Deterrence: How Do Serious Juvenile Offenders Perceive the Rewards and Risks of Crime?

juvenile-justice-system_prison-bars-Jerome-ArizonaOne of the reasons that we, as a society, lock up adolescents who commit serious crimes is that we believe it will deter them from committing future crimes. Deterrence is a foundational element in the rationale for, and mission of, the justice system.
Yet we don’t fully understand how deterrence operates for certain types of offenders. In particular, we know very little about how the experience of punishment affects the perceptions of adolescent offenders. Here, we summarize recent research that seeks to shed some light on this issue.
There is a vast body of classic criminological literature regarding theories of deterrence (Beccaria, 1764; Zimring and Hawkins, 1973; Andenaes, 1974). Briefly, deterrence is rooted in the belief that when criminal sanctions are perceived to be certain, severe and swift, criminal activity will be reduced because the risk and costs of sanctions will be too high.
While deterrence works for society as a whole (general deterrence), we are concerned here with how it works for individuals (specific deterrence), which focuses on preventing individuals from engaging in future crime by making clear the connection between their own criminal activity and negative consequences; the idea being that the individual will refrain from future crime simply because it isn’t worth the risk or the rewards involved.

It doesn’t work every time, however. Because of maturity differences, cognitive impairment, prior experiences, or a host of other possible factors, some individuals just “don’t get it” when they are punished for criminal activity, and they become repeat offenders.
Exploring Adolescent Offenders’ Perception of Risk and Deterrence
In this article, we will consider three basic, but important, questions regarding how juvenile offenders frame issues related to deterrence. Based on analyses of data obtained from subjects in the Pathways to Desistance study (N = 1,354), we will address these questions:

  1. Do perceptions of the risks and rewards of crime differ based on frequency of offending? In other words, do people who do more crime see less risk and get more reward from committing crimes?
  2. Do these perceptions change over time?
  3. Does being arrested change these perceptions?

The Pathways to Desistance study provides an opportunity to study these issues in a way that very few other research projects have ever had. The study focuses on active, serious offenders, while previous studies have largely focused on community samples where active and serious offenders are either completely excluded or at best underrepresented.
Also, it includes recent insights from developmental/life-course criminology by considering changes in perceptions of “sanction threat” within youth over age and time. It follows the same individuals as they move through an influential developmental period regarding their assessment of risk and reward.
Over the course of seven different interviews conducted over 3 years, the Pathways study asked youth who had committed serious offenses about their (self-reported) offending and its perceived risk. (See the Pathways website: for more information about the interviews.)
The resulting analyses explored differences in youth perceptions of risk at baseline based on prior offending experiences, and then, if the frequency of prior offending was associated with different patterns of change in perceptions over time. Finally, the analyses looked at whether the perceptions shifted as the result of an arrest occurring during a particular time period.
Are there any differences in perceptions at baseline based on offending experience?
Yes. Those who reported less frequent prior offenses perceived significantly more risk and lower reward from crime compared to those in the middle frequency group. Yet those who had committed the most offenses perceived significantly less risk and more reward from crime, presumably because they had learned that the chances of getting caught were low.
These group differences were not explained by differences in level of maturity or the youths’ age.
Is the level of offending (high, medium or low frequency) at baseline associated with patterns of change in perceptions across time?
As seen in Figure 1, above, the average scores for perceived risk and rewards are fairly flat overall over the three-year span in which the interviews were, with only a slight increase in perceived risk and a slight decrease in perceived rewards over time. These patterns are important, inasmuch as the youth who were interviewed aged, on average, from 16 to 19 years old, indicating that with age comes a more logical (or rational) assessment of the risks of crime that is not contingent on offending level.
This is not to say, however, that offending level is not related to changes in perceptions over time. Figure 1 also illustrates some other notable patterns related to offending level.

  • Even after the passage of three years, the high offending group still perceives less risk than either the medium or the low offending group.
  • The high and medium offending frequency groups both show decreasing perceived reward from crime as they age, but they still do not approach the lowest level of rewards perceived by the infrequent offenders.

The Pathways investigators suggest that some of these patterns may be demonstrating a potential “ceiling” and “floor” for perceptions. Given that many of the individuals in the low offending group do not re-offend over the 3-year period, it appears that they may have reached a stable “floor” of perceived benefit from crime and hit a “ceiling” in perceived risk, as evidenced by their flat risk pattern. Their level of perceived risk is as high as it needs to be to keep them from offending.
The high-offending group may have also reached the “floor” of their perceived risk given their lack of change over time. Their level of perceived risk may not be able to go any lower, based on their prior experiences.
This phenomenon may have policy relevance. If it takes a certain level of perceived risk or reward to keep from offending, some individuals may never reach it. This thus suggests that certain types of offenders may be more “deterrable” than others.
Does an arrest influence perceptions of risk in a sample of active offenders?
Anwar and Loughran (in press) explored the issue of whether adolescent offenders update their subjective perceptions of risk as they accumulate additional information about both offending and arrest.
Findings from this work indicate that individuals in the Pathways sample do tend to adjust their risk perceptions upward when they are arrested, by about 5% per arrest on average.
That is, when a crime is committed and results in an arrest, individuals increase their ratings of perceived risk. This is a necessary condition for deterrence.
However, when offending is undetected or avoids a legal reaction, individuals actually lower their perceptions of risk. Furthermore, Anwar and Loughran once again find evidence for a “ceiling effect,” as it seems that individuals who have a lot of criminal experiences become quite certain about their likelihood of being arrested and eventually reach a point where they no longer update their risk perceptions based on new experiences.
Finally, arrests for one type of crime (aggressive versus income-generating) appear to affect only perceptions for that particular type of crime, rather than all crimes.
Policy Implications
So what does this all mean? From a policy perspective, this work seems to have some important implications:

  • Even within a group of serious, active offenders, swift and certain punishment can play an important role in deterring future crime.
  • However, these factors do not operate in the same way for all offenders. Policies that assume a “one size fits all” approach will fail for some offenders.
  • Frequency of self-reported offending seems to be an important way to sort groups which may be more or less “deterrable”.
  • Arresting youth before they have committed a sizable number of offenses seems to have the greatest potential to increase perceptions of risk youth associate with offending and therefore curtail future offenses.
  • However, those perception changes are greatest in relation to the crime associated with the arrest (e.g. perceptions about the risk for getting caught for robbery are likely to increase when the individual has actually been arrested for robbery). Policies that target specific types of offending may be marginally more effective at curbing the targeted offenses than general policies aimed at reducing crime levels more broadly. 

Areas for Future Research
Naturally, this work sets the stage for future investigations into a variety of questions:

  • Is there an identifiable threshold of offending frequency above which arrests no longer have an impact on perceptions of risk?
  • Are changes in risk perceptions associated with subsequent changes in behavior?

We plan to continue to investigate these questions and others. Check our study website ( for future publications in this area.
This research summary is based on the following articles:
Anwar, S. and Loughran, T. (in press). Testing a Bayesian learning theory of deterrence among serious juveniles offenders. Criminology. (expected publication in May 2011).
Loughran, T., Piquero, A. R., Fagan, J., & Mulvey, E.P. (in press). Differential Deterrence: Studying heterogeneity and changes in perceptual deterrence among serious youthful offenders. Crime and Delinquency.
Also cited:
Andenaes, Johannes. (1974). Punishment and Deterrence. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.
Beccaria, Cesare [(1764) 1985]. On Crimes and Punishments. New York: Macmillan.
Zimring, F. E., & G. Hawkins. (1972). Deterrence: The Legal Threat in Crime Control. Chicago:University of Chicago Press.

This article was adapted from a longer article that appeared in the Pathways newsletter that provides more detail on the theoretical and methodological background. –Ed.

Carol A. Schubert, M.P.H., is the Pathways Study Coordinator and the Research Program Administrator for the Law and Psychiatry Program at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Edward P. Mulvey, Ph.D., is Principal Investigator for the Pathways Study and a Professor of Psychiatry Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.



Updated: February 08 2018