chapter  3
16 Pages

Some implications of the subjectivity of deterrence

Fundamental to an effective deterrence regime is that offenders and potential offenders know what they face: that they are aware of prospective consequences. A sanction, or a risk of sanction, that is unknown cannot, by definition, deter. This begins as a simple and obvious, and therefore arguably trivial, logical point. It is, however, not trivial at all. In much thinking about deterrence, such knowledge is, implicitly or expli-

citly, assumed, as a matter of what economists call “unbiased expectations.” Ehrlich writes:

Although information pertaining to criminal sanctions or probabilities of their imposition is incomplete, in the same way that information pertaining to government taxes, probabilities of employment in specific industries, or the supply of money is not fully available, and [sic] assumptions of unbiased (or “rational”) expectations concerning the actual magnitudes of these variables is justifiable on the ground that any systematic gaps between perceptions and reality would generate incentives to revise the former in the direction of the latter. The incentives would be particularly strong when the consequences of misperception would be quite costly to the actor, as may be the case in connection with most felonies.1