Concept of Deterrence

In the realm of criminal justice, deterrence and incapacitation serve crucial but distinct roles in crime prevention. Incapacitation refers to preventing crime by imprisoning offenders, thus physically restricting them from committing further crimes. On the other hand, deterrence aims to prevent crime through the fear of legal consequences, such as imprisonment, thereby deterring potential offenders from committing crimes in the first place.

This analysis draws upon the influential 2013 essay by Daniel S. Nagin, “Deterrence in the 21st Century,” which provides a comprehensive review of the current state of deterrence theory and empirical evidence, supplemented by additional context from the National Institute of Justice.

Five Fundamental Insights on Deterrence and Incapacitation

  1. The Importance of Certainty over Severity of Punishment:
    Research shows that the likelihood of being caught is a significantly more powerful deterrent than the severity of the punishment. Efforts to increase police presence and enhance detection techniques are crucial for strengthening this aspect of deterrence.
  2. Ineffectiveness of Long Sentences in Preventing Crime:
    While prisons are effective at keeping criminals away from society, extended prison sentences have limited impact on preventing future crimes. In fact, the prison environment may facilitate the acquisition of more sophisticated criminal behaviors among inmates.
  3. The Role of Police in Enhancing Certainty of Capture:
    Police strategies that increase the visibility of crime consequences, such as hotspot policing and swift incident response, are particularly effective in deterring crime.
  4. Ineffectiveness of Increasing Penalty Severity:
    Increasing the severity of penalties does not significantly deter criminal behavior, partly because many offenders are not well-informed about specific crime penalties.
  5. Ineffectiveness of the Death Penalty as a Deterrent:
    Research by the National Academy of Sciences indicates that there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty deters homicide rates.

Certainty vs. Severity in Deterrence

The debate between certainty and severity reveals that the certainty of being caught has a much greater impact on deterrence than the severity of the punishment. Effective police actions resulting in quick and certain sanctions are preferable and more effective than merely increasing the severity of penalties. Moreover, evidence shows that increasing the likelihood of conviction or imprisonment does not necessarily strengthen the deterrent effect.


The key to an effective deterrence strategy lies not in the severity of the penalties but in the certainty and swiftness of legal consequences. This approach is not only more effective in preventing crime but also more sustainable from a social and economic perspective.

Five things about deterrence. (s/f). Recuperado el 21 de septiembre de 2021, de