3 Reasons Why Deterrence Doesn’t Work

by Chris Hay, Executive Director, John Howard Society of Alberta

This blog entry is a continuation of our recent discussion about deterrence.  Previously, we talked about the purpose of our criminal justice system and how it seems to be based on the concept of deterrence and how this might be a mistake.  Here are the reasons why.

For deterrence to work in real life, there must be three things present.  

First, there must be certainty of punishment.  The person committing the crime must be certain that they will be caught and then charged and then prosecuted and then found guilty and then punished.  

Second, the person, if caught and charged by police, must be punished quickly.  

Third, the punishment must be severe enough to learn a lesson.  This does not mean too severe but just the right amount of punishment.

Now, the key is that all three of these things must be present and working together at the same time. We must have certainty, swiftness and the appropriate punishments.  

I would argue that there is no certainty of punishment.  Some research shows us that for every crime that a career criminal does, he/she has done 250 more that they didn’t get caught for.  So, there is no certainty of punishment.  

I would also argue that we do not have swiftness of punishment.  It can take months or even years for a case to go to court.  But in terms of our last item, which is severe enough punishment, the argument is that Canada does have the appropriate laws and punishments in place.

The point is that for this theory to work in real life, all three of these things must be working together at the same time.  If even one is missing, then deterrence cannot work and in the discussion above it seems like we are missing two of the three (certainty and swiftness).

Therefore, the system must at its most fundamental level be broken!