Deterrence can occur in one of two ways. Individual deterrence occurs when an offender who is responsible for taking part in illegal activities partakes in a criminal trial and legal precedence is used in order to determine the conviction and the subsequent sentence for that individual. The punishment that the individual receives will be fitting but severe and is intended to convince the criminal that taking part in illegal activities is not worth the penalties that result.
General deterrence arises on a much larger scale. Individuals who are responsible for disregarding criminal laws will be convicted in a criminal trial and punished with various penalties. These penalties are often harsh and undesirable in their own right. By ensuring that criminals receive consequences for their actions, theoretically, other individuals will be discouraged from taking part in similar activities. They will understand that individuals who are caught disregarding the law will be subject to fines or jail time.
If individuals witness other people having their lives put on hold for taking part in specific behavior, then the observers will be less likely to take part in that behavior. In general, people do not want to take part in actions that are going to be detrimental to their well-being and their futures. If they know that a there is serious legal precedence to prosecution of certain behavior and that it has severe consequences, then they may not take part in that behavior in the future.
General deterrence works through the establishment of legal precedence. In every criminal trial, a court must rule while following guidelines and legal precedence that has been established in previous cases. Legal precedence is generally established by a high court, such as the United States Federal courts.
Once a precedent is developed, a criminal trial that possesses similar issues and factors will have a similar ruling. For example, legal precedence has determined that an individual who is responsible for murdering another person will receive a life sentence or capital punishment.
There has been some controversy about the use of punishment for violating criminal laws as a method of deterrence. Many people argue that individuals who disregard criminal laws do not stop to consider the consequences of their actions before they engage in illegal activities.
For example, statistics indicate that states that continue to maintain the death penalty and states that are responsible for subjecting the largest number of individuals to capital punishment also continue to maintain the largest crime rates in the country. Therefore, a criminal trial that results in court-authorized sentences is not always effective in deterring individuals from committing crimes.