Developmental Criminology Definition Research Essay

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In criminology: the concept of deterrence

In criminology, deterrence is the process of using penalties to deter potential offenders from committing crimes. A criminologist by the name of Cesare Beccaria developed a theory that claimed that after weighing the risks and rewards of their actions, criminals are more likely to violate the law. In this manner, punishing criminals for their crimes can deter potential criminals if they believe that the punishment will be greater than the benefit they stand to receive. This is the deterrence theory's central tenet, which has three prerequisites. A penalty must be quick, certain, and severe in order to be considered deterrent. This implies that it should occur within a short time after the crime is committed, there should be no way to avoid the punishment and it should be very serious to outweigh any reward that might motivate potential criminals to commit the crime.

Assumptions of deterrence theory in criminal justice

The first assumption in deterrence theory is that a person intending to commit a crime should be aware of the punishment that they stand to face if they implement it. The second assumption in the theory is that the potential criminals should have good control over their actions. This points towards their ability to regulate their activities after careful evaluation of their plans. The third assumption is that the prospective criminals should make choices about their actions based on logic, not passion. By acting on their passion, the theory cannot work because they will take part in crimes no matter what punishment they stand to face. Criminals acting out of passion can take any risk to carry out their planned actions without thinking about the consequences. The use of logic requires the impending criminals to think their plans through before they make a choice about implementing their actions. This makes the deterrence theory applicable because if they rethink the punishment awaiting them and find out that it outweighs the reward, they will refrain from carrying on with their plan.

Contributions of authors to the deterrence theory

In Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck carried out a study whose objective was to unravel or in simple terms to find out the complex causes of delinquency. Delinquency is a term used to refer to criminal behavior. Following the research which was carried out for ten years, it was found out that criminology is a "dependent discipline" and one can expect little progress in preventing delinquency (Guecks and Guecks, 1950). The authors claimed that prospective delinquents start criminal behavior in their early years and can be identified as early as when they are six years old.

The work Delinquency in a Birth Cohort was done by Marvin E. Wolfgang. Developmental criminology is the study of the behavior of offenders and what motivates them to take part in criminal behavior at different stages in their lives. According to the study, the percentage of chronic delinquents was 54% (Wolfgang, 1972). Based on race and class, African Americans and other minority group members are more likely to be involved in delinquency than white Americans. People from low economic and social classes have higher chances of engaging in delinquency than people in high economic and social classes. The police and judicial system are harsher on chronic delinquents than one-time delinquents. Their impact on delinquent behavior is that the greater the punishment, the more likely the offenders are to repeat delinquency. This is common with chronic delinquents.

The work Crime and Deviance Over the life course was done by Robert Sampson and John Laub. Their thesis was that there is a connection between the past of an individual and their future. The experiences and growth of a person as a child can determine how they will be when they grow up (Sampson and Laub, 1990). A trajectory is a path taken by something or a person. The trajectory theory states that delinquent behavior is encouraged by multiple pathways, instead of just one factor. Sampson and Laub's argument is in line with the deterrence theory. They agree that threats of punishment can help to prevent criminal activities.

Criticisms and limitations of the deterrence theory

The assumption that offenders will carefully think their plans through is not entirely true because some crimes are done out of impulse. In such cases, the criminals do not have the time to think about the consequences of their actions. Another criticism from critics of the deterrence theory is that the effectiveness of deterrence has not been conclusively demonstrated in the control of criminal activities. There is no adequate proof that punishment contributes to social good in communities. Deterrence theory does not have a moral foundation; it is dependent on the punishments. To make it complete, it should include a moral element. Some of the punishments used to make the theory effective are inhumane for example capital punishment. It is also based on the deliberate threat of harm.

Once a criminal action has been implemented, threatening the offender with a punishment cannot undo the act. This means that in such cases the deterrence theory cannot be used to prevent the crime from being executed. If I were to meet the authors of the theory, I would pose two questions to them. First, I would ask them the relevance of threatening potential offenders with punishment while they don't know the laws. It is common to find citizens who do not know the laws of their countries. The second question I would ask is whether in coming up with their theory, they had thought about better alternatives of regulating crime other than threatening potential offenders with severe punishments like life imprisonment among others. The implications of the questions to the topic are on the ignorance of potential criminals to laws and punishments and the possibility of better ways of dealing with crime apart from the idea brought out in the theory.

Current event related to deterrence theory

A current event which is related to the theory is the issue between the United States of America and North Korea under the Kim regime. North Korea has destructive nuclear weapons which the government of the United States of America feels can be used against them. A number of the U.S presidents have addressed the issue at a certain time during their presidency. This includes the current president Donald Trump who claimed that "all options are on the table" if they are placed in a situation where they have to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapon program. The former president Barack Obama said in 2013 that they would use any capabilities including the deterrence they are provided with by the United States' nuclear forces to defend South Korea. He said that if need arose, his administration would rely on traditional deterrence to keep North Korea from using their nuclear weapons. The strategy worked during the cold war when the country used deterrence to keep the Soviet Union from using their nuclear weapons which were more massive than those of the United States.

Comparing and contrasting the deterrence theory with other theories

The similarity of the deterrence theory with the other theories is that they all address crime and try to explain criminal behavior. The theories include the rational choice theory, the contemporary trait theory, the social structure theory and the social conflict theory. The difference between the deterrence theory and the rational choice theory is that the offender in deterrence theory has control over their actions while the offender in the rational choice theory cannot control their urges. The contemporary trait theory has a morality aspect where a person's super ego judges a situation through morality while the deterrence theory lacks a morality element. The social structure theory explains that criminal behavior is a result of people conforming to their traditions while the deterrence theory insinuates that a person carries out a criminal activity after evaluating the punishment and rewards they stand to get from the action. The difference between the social conflict theory and the deterrence theory is that the latter views criminal activities as an individual's decision while the social conflict theory explains the role of government in producing crimes.


After going through the deterrence theory in detail, I have gained some insight on crime and how the criminal justice system attempts to prevent and control criminal activities. In terms of crime control and prevention today, the deterrence theory has left gaps which need to be filled through the use of other theories and ideas. The theory alone cannot be effective in controlling and preventing crime. Its implications are not entirely realistic because after looking at the criticisms and limitations, it is evident that the theory is not sufficient in its objective which is to prevent crime. The theory has added to my understanding and explanation of crime in a big way. I have learnt that some crimes are done impulsively or as an emotional reaction. Not all crimes are planned for. I have also learnt that criminal offenders are not afraid of the consequences especially if they are carrying out offenses as a result of passion.


Glueck, S., & Glueck, E. T. (1958). Unraveling juvenile delinquency. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1990). Classics of Criminology: Crime and Deviance Over the Life Course

Wolfgang, M. E. (1972). Delinquency in Birth Cohort Evaluating criminology. New York

July 15, 2023

Science Crime

Subject area:

Criminology Punishment Theory

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