General Deterrence

The term “general deterrence” refers to the practice of instilling fear in people in the hopes that such fear will prevent them from committing crimes in the future. This is done by making an example of offenders through their punishments. The focus is not on the offender individually; rather, the offender is punished publicly to prevent others who may have similar ideas from committing similar crimes in the future. To explore this concept, consider the following general deterrence definition.

Definition of General Deterrence


  1. The act of instilling fear of severe punishment in the general public, so as to prevent them from committing crimes in the future.

Origin of Deterrence

1820-1830       Latin    dēterrent- (stem of dēterrēns)

What is Deterrence

Deterrence is the act of punishing an individual who has committed a crime in such a manner as to warn others not to do the same, else they too will receive a similar punishment. Deterrence often goes hand in hand with retributivism. Retributivism is the belief that punishment is necessary once a crime has been committed. The severity of the punishment is then based on the severity of the crime. The idea of deterrence is rooted in two main beliefs:

  • That a specific punishment being imposed on an offender will “deter,” or prevent him from committing another crime in the future.
  • That fear of such a punishment will deter others from committing a similar crime.

For example:

John broke into someone’s car at the mall, and stole all of the electronics out of it. He is convicted of the crime by a jury, and sentenced to lose his right hand by amputation. Marcus – who has stolen from vehicles before – hears of John’s severe punishment, and decides it is simply not worth it to steal things, for fear of receiving the same punishment.


There are three main categories into which deterrence can be divided. Those categories are outlined below:

Specific Deterrence

The category of specific deterrence focuses on the individual who committed the crime. The aim of a specific deterrence is to discourage the individual from committing crimes in the future. This is done by instilling in him an understanding of the consequences that will undoubtedly stem from his illegal activity. Just about every sentence falls under the category of specific deterrence, though it may also fall under other deterrence categories as well.

General Deterrence

General deterrence, which is also referred to as “indirect deterrence,” focuses on the prevention of the crime itself, rather than on the individuals who have committed it. For example, general deterrence refers to the act of punishing an individual in public to humiliate him. This is done in the hopes that others will refrain from committing similar crimes in the future, out of fear of receiving a similar punishment.

An example of general deterrence is the “perp walk.” The perp walk is the act of walking an offender into or out of a police station, courthouse, or police car solely for the media’s benefit, and to humiliate the offender, or “perp” (perpetrator). This is the walk that is usually seen on the news as the anchor reports on the incident. An offender may be seen hanging his head in shame or hiding his face in his jacket in an attempt to avoid the cameras’ capability to fully capture his face.


Incapacitation is, according to some people, a variation on specific deterrence. Incapacitation focuses less on rehabilitating the individual who committed the crime, and more on taking away his capability to commit another crime in the future. While shorter jail sentences are given to specifically deter an offender, in the hope that he will learn not to commit crime in the future, longer prison sentences are given to incapacitate the individual. This type of sentence takes away that specific person’s ability to commit crimes against the general public, by keeping him locked up.

For example:

Roland sets off fireworks in an area where they are prohibited, and accidentally starts a grass fire. Roland’s sentence of six months in jail is given as specific deterrence, to discourage him from ever doing that again.

In another town, Max is put on trial for a string of arson fires, in which four buildings were destroyed, and three people were seriously injured. At trial, the prosecution shows that Max has a history – since he was a young teen – of setting fires. He is sentenced to 15-25 years in prison. This is a serious punishment for a serious crime – but it is also meant as incapacitation, to keep Max away from the public, to protect them from his dangerous propensity for arson.

Marginal Deterrence

Marginal deterrence refers to the idea that a severe crime should receive a punishment that is just as severe, and that a lesser crime should receive a lesser punishment. Further, a series of crimes should receive a harsher punishment than any single crime. For example, if a robbery that is committed without violence is punished similarly to a robbery that involves murder, then a robber could make the decision to kill his victims to prevent them from offering testimony at a criminal trial that would ultimately convict him.

Marginal deterrence is meant to deter a criminal from committing multiple crimes. Without it, an offender may commit the initial crime, then commit further crimes – such as blackmailing law enforcement – to cover up the initial crime.

General Deterrence Theory

General deterrence theory is rooted in the idea that the public can be discouraged from committing crimes by preying on their fears. People are afraid of breaking the law because they fear the consequences they will suffer as a result. More specifically, when an example is made of someone who has committed a crime, those who fear receiving a similar punishment will be discouraged from committing that crime, or any others, in the future. This is general deterrence theory in a nutshell.

An example of general deterrence is the mandatory license revocation that comes with repeated DWI (driving while intoxicated) offenses. Here, a judge is unable to alter the punishment, and so the offender’s license is automatically taken away after he has repeatedly broken the law. The general deterrence theory here holds that, if the general public is aware that their licenses will be revoked upon receiving multiple DWI convictions, they will be less inclined to break the law and suffer such a punishment.

Specific Deterrence

Specific deterrence focuses more on the individual who committed the crime, rather than on the crime itself. The purpose of specific deterrence is to discourage that individual in particular from re-offending, or committing another crime in the future. When it comes to sentencing an individual, a judge will ideally impose a sentence that will achieve the goals of both specific deterrence and general deterrence. That way, the punishment will not only discourage the individual from committing another crime in the future, but it will also discourage others from committing the same or a similar crime.

Punishments for both general and specific deterrence may include fines, jail terms, or both. Two factors in particular can predict how effective the punishment will be at deterring future crimes:

  • The severity of the punishment
  • The certainty that an individual will, in fact, be punished for his actions

For example:

Roger makes some poor decisions while investing his friends’ money, and is ultimately charged with insider trading after giving one of his friends a “tip,” or information that was not public knowledge. This is illegal because it gives one investor an advantage over the other investors who might have also benefited from that information.

Roger is sentenced to seven years in prison for his conduct. Not only is it safe to assume that Roger will never participate in insider trading again after receiving such a sentence, but those who hear Roger’s story on the news will also be deterred from committing the same or a similar crime in the future.


Retributivism is a different idea of punishment from that of deterrence theory. Retributivism is meant to assign a punishment that “fits” the crime committed. For instance, if an offender is imprisoned for one year in prison for a hit-and-run car accident that left the other driver injured, then he will be discouraged from ever committing that crime again. Further, one year in jail could be considered an appropriate punishment, given the nature of the crime. While deterrence sets out to discourage people from breaking the law, retributivism aims to punish them for their crimes. With retributivism, the belief is that the best response to criminal behavior is an appropriate punishment.

General Deterrence Example Involving the Three Strikes Law

An example of general deterrence appearing in a court case occurred on March 12, 2000, when Gary Ewing was arrested after he stole three golf clubs from a golf course in Los Angeles, California. Each golf club stolen was worth about $400. Upon his arrest, Ewing was on parole from a nine-year jail term for prior felony convictions that included three burglaries and a robbery.

The state of California practices what is known as the “three strikes law,” which was created in the spirit of general deterrence. Under the three strikes law, a third felony conviction earns an offender an automatic prison sentence of 25 years to life. This should be enough to scare anyone out of receiving a third felony conviction. However, such was not the case for Mr. Ewing.

Ewing was ultimately convicted of felony grand theft for the golf club incident. While being sentenced, Ewing asked if his conviction could be reduced to a misdemeanor in accordance with California law, which permitted a judge to use discretion when imposing a sentence. The judge declined Ewing’s request and sentenced him under the auspices of the three strikes law.

Ewing appealed his sentence, arguing that 25 years to life was grossly inconsistent with the crime he had committed. He further argued that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution with regard to its protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The appeals court rejected this argument, and the California Supreme Court refused to hear Ewing’s case. Ewing petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately agreed to hear the case. The Court was then tasked with deciding whether Ewing’s sentence did, in fact, violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Ultimately, the Court decided in a 5-4 decision that no, it did not. The Court concluded that Ewing’s lengthy criminal history justified his sentence, and that the Court had previously ruled in another case that a life sentence with the possibility of parole was indeed valid for a series of three felony convictions (the “three strikes” law). Specifically, the Court wrote that Ewing’s sentence reflected “rational legislative judgment,” and that it was “justified by the State’s public-safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Parole – The release of a inmate, either temporarily or permanently, before the completion of his prison sentence based on the condition that he will practice good behavior upon his release.