In criminal law, deterrence theory explicitly expresses that a people often choose either to violate or obey the law based on the corresponding consequences or gains associated with each decision. However, it is not very easy to derive distinct inferences, although punishment accorded to offenders should purposefully serve as examples for others who are yet to engage in criminal events (Vold, Bernard & Snipes, 2002). Notwithstanding, corporal punishment and application of death penalties are still practiced to date especially in public so that the general populace would witness the pain that criminals go through. There are divided opinions on whether to continue with such inhumane practices that for instance is outlawed in the United States (Chiricos & Waldo, 1970).
Hanging and amputation of arms, legs, and ears that are among the severe punishment have been reported by Human Rights Watch since there are no much impacts as far as discouraging criminal activities is concerned. In fact, it is important to state that the nature of specific deterrence design is prescribed by the sanction (Tittle, 1969, p. 412; Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). This is basically aimed at discouraging the offenders not to re-offend. For example, since driving under the influence of alcohol is prohibited, offenders of such a crime find themselves between a rock and a hard stone since they risk being arrested, having licenses suspended or taken away, and the vehicle being impounded just to mention. Such actions are meant to sensitize the drivers on the need to adhere to laws that protect life for both the offenders and that of other innocent road users (Chiricos & Waldo, 1970).
However, such actions are supposed to inflict enough/ bearable pain on the offenders so that they may adhere to the regulations. It is imperative to state that early classical philosophers of deterrent theory protested against the prevailing legal policies that dominated the thoughts of many Europeans for centuries that were merely based on distinct spiritualistic beliefs on crime. This lead to the realization of modern realistic deterrence theory in criminology that adopts social thinkers’ perspective (Gibbs, 1968). As such, Thomas Hobbes (1651) as cited in (Rennie, 1978) described a man as neither bad nor good. This is unlike the perspective adopted by religious philosopher Thomas Aquinas who relentlessly affirmed a people to be naturally good rather than evil (Akers, 2000).
Considering social thinkers approach, Hobbes reiterate that men are interested in certain things and they would often fight when their desires are not met. It implies that self-interests, material gains, social reputation, and personal safety are among what a people are interested in. Thus enmity could develop between individuals without the care in the quest to achieve self-interests (Gibbs, 1968). However, in such a situation, there would often arise cases of resistance and conflict, a fact that necessitates the existence of a government to maintain law and order. As such, Hobbes further emphasizes that a human being is rational enough to realize a people’s nature and the existence of self-interest leading to crime and unavoidable conflicts since there exists exclusion and alienation of some members of the society (Rennie, 1978; Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985).
However, to avoid all these, a people come to a consensus to do without selfishness provided that there is an imprecise similarity in the things they do. This, according to Hobbes, is referred to as a social contract. A people often engage in a social contract with the government in place to get protected from human predicaments like war, crime, conflict just to mention. Thus the state legal statutes are supposed to effectively enforce the social contract with impartiality. The philosopher affirms that individuals authorize sovereign to use force in order to uphold the social contract (Rennie, 1978).
Nonetheless, crimes are bound to occur despite the existence of an active and performing government. According to Hobbes, punishment accorded to criminals should be greater than the benefit gained as a result of the committed crime (Bentham, 1948). Since deterrence is the reason as to why criminals are punished for the violation of a social contract, so as to maintain the contract between the government and her people, Other philosophers like Cesare Bonesana (1764) cited in (Akers, 2000)published a treaty on Crime and Punishment that challenges the rights of state (government) to punish crimes. As such, they were indebted to follow the legal enlighten in the eighteenth century that law should be judged by their respective propensities to afford the “highest level of happiness shared by the largest number” (Beccaria, 1963, p. 8).
It is a natural occurrence that a people consider rational self-interest, and based on this fact, criminals will not be able whatsoever to commit a crime when they know very well that the cost of committing such a crime is higher than the benefits they would get from their engagement in undesirable act (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). Moreover, if the sole purpose of imposing punishment is to prevent crime, then it is imperative to concur with Beccaria (1963) who argues that “punishments are unjust when their severity exceeds what is necessary to achieve deterrence” (p.14) cited in (Akers, 2000). It is somewhat important to reiterate that severity of the punishment does not reduce crime passé, instead, it will increase crime. The philosopher further argued that swift and certain punishment are the best approach to curb and control the menace. But, adopting punishment for any other reason could be regarded as superfluous, repressive and capricious (Chiricos & Waldo, 1970).
According to Beccaria and classical theorists, human beings are rational in nature and are able to freely govern their individual decisions. Thus publishing a law is emphasized since it enhances the understanding of its legitimacy on criminal sanctions. Secret accusation and torture are illegal and should be abolished (Beccaria (1963, p. 11) cited in (Akers, 2000). The philosopher rejected the use of corporal punishment and instead advocated for imprisonment. This is mainly based on the fact that jails should be more humane and there should be no distinction between the rich and the poor. In fact, the philosopher reiterated that jails should enhance the criminals understanding of the crime committed and act as a place to enhance the culprits understanding of the legal clauses that govern the social activities to enhance coexistence within the moral society (Tittle, 1969).
In conclusion, to enhance the realization of a crime-free state, the administered punishment has to be proportionate to the distinct crimes committed, otherwise there would be no deterrent value (Moyer, 2001, p. 26). Whilst other philosophers support the administration of punishment to some extent not severe, Jeremy Bentham did not. As a prominent philosopher in the 18th century with great contributions on crime, principles of morals and legislation, his argument that nature places mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters “pain and pleasure” (Bentham, 1948, p. 125) that was shared by his contemporary, “Beccaria”, that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” punishments should not be in excess of what is indispensable to discourage a people from violating the law. This is in spite of his contributions to the legal fraternity, which were based on the 18th century English way and approach to crime in the society.
In short, the punishment should be just. Certainty and quick punishment are enough to deter a criminal from reoffending unless otherwise, longer jail terms should be appropriate for the criminals who would otherwise be subjected to severe punishment.
Akers, R. L. (2000). Criminological theories. Los Angeles: Roxbury. Andenaes, J. (1974). Punishment and deterrence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Beccaria, C. (1963). On crimes and punishments (introduction by H. Paolucci, Trans.). New York: Macmillan. (Original work published 1764)
Bentham, J. (1948). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (with an introduction by W. Harrison, Ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Gibbs, J. P. (1968). Crime, punishment and deterrence. Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 48, 515–530.
Moyer, I. L. (2001). Criminological theory: Traditional and nontraditional voices and themes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rennie, Y. (1978). The search for criminal man: A conceptual history of the dangerous offender. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Tittle, C. R. (1969). Crime rates and legal sanctions. Social Problems, 16, 409–423.
Vold, G. B., Bernard, T. J., & Snipes, J. B. (2002). Theoretical criminology (5th ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, J. Q., & Herrnstein, R. J. (1985). Crime and human nature. New York: Simon & Schuster.