Deterrence theory contains principles about justice which many of us find attractive because it conforms to what we recognize as fairness. The wicked should be punished –quickly –to the extent that pain will deter them from committing a crime again. Deterrence theory so permeates our thinking that we recognize it as the model by which we raise our children & train our pets.
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- Severe Punishment—any criminal penalty must be severe enough to outweigh the benefits to be obtained by crime.
Our perceptions about the severity of punishment is, the more people suffer, the greater they have ‘paid’ for their crime.
- Swiftly Applied—the punishment must be administered swiftly.
The time between detection & punishment must be short enough for offenders to ‘get the message’.
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For punishment to have an educative effect in the public mind, it needs to be swift.
- With Certain Application—offenders & those contemplating crime must be convinced that non-conforming behaviour will carry sure & certain consequences.
There can be no reduction through plea bargaining or reduced sentencing severity.
Deterrence research shows that certainty is more important than severity or swiftness in deterring illegal behaviour.
Does Deterrence Theory Work?
- As civilized people, we punish reluctantly, believing that the pain the offender suffers is for the greater good of society
- Deterrence acts to turn people away from crime
- But the theory rests on the assumption that all people are rational—carefully weighing the relative costs & benefits to be gained from criminal behaviour before making a choice to do so
- It assumes we are self-serving—making decisions to maximize pleasure & avoid pain
- Human appetites must be constrained by the threat of force
- This ‘economic model’ of human decision-making does not take into account the possibility that rational decision-making can be corrupted by intoxication from drugs or alcohol
- Canadians engage in many behaviours on a daily basis that carry severe costs (ie smoking, not wearing a seatbelt, having unprotected sex)
- People do not seem to be deterred by the potential consequences of these widespread indulgences
- The consequences are remote & uncertain—just like most criminal behaviour
- Is there something inherently wrong with people that makes them want to ignore the effects of these harmful behaviours OR is there something wrong with the deterrence model & how it claims to prevent undesirable behaviour?
Canadian Penal Policy
- We have a national system of conditional release including temporary absences, day parole, full parole & statutory release
- All of these provisions allow prisoners to enter the community without having to serve the full extent of their judicially-imposed sentence
- Deterrence theory & its emphasis on the severity of punishment through certain consequences would appear to be undermined by letting inmates out early
- Judges are rarely bound by the law when it comes to sentencing—their discretion is key when it comes to deciding upon an appropriate sentence
Mission Statement of the Correctional Service of Canada
The CSC, as part of the criminal justice system, contributes to the protection of society by actively encouraging & assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and human control.