The Theory And Testing Of The Reconceptualization Essay

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The Theory And Testing Of The Reconceptualization Of General And Speci

The Theory and Testing of the Reconceptualization of General and Specific Deterrence


In the May 1993 issue of the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, the
introduction of the reconceptualized deterrence theory was presented, explaining that
general and specific deterrence are both functions of crime. Mark C. Stafford, an
Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Rural Sociologist at Washington State
University, and Mark Warr, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas
in Austin, introduced this theory. They argued that there is no reason to have multiple
theories for general and specific deterrence. Rather, a single theory is possible that
centers on indirect experience with legal punishment and punishment avoidance and direct
experience with legal punishment and avoidance.1 General deterrence includes the knowledge
of criminal acts performed by others and the consequences or absence of consequences from
the activity. Specific deterrence relies upon personal experience of punishment and the
avoidance of punishment for a criminal activity previously committed. Both Stafford and
Warr theorized that people are exposed to both types of deterrents, with some people
exposed to more of one type than the other. In addition both general and specific
deterrence effects may coincide with each other and act as reinforcement.

In the May 1995 issue of the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency a preliminary
test was conducted on Stafford and Warr's deterrence theory. Raymond Paternoster and Alex
Piquero, both professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the
University of Maryland, attempted to elaborate on Stafford and Warr's original findings.
They, Paternoster and Piquero, argued that although they could find some support for the
basic features of the deterrence theory, there was still a significant component that
Paternoster and Piquero could not address. Without being able to measure the consequences
of the illegal behavior of their respondents' peers, they could not separate the effects
of indirect punishment avoidance from indirect punishment.2 Furthermore, they claimed that
the personal experience of punishment had a definite role in substance abuse, as well as
leading to additional criminal activities because of formal sanctions.

Stafford and War's deterrence theory provides a valuable insight into the mind of criminal
or would-be criminal for the sake of determining deterrence from criminal activities.
Strong arguments and logical reasoning are the foundations that their theory is built on,
bolstered with their own personal knowledge of the subject matter, making it a sound
argument. Paternoster and Piquero provide data from a well though out experiment that
supports the deterrence theory. However, their insufficiency of much needed data to
examine a major part of the theory, and the fact that they have only conducted a
preliminary test of the theory, leave them open to the possibility of errors.

Stafford and Warr's reconceptualization of general and specific deterrence evaluates the
premise that the rate of crime in any population is a function of both general and
specific deterrence. Using empirical data deprived from their own practical experience, as
well as from the observations and experiments of their other colleagues in their field,
they attempt to establish their theory of the reconceptualization of general and specific
deterrence. First, it is important to understand the background of their work and the
foundation of deterrence. There are two types of deterrence, general and specific. In
analyzing the deterrent effects it is highly important to distinguish between general and
specific deterrence, because they are very different. General deterrence refers to the
effects of legal punishment on the general public (i.e., potential offenders), specific
deterrence pertains to the effects of legal punishment on those who have suffered it.3
Both kinds of experience rely upon individuals to have some degree of knowledge or
experience with the justice system's punishment to dissuade them from committing criminal
acts. For members of the general public (general deterrence) it is indirect experience
with punishment (observing or otherwise having knowledge of the punishment of others) that
deters, whereas for punished offenders (specific deterrence) it is direct (personal)
experience.4

Within general deterrence, two types of people can be found that must be taken into
consideration. Stafford and Warr used the findings of J.P. Gibbs, author of "Crime,
Punishment, and Deterrence" for the Social Science Quarterly, to examine these two types
of people. The first are those who have never committed or have taken part in any criminal
activity, excluding those wrongfully punished for crimes they did not commit. The second
type of person is one who has attempted or successfully completed a crime and has avoided
legal consequences. In relation to cause and effect, while the first type of person has
had no direct experience with legal punishment, the effect on the second type of person is
that he or she has gained valuable insight on avoiding sanctions by the justice system. It
is a factor that may lead to the possibility of committing future crimes, making it a
crucial factor of the deterrence theory. Individuals who avoid punishment or have little
experience with it may begin to assume that they are not susceptible to punishment.
Perhaps the greatest value of the concept is that it underscores the fundamental principle
that no criminal act is without consequences.5

Most specific deterrence studies rely upon examining the punished offender and
post-punishment offending to determine a level of deterrence from crime. A major argument,
again, is that this procedure ignores the probability of someone being punished while
having knowledge of punishment from the experiences of others.6 An individual punished for
one crime may know others who have: (a) committed the same crime and avoided punishment,
(b) committed the same crime and received a smaller punishment, or (c) committed the same
crime and received a harsher sanction. Stafford and Warr's argument is that deterrence
from crime will rely solely upon the individual's knowledge.

The general public and punished offenders have a combination of both general and specific
experience with punishment and punishment avoidance. Take, for example, an offender who is
caught and punished for crime type A, but has avoided punishment for crime types B, C, and
D. The effects of punishment avoidance and indirect experience with punishment must be
taken into consideration when determining the offender's future behavior. Put quite
simply, the direct experience from crime type A cannot be the only factor used to predict
the offender's future behavior. Crime types B, C, and D must also be included along with
crime type A.

Stafford and Warr's reconceptualization of general and specific deterrence states that the
rate of crime in virtually any population will be a function of both general and specific
deterrence.7 It provides many advantages over the system currently in use. First, both
general and specific deterrence can be used on any given population of people. Secondly, a
clear distinction is made between those being punished and those avoiding punishment.
Thirdly, it is compatible with the contemporary learning theory with the difference
between observational/vicarious learning and experiential learning.8

It should be noted, however, that most of their conclusions are drawn from supported
opinions instead of fact. While supported opinions have more credibility than unsupported
opinions; it cannot turn an opinion into fact. Most of their work is based on empirical
data from their own practical experience along with the experience of their colleagues.

Most of their reasoning was based on deductive reasoning, where they began with their
general proposition and established a chain of reasoning that lead to their conclusion. In
the tradition of deductive reasoning, they began with the major premise that the rate of
crime in virtually any population would be a function of both general and specific
deterrence. Next, the minor premise, presents a specific example of the belief that is
stated in the major premise, which is that people have a mixture of general and specific
deterrence with punishment and punishment avoidance. Though they used supported opinion,
their reasoning is sound, so the conclusion naturally follows from the two premises. Both
general and specific deterrence can operate for any given person in any given population,
providing one theory of deterrence, eliminating the possibility of overlooking critical
issues.

The tone of the overall argument suggests a rational appeal to the reader, due to the lack
of such fallacies as an argument to the people and the bandwagon effect. One fallacy that
might be applicable is a hasty generalization of their theory. Stafford and Warr's
conclusions appear to be based on too little evidence; in addition, they have not
substantially tested their theory. Other than the detection of this one fallacy, their
overall argument is a sound and relatively rational one.

Stafford and Warr commented on a very strong variable, which is associated with crime,
peer involvement. People who have friends who committed criminal acts displays a behavior
that mirrors indirect experience with punishment and punishment avoidance. It may affect
the certainty of sanctions, because the person will have access to the knowledge of their
friends who have direct experience. In addition, peers provide a larger wealth of
knowledge on punishment and punishment avoidance to an individual than that individual
would have from his or her own experiences. It is this which will determine whether or not
an individual will be deterred from a criminal act or not, by allowing the individual to
asses the efficiency of law enforcement.

Stafford and Warr are quick to point out that their theory has shown that a complex
experimental examination is needed to test the effects of indirect and direct experience
with punishment and punishment avoidance. This maybe a more important issue as far at the
deterrence theory is concerned.9

Paternoster and Piquero conducted preliminary testing on the main components of Stafford
and Warr's reconceptualization of general and specific deterrence. Through their testing,
they have confirmed many of Stafford and Warr's speculations, on both general and specific
deterrent effects on a person's view of sanctions, and the inhibiting effect caused by
them. In addition, they discovered that substance abuse was directly related to those
previously sanctioned as a result of their delinquency.

Unlike Stafford and Warr, Paternoster and Piquero used inductive reasoning instead of
deductive reasoning to reach their conclusions. They drew their conclusions based on
specific facts and observations made from their experiments, unlike Stafford and Warr's
use of supported opinions. It should be noted that an inductive conclusion is never
certain, only probable, and it relies on an inference—a conclusion about the unknown
based on the known.

Their data came from an experiment in the form of a questionnaire, administered to all
10th grade students in nine high schools in and around an anonymous southeastern city in
the United States during the fall of 1981, consisting of 2,700 students. Approximately one
year later an identical questionnaire was administered to the same students, now juniors.
It measured the student's direct and indirect experiences with punishment and punishment
avoidance as well as the risk or certainty of the threat of sanctions for oneself and for
others.

Students were tested on their perceived threat of sanctions, asking the likely hood of
them being caught for underage drinking and marijuana use. The two delinquent offenses
were combined into one scale, measuring the perceived risk to oneself. Within the same
category of perceived threats of sanctions, students were to estimate out of 100 people,
the number who would be arrested in their town for the same two offenses. Again, the
responses for both crimes were combined into one composite scale.

The students' experience with punishment and punishment avoidance was measured on a point
system. A student started with zero points and added one point for each of the following:
being apprehended by police, taken to a police station, arrested, or taken to juvenile
court. A score of zero means the student had no experience with punishment from the
criminal justice system; a score of four meant the student had been apprehended by police,
taken to a police station, arrested, and has been juvenile court. Punishment avoidance
measured the number of times the student committed the two delinquent offenses, minus the
number of times they reported being caught for such crimes. Therefore, it reflects the
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