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Custody Vs. Treatment Debate: Deterrence – The Two Great Lies

Dr. Bruce Bayley
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Weber State University

Whenever the debate of imprisonment versus rehabilitation arises, the discussion turns to the concept of deterrence.

Those who believe in the virtues of rehabilitation frequently cite the “fact” that incarceration is not a deterrent to crime. This is what I call one of the two ‘Great Lies’ in the treatment versus punishment debate.

Dr. Bruce Bayley
Dr. Bruce Bayley

To best understand these common lies, we need to first better define the term ‘deterrence’ and recognize its purpose.

Deterrence refers to two distinct theoretical positions:

1.) General (or secondary) deterrence – In the profession of corrections, those who believe in the value of general deterrence claim that criminal offenders’ sentences discourage others in the community from committing similar crimes. For example, if someone is convicted of robbing a convenience store and sentenced to jail or prison, their punishment will cause others to think twice before committing a similar crime. Specifically, we call it general deterrence because the deterrent effect is designed to take place within the general public and not necessarily the individual who committed the crime.

2.) Specific (or primary) deterrence - The second, and more relevant, concept of deterrence takes place through direct prevention. When an individual who has committed a crime is placed behind bars, they no longer are able to pursue crimes against society – period. For example, if someone is convicted of robbing a convenience store and sentenced to jail or prison, that specific person is separated from the general public and, thus, is no longer a criminal threat to society. The purpose of the deterrent effect is simply to stop the specific offender from committing crimes and is not designed to cause any disincentive to the general public.

To summarize:
- Incarceration as a general or secondary deterrent discourages others from committing the same or similar behavior. The focus is on the general public and NOT the criminal.
- Incarceration as a specific or primary deterrent controls the offender from committing further crimes during the course of imprisonment. The focus is on a specific criminal and NOT the general public.

The Two Great Lies

The first Great Lie of the deterrence argument is that incarceration is not a deterrent.

When someone is sentenced to jail or prison, that individual is physically separated from society (the modern version of banishment – society’s first form of punishment). In doing so, the person is quite literally deterred from committing any further crimes against the general public because (due to their incarceration) they simply no longer have physical access to the community.

Remember, a specific deterrent is not concerned about keeping others from committing crimes, but instead, focuses on preventing specific people who have violated the rules of society from victimizing the general public while they are imprisoned.

Is incarceration a deterrent? In this sense, yes – a specific deterrent.

The next Great Lie of the deterrent debate centers on the belief that incarceration should act as a general deterrent. The truth is that it might, but it wasn’t designed to do so.

The primary reason we sentence individuals to jail or prison is to punish them for the criminal offense(s) they have committed against society. If there are residual, or general, deterrent effects on other members of the community, that’s great, but it’s NOT the primary reason we incarcerate offenders.

Imagine sitting in a courtroom and hearing the judge say, “Well Mr. Smith, the jury has found you guilty and, to insure others won’t commit the same crime you did, you’re being sentenced to one year in the county jail.” Such a verdict would be absurd. There would be public outrage, lawsuits, and feelings of injustice throughout the community. This is why we incarcerate individuals to punish them, NOT to deter others.

The same general and specific deterrent effects discussed above also apply to rehabilitation. Whenever an offender enters any type of treatment, that particular individual is hopefully doing so for personal improvement – a specific deterrent. But when was the last time a rehabilitation program has been implemented or an individual has entered treatment simply to keep others from committing a criminal behavior?


The primary job of incarceration is to punish specific offenders for their crimes against society.

Don’t let others tell you that confinement is not a deterrent. As discussed above, incarceration is a very effective method of deterring future victimization from those within our nation’s jails and prisons.

As a specific deterrent, both imprisonment and rehabilitation have merit, but when addressing the aspects of general deterrence, ask yourself one simple question – which would be a greater deterrent for you as a member of society: prison or a treatment program?

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