Deterrence Theory: Modern Criminal Law


General deterrence indicates that “the public will not engage in crime due to the fear of being prosecuted and getting severe punishment” (Harcourt, 2013, p. 4). Communities and societies use deterrence measures such as punishments to prevent deviants from committing various crimes. Fagan and Meares (2008) indicate that “a criminal who receives severe punishment for engaging in a specific criminal act might not commit it again” (p. 201). This understanding explains why a specific form of punishment has the potential to deter people from committing various heinous crimes. These arguments can therefore be used to analyze the deterrence theory. The deterrence theory states that the ultimate goal of punishment is to prevent crime.

Beccaria’s Theories of Punishment and the Death Penalty

Beccaria presented abstract ideas regarding the issue of deterrence (Paternoster, 2010). For instance, he analyzed how punishments and laws could discourage more members of the public from committing various offenses (Chalfin & McCrary, 2014). The death penalty should therefore not be described as a valid example of deterrence theory. This is the case because death penalty is a form of punishment capable of deterring crime (Nagin, 2013). Although Beccaria criticized the use of death penalty in the treatise “On Crimes and Punishments”, the agreeable fact is that capital punishment is in accordance with the rational choice theory.

Many scholars have observed that Cesare Beccaria’s theories focused on the concept of rational choice to support the idea of deterrence. The Rational Choice Theory asserts that human beings tend to make specific choices before committing various crimes. They will also engage in specific practices that have the potential to increase pleasure. That being the case, the use of punishment becomes an effective tool to control people’s behaviors and choices. Consequently, Beccaria’s rational choice theory promotes the use of punishments such as incarceration to prevent crime in different societies (Nagin, 2013).

The most important thing to understand is that Beccaria wrote numerous works describing how punishments and laws could be used to deter the public from engaging in criminal practices (Draper, 2002). If these works and ideas are applied in a positive manner, the global society can deter different criminals from committing various criminal acts. The use of just desserts and incarcerations can also discourage more persons from engaging in different crimes. The theories presented by Beccaria have been applied in different societies to develop the most desirable laws and punishments.

Modern scholars have therefore used Beccaria’s arguments to analyze the issue of death penalty. This form of punishment has the potential “to deter crime since many people fear death than anything else in their lives” (Paternoster, 2010, p. 773). This kind of punishment is inflicted by the law. The penalty makes it impossible for more people to commit various offenses. As well, some sociologists and criminologists have argued that capital punishment deters the offender from committing crime in the future. This is the case because he or she is executed.


In the treatise “On Crimes and Punishments”, Beccaria criticized the use of death penalty because it was inhumane and unacceptable. However, the penalty fulfills the attributes of the deterrence theory (Chalfin & McCrary, 2014). The theory focuses on the use of various punishments to discourage more citizens from engaging in criminal acts. The rational choice theory also asserts that such punishments can control the behaviors and practices embraced by different members in the society.

Reference List

Chalfin, A., & McCrary, J. (2014). Criminal deterrence: a review of the literature. Journal of Criminology, 1(1), 1-44.

Draper, T. (2002). An introduction to Jeremy Bentham’s theory of punishment. Journal of Bentham Studies, 5(1), 1-17.

Fagan, J., & Meares, T. (2008). Punishment, deterrence and social control: the paradox of punishment in minority communities. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 6(1), 173-229.

Harcourt, B. (2013). Beccaria’s “On Crimes and Punishment”: a mirror on the history of the foundations of modern criminal law. Law and Economics, 1(1), 1-27.

Nagin, D. (2013). Deterrence in the Twenty-first century: a review of the evidence. Research Showcase, 1(1), 1-85.

Paternoster, R. (2010). How much do we really know about criminal deterrence. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 100(3), 765-824.

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