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Deterrence And Rational Choice Theory Of Crime

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The issue of whether decision making by criminals is a rational process is a heated topic of discussion when one asserts that crime is the role of choice. Before the classical school of criminology, crime was thought to be the product of the paranormal occurrence of demons, witches, ghouls, and other creatures. The time prior to the classical school of criminology, called the preclassical era, is divided in two parts. Before the time of state intervention into private matters, each individual dealt with violations of their rights. This was a problem because of the continuous cycle of violence being perpetuated. Soon the State (and even the Church) took on the task of dispensing law and order to the masses of the Middle Ages. This led to a period called the Holy Inquisition which lasted from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century. During the Holy Inquisition, punishment that was harsh and capricious was the norm. Also, there was no protection against bogus allegations, meaning, the burden of proof was on the accused to prove his/her innocence.

The classical school of criminology was a response to the harsh times of the Holy Inquisition. It was a product of the Enlightenment, seeking to replace the notions of the divine rights of royalty and clergy with rationalism, intellectualism, and humanitarianism. The two chief ambassadors of the classical school of criminology are Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Beccaria is widely recognized as the father of the classical school of criminology. In his essay Dei deliti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishment), Beccaria asserted that humans are rational, have free will, and are hedonistic. He also claimed that crime can be prevented by convincing warnings of punishments. To succeed in preventing crime, certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment must be present. Jeremy Bentham embraced the utilitarian philosophy of replacing harsh and capricious punishments with humane punishments and protection against bogus allegations.

The classical school of criminology was the foundation of the modern criminal justice system in the Western world. Criminal law and criminal procedure now assume that people are rational actors, thanks to the classical school of criminology. In addition, penalties for crime became more humane and policing turned to a deterrence base. Sir Robert Peel was responsible for the passage of the London Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 which organized the first modern police department based on the principles of deterrence.

Whether one believes in the deterrence theory depends on their ideology. Up to the 1970’s, the theory was rejected by the criminological community while being accepted by criminal justice practitioners. Both points of view are concurrently right and wrong. The tiger prevention fallacy is a humorous analogy drawn to illustrate the widespread fallacy that absence of crime demonstrates the effectiveness of deterrence efforts. The story identifies a man snapping his fingers in the middle of New York City and claiming that his efforts have deterred tigers from congregating. The warden’s survey is a humorous analogy drawn to illustrate the widespread fallacy that the presence of crime demonstrates that deterrence does not work. The story identifies a prison warden pointing to his inmates as proof of the absence of deterrence. Now there is care taken to distinguish between general deterrence, which is directed at the community in general, and specific deterrence, which is geared toward preventing a particular offender from committing an offense.

Tipping levels is the idea that punishment certainty, severity, and celerity must reach a minimum level before a deterrent effect can be reached. The total prevention of crime through threats of punishment is absolute deterrence, this is not possible. Marginal deterrence is possible. Marginal deterrence is the prevention of some, but not all, crime through threats of sanctions. With marginal deterrence, crime may not be prevented but it may be shifted to other times, places, or forms.

Most criminologists believe informal sanctions are more deterrent than the formal sanctions of the criminal justice system. For example, the shame of being exposed as a deviant to friends and family is more threatening than official sanctions. John Braithwaite asserted that shaming someone served to shape one’s conscience.

The crimes that seem to be the most deterrable seem to be those that are rational, instrumental, mala prohibita (acts that are not inherently evil but prohibited for other reasons), and typically committed in public places. Evidence of the deterrability of drunk driving is limited. Although, the sanctions associated with drunk driving may have a moral education effect. Capital punishment as a deterrent has little effect partly because of the irrational nature of acts punishable by death. Actually there is considerable

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