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Criminal Deterrence and Sentence Severity: An Analysis of Recent Research

NCJ Number
Andrew von Hirsch; Anthony E. Bottoms; Elizabeth Burney; P-O Wikstrom
Date Published
65 pages
This literature review focuses on recent research on deterrence, with emphasis on the marginal deterrent effects of changing the certainty of punishment and the marginal deterrent effects of altering the severity of punishment through changes in sentencing policy, with emphasis on studies conducted in Great Britain and the United States.
Results revealed negative statistical associations between certainty of punishment and crime rates. However, the statistical associations between severity of punishment and crime rates are considerably weaker. Current understanding of marginal deterrent effects is still limited. However, a notable difference exists between certainty and severity effects. Current research confirms earlier correlational and quasi-experimental studies and indicates consistent and significant negative correlations between the likelihood of conviction and crime rates. The data on severity effects is less impressive. Findings indicate the desirability of considering deterrence policies with respect to the policies’ costs, the likelihood of substantial deterrent benefits and the possibility of counterproductive effects, possible tensions with proportionality concerns, and possible alternative preventive strategies. Finally, future studies need to use measures that adequately distinguish between certainty and severity effects and that focus on international comparisons, perceptions of sanction risk, and specific aspects of perceptual and contextual deterrence. Footnotes, reference notes, explanation of terms, and 108 references