Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

No. 148
Monday, August 17, 1998
by Morgan O. Reynolds


Crime as a Rational Act

Evidence abounds that law-abiding citizens respond to incentives. Why would criminals be different? We know that criminals avoid knowingly committing crimes in front of the police, which explains why the police interrupt so few crimes in progress. We also know that prison and jail officials manage 1.8 million inmates daily, some of them bad or vicious, with almost no incidents. How do they maintain such order? Through disciplinary measures that inmates heed and respect.

The reality is that the threat of bad consequences, including retribution posed by the legal system, protects life and property against predation. If men were angels, as James Madison said, we'd have no need of government.

"Evidence abounds that law-abiding citizens respond to incentives -- and so do criminals."

Interviews with Criminals. Human action, including criminality, is purposeful behavior. The testimony of criminals provides our strongest evidence that, in the vast majority of cases, lawbreakers are rational. They reason and act like other human beings. Perhaps the best study on this issue among the relatively few available is by criminologists Richard Wright and Scott Decker, who during 1989-90 interviewed 105 active, nonincarcerated residential burglars in St. Louis, Mo.6

For example, burglar "Charlie" remarked, "I can go back to selling drugs, [for] which I could lose my ass. If I get caught on burglary, I know I'm guaranteed four years [imprisonment]. I get caught with drugs, I'm a do 30 [years]. So see, I got away from drugs and fell with the number one [offense, burglary]."7

Other offenders regard robbery, especially armed robbery, as too risky. Burglar No. 013 said, "After my eight years for robbery, I told myself then I'll never do another robbery because I was locked up with so many guys that was doin' 25 to 30 years for robbery and I think that's what made me stick to burglaries, because I had learned that a crime committed with a weapon will get you a lot of time."

Prospective criminals also choose their targets by considering both risks and rewards. For example:

  • Burglars avoid neighborhoods that are heavily patrolled or aggressively policed: "You got to stay away from where the police ride real tough."8
  • Nine out of 10 burglars say they always avoid breaking into an occupied residence: "I rather for the police to catch me vs. a person catching me breaking in their house because the person will kill you... Sometimes the police will tell you, 'You lucky we came before they did.'"9

In addition, most burglars have to consciously suppress the fear of capture or work with an accomplice to bolster their confidence.10 And realistically enough, offenders perceive the chance of being apprehended for a given break-in as extremely slim, partly because they efficiently search the master bedroom first (cash, jewelry, guns) and do not linger inside the target.11

Scholarly Opinion. In the criminology literature, "rational choice theorists believe that the decision to offend is the outcome of a deliberate weighing, however rudimentary, of potential costs and rewards."12 While criminals sometimes make "hurried, almost haphazard, decisions to offend while in a state of emotional turmoil,"13 most of the burglars mentioned above, for example, had a consistent, workable scheme for assessing risk-and-reward signals emitted by potential targets, knew numerous ways to gain illicit entry to dwellings, had a general plan for searching targets quickly and efficiently and understood how to convert the stolen goods into cash.14

"Even people in a state of rage choose when, where and how to yield to their emotions and impulses."

Brian Forst, an American University criminologist, wrote, "While the theory of general deterrence has received empirical support for many categories of offenses, such support in crimes of passion and in violent crimes committed by juveniles has been notably absent."15 Is he wrong? Do murder and rape fit the model? Yes, because even people in a state of rage choose when, where and how often to yield to their emotions and impulses. At a minimum, murderers and rapists indulge in more criminal acts at lower anticipated cost (risk of apprehension and punishment).16 Stanton Samenow, a well-known clinical psychologist and interviewer of thousands of criminals, insists, "The criminal is rational, calculating and deliberate in his actions. Criminals know right from wrong... A habit is not a compulsion. On any occasion, the thief can refrain from stealing if he is in danger of getting caught."17


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