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Is Deterrence Effective? Results of a Meta-Analysis of Punishment

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It is supposed that threats of punishment deter potential criminals from committing crimes. The correctness of this theory is, however, questionable. Numerous empirical investigations have come to different results. In this article a meta-analysis is described which tries to find out the reasons for the different findings. First evaluations indicate that the methods of research have an influence on the results and that a possible deterring effect of the penal law can only be covered reasonably with a very differentiating model. Not all criminal acts can be influenced by deterrence. It appears that the most significant deterrent effects can be achieved in cases of minor crime, administrative offences and infringements of informal social norms. In cases of homicide, on the other hand, the meta-analysis does not indicate that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. According to the results, the validity of the deterrence hypothesis must be looked at in a differenciated manner.

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  17. In high sample sizes t-values under -1.96 are significant on the 5% level. This marginal value is lower in the case of small sample sizes. “Normalisation” consists of an adjustment of the t-values with small sample size; for these cases t-values are calculated that would be obtained were the sample size higher, but the probability of error for the estimate remains unchanged. As a result of this normalisation, the value t=-1.96 is always the boundary between significant and non-significant estimates, irrespective of the sample size.


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Correspondence to Dieter Dölling.

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Dölling, D., Entorf, H., Hermann, D. et al. Is Deterrence Effective? Results of a Meta-Analysis of Punishment. Eur J Crim Policy Res 15, 201–224 (2009).

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