The roles of perceived severity of legal sanctions, perceived legitimacy of criminal justice system, and differential experience of legal sanctions on deterrence

Date of Completion

January 1990


Sociology, General|Sociology, Criminology and Penology




This study examines deterrence as a threat communication process. Deterrence as a system of information transmission attempts to inform potential offenders that if they commit a crime the probability of being processed through the justice system is high and that this process is costly for them. A successful transmission of the message should reduce offending. Therefore, the threat of legal sanctions has two goals, an immediate one, the transmission of the message, and a more distant one, the decrease of offending through the transmission of the message.^ Deterrence research at the first stage of its development overlooked the first goal and tried to establish a direct relationship between objective legal sanctions (certainty/severity) and offending. At the second stage, when researchers relied on a model of subjective interpretations of sanctions, the role of one's objective experience with sanctions was neglected. In view of this neglect this study attempted to assess the effectiveness of legal sanctions as a threat communication process. The effectiveness of the threat communication was assessed with regard to three different levels of perceptions: Perceived probability and severity of legal sanctions, and perceived legitimacy of the criminal justice system.^ The other objective of this study was to assess the effect of perceived severity of legal sanctions on offending within a more general model of social control. For this purpose a longitudinal structural model was developed in which the effect of changes in perceptions of severity after the experience of legal sanctions is assessed along with effect of other deviance generators and inhibitors suggested by the deviance literature. The data used for this study were secondary data collected at three points in time: after the respondents' arrest for a crime, after the sentence, and one year later.^ The analysis showed that the experience with legal sanctions transmitted the messages of certainty and severity successfully. However, the overall experience with the system created negative attitudes towards it. Furthermore, it was found that although perceived severity had an inverse effect on offending, this effect was counterbalanced by other factors the most important of which was the negative attitudes towards the system. ^