Experience or Deterrence? Revisiting an Old but Neglected Issue.

Helmut Hirtenlehner, Per-Olof Wikström

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Deterrence theory states that fear of sanctions secures compliance with the law. Empirical research on the deterrent effect of legal sanctions has remained inconclusive though. This applies especially to perceptual deterrence studies. Most of them are cross-sectional in nature and rely on measures of self-reported previous offending, which implies that they actually explain past criminal behaviour from current perceptions of risk. However, such a temporal ordering of the concepts is more congruent with experiential effects according to which previous criminal involvement lowers subsequent risk perceptions rather than depicting deterrent relationships. The few longitudinal studies that have attempted to disentangle experiential and deterrent effects are based on samples from North America. Their common finding is that experiential effects exist and that they are substantially larger than the deterrent effect. Most of them reject the notion of deterrence. This work contributes to the discussion by for the first time addressing the experience–deterrence issue with panel data collected in the UK. Results show that associations between current risk estimates and prior offending found in cross-sectional studies reflect chiefly experiential effects. Evidence in support of deterrence remains very limited.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)485-502
Number of pages18
JournalEuropean Journal of Criminology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2017


  • Causes of crime
  • deterrence
  • experiential effect
  • juvenile delinquency

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