How Offender Decision-Making Can Inform Policing: A Focus on the Perceived Certainty of Apprehension
in Science Informed Policing link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-41287-6
Empirical evidence suggests that the perceived certainty of apprehension is a far more effective deterrent than the severity of sanctioning. In concordance with this, many policing strategies have focused on increasing the certainty of apprehension as a key tactic in crime reduction. This chapter describes how recent advances in criminological understanding of perceived certainty are thought to influence offender decision-making. We then illustrate how these findings may inform policing and suggest potential avenues for collaborations between researchers and practitioners to further enhance understanding of offender decision-making and guide evidence-based policing.
Deterrence theory formally proposes three ways that the criminal justice system can reduce offending: by increasing the swiftness, severity, or certainty of formal sanctioning (Beccaria 1986). The swiftness tenet (also referred to as “celerity”) is the least studied aspect of deterrence (see Pratt and Turanovic 2018 for an overview), and relatedly has only recently began to be deployed as a policy mechanism (see for instance, Project HOPE [Hawken and Kleiman 2009] and 24/7 Sobriety [Kilmer and Midgette 2019]). In contrast, certainty, or what is often operationalized as the probability of apprehension, and severity, typically thought of a harsher/longer sanctions, are the theoretical foundation for many criminal justice policies and practices (Durlauff and Nagin 2011a, b). For instance, any policy which increases the severity of a punishment or the certainty of it happening relies on these principles; well-known examples include the death penalty, three-strike laws, and mandatory arrest.
Given that the severity and certainty principles are at the heart of criminal justice policy, it is of no surprise that they have been subject to vast empirical scrutiny. From this literature, several known findings have emerged. First, there is little empirical support for the claim that more severe sanctions yield a specific deterrent effect. For instance, meta-analyses conducted by Villettaz et al. (2006) and Gendreau and colleagues (1999, 2000, 2001) generally found little support for specific deterrent effects of either custodial (vs. non-custodial) or longer sentences. In fact, these studies suggest that increases in the severity of sanctioning (e.g., length of incarceration) might be criminogenic. Moreover, Nagin et al. (2009) reviewed the literature and called into question the methodological quality of many studies attempting to link longer sentences to recidivism.1 Second, and in contrast, there is mounting evidence that the certainty of punishment is capable of yielding a deterrent effect. It has been well documented that an increase in perceived certainty is a far better deterrent than an increase in perceived severity (see Nagin 2013; Paternoster 2010 for overviews).
How individuals form beliefs about and respond to risk of apprehension is a rich source of research (Apel 2013; Nagin et al. 2015). Since about the 1970s deterrence scholars have demonstrated that individuals’ perceptions of punishment are much more influential than objective punishment levels (Geerken and Gove 1975). This means that individuals are deterred by what they perceive the certainty of punishment to be, rather than by some true objective likelihood of detection or sanctioning. 2 The implications of these findings are that perceived certainty is now the strongest evidence-based tenet of deterrence which can be used as a policy lever to disincentivize criminal behavior.