are intended for distribution and are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are interested in issues in psychology and law. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Controversies publications undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.

About the author: This article was written by Berenike Waubert de Puiseau. Berenike Waubert de Puiseau is a member of the Max Plank Institute for Research on Collective Goods and PhD student at the University of Düsseldorf (Germany).

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Remember to also read our articles on "Should we be tough on crime?" and "Does the death penalty reduce crime?".


Explaining criminal behavior has been of interest to some researchers for decades. An influential theory put forth by criminologists and economists is deterrence theory [1, 2, 5], which, based on Expected Utility Theory (EUT) [3], sees the decision (not) to break the law as a choice between two options. According to EUT, an individual chooses the option associated with the higher expected utility. Hence, people commit crimes if they have higher expected utilities than noncriminal behavior. Factors influencing the decision (not) to break the law include the potential gain from criminal activities (e.g., the monetary value of a stolen good), the probability of being detected, and the presumable pain associated with conviction (i.e., legal consequences of stealing in terms of punishment or imprisonment)[1]. Thereby, EUT assumes that humans make rational decisions.

“Some persons become criminals… not because their basic motivation differs from that of other persons, but because their benefits and costs differ. ” – Gary Becker

Evidence for.

Pro 1: Empirical research at the macro-level (i.e., communities and jurisdictions) has revealed a decline in crime rates as a result of changes to police presence in one jurisdiction compared to another, suggesting that an increase in the probability of being detected serves as a deterrent for potential criminals [6]. Pro 2: Furthermore, a meta-analysis examining the results of several micro-level (i.e., individual) studies on criminal delinquency found that detection was probably related to a decline in crime rates 4. Pro 3: Along a similar vein, some researchers have combined deterrence theory with an individual differences approach, culminating in the notion of the “deterrable offender” [7], which suggests that only certain people respond to deterrence incentives. Pro 4: Consequently, attempts to define deterrability have combined components of deterrence theory with elements of the General Theory of Crime [8]. For instance, deterrable offenders are likely to be offenders of medium level self-control. Therefore, deterrence efforts should be focused on the offenders whose profiles are associated with increased responsivity to its postulated factors.

Evidence against.

Con 1: The deterrence theory of crime presumes that people make rational decisions based on the principal of maximizing expected utility. Some researchers, however, have contested the notion that people operate on bounded rationality resulting in biased decision-making [6,9]. One famous example is the so-called framing effect, that is, the finding that decisions are influenced by context [10]. Con 2: Research findings do not support deterrence theory as it has been proposed. In fact, meta- analytic findings revealed negligible effects of expected punishment severity on criminal activities [4]. Con 3: Furthermore, people tend to obey the law even when the probability of detection is low [11, 12]. This phenomenon cannot be explained in terms of expected utility as a low detection probability is hypothesized to reduce the cost of a crime and enhance its benefits instead. Con 4: EU theory also neglects non-monetary terms related to crime [6]; however, researchers have found non- monetary influences on delinquency (e.g., intrinsic punishment like shame) [13].

What it all means.

In summary, deterrence does not reliably influence crime rates. The original theory considers only situational influences, which has been revised lately, for example by introducing the notion of the ‘deterrable’ offender [8, 9, 11, 14]. Deterrence may work for a subgroup of people, however, more research is needed to strengthen this claim.

Beyond the lack of empirical support, deterrence efforts are a costly way to reduce crime with the benefits of actions undertaken to increase detection probability (e.g., increasing police presence) and expected fines (extending prison sentences) not necessarily exceeding their costs [6]. Alternatively, focusing efforts on other presumed causes of crime, such as perceived legitimacy and lack of self-control [8, 11, 12] may be more effective in reducing crime rates and less costly at the same time.

The quote wall.

“There is a substantial body of empirical research testing theoretical and perceptual deterrence theory…This literature demonstrates an important, albeit often weak, relation between sanction-threat perceptions and criminal activity: what people think about the likelihood of getting caught and the likely sanction is related to level of criminal activity. However, an important limitation on this literature is that there is a lack of research attention to active and serious offenders, the precise group for whom studies of deterrence are ultimately most relevant.”

–  Thomas Loughran and colleagues (2011) describing research findings and policy thoughts from a large pathways to desistance study on serious and chronic offenders

"The vast majority of (these) comprehensive summaries found no convincing evidence that harsher sanctions reduce crime.

–  Summary of the current literature on the approaches to crime (in 2012) by Cheryl Webster and Anthony Doob.

"In addition to mixed evidence regarding effectiveness, the widespread use of deterrence approaches has led to serious negative side effects. Since deterrence policies are directed primarily at the disadvantaged, their use has undermined police-community relations in urban areas, and especially among minority groups."

– Tom Tyler (2006) on why people obey the law and how deterrence theories often fail to generate compliance with laws.

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  1. Becker, G. S. (1968). Crime and punishment. An economic approach. Journal of Political Economy, 76, 169-217.
  2. Bentham, Jeremy (1789). The Principles of Morals and Legislation.
  3. Friedman, M., & Savage, L. J. (1948). The utility analysis of choices involving risks. Journal of Political Economy, 56, 279-304.
  4. Pratt, T. C., Cullen, F. T., Blevins, K. R., Daigle, L. E., & Madensen, T. D. (2006). The empirical status of deterrence theory: A meta-analysis. In: F. T. Cullen, J. Wright, & K. Blevins (Eds.), Taking stock. The status of criminological theory (pp. 367-395). New Brunswick / New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
  5. Paternoster, R. (1987). The deterrent effect of the perceived certainty and severity of punishment: A review of the evidence and issues. Justice Quarterly, 4, 173-217.
  6. Levitt, S. D., & Miles, T. J. (2006). Economic contributions to the understanding of crime. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 2, 147-164.
  7. Pogarsky, G. (2002). Identifying "deterrable" offenders: Implications for research on deterrence. Justice Quarterly, 19, 431-452.
  8. Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  9. Garoupa, N. (2003). Behavioral economic analysis of crime: A critical review. European Journal of Law and Economics, 15, 5-15.
  10. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453–458.
  11. Tyler, T. R. (2006). Why people obey the law. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  12. Tyler, T. R. (2006). Psychological perspectives on legitimacy and legitimation. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 375-400.
  13. Grasmick, H. G., & Bursik, R. J. (1990). Conscience, significant others, and rational choice: Extending the deterrence model. Law & Society Review, 24, 837-862.
  14. Nagin, D. S., & Paternoster, R. (1993). Enduring individual differences and rational choice theories of crime. Law & Society Review, 27, 467-496.
  15. Webster, C. M., & Doob, A. N. (2012). Searching for Sasquatch: Deterrence of crime through sentencing severity. In J. Petersilia and K. Reitz (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sentencing and Corrections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  16. Loughran, T A., Piguero, A. R., Fagan, J., & Mulvey, E. P. (2011). Deterring Serious and Chronic offenders. In N. Dowd (ed.), Justice for kids: Keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system. New York: New York University Press.

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