• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Responses Focused Deterrence 

Focused Deterrence of High-Risk Offenders

Response Guide No. 13 (2017)

by Michael S. Scott

Download PDF  


The Logic and Rationale of Focused Deterrence


Focused deterrence is a crime reduction strategy in which carefully selected high-risk offenders (prolific or particularly violent criminal offenders) receive concentrated law enforcement attention and, simultaneously, offers of concentrated social services through direct, persuasive communication and rigorous follow-up of these commitments.1 Focused-deterrence initiatives (FDIs) commonly include such aspects as identification of prolific offenders, scripted offender notification meetings, coordinated and strategic prosecution, provision of social services to individuals willing to accept them, and careful monitoring of individuals’ actions. They are not merely enforcement crackdowns or a method of making life difficult for selected individuals.

Indeed, when carefully and properly implemented, FDIs have great potential to enhance the perceived legitimacy of the police and the public’s trust in them in communities where these have often been lacking.

Focused-Deterrence Theory

The focused-deterrence—or “pulling-levers”—strategy originated in a problem-oriented policing initiative to address youth-gang gun violence in Boston in the late 1990s.2 Since then, dozens of jurisdictions in the United States have adopted and adapted the model.a

The focused-deterrence approach stems from the deterrence theory of crime, which asserts simply that people are discouraged from committing crimes if they believe they are likely to be caught and punished certainly, severely, and swiftly. These three punishment elements theoretically work best in concert: if any one of the elements is weak, the threat of punishment is diminished and the person is less deterred from committing the crime. Specific deterrence refers to instances when the individual punished is discouraged from offending again. General deterrence is when other people become aware of an individual’s punishment and are discouraged from committing similar offenses. FDIs aim primarily to deter high-risk offenders from re-offending, but if properly publicized to offenders’ associates and to the wider public, general deterrence can occur as well.

The police role in deterring crime lies principally with the first element—certainty. By law, police are not intended to have much influence on the severity of punishment, at least not an official punishment meted out under the criminal law: for the most part, that is left to legislatures, prosecutors, and judges to decide. Nor do police have much say in the swiftness of punishment: that lies largely in the hands of the courts. Much of traditional police work is designed to increase the likelihood that those engaged in criminal activities are caught and brought to court. Police patrols, rapid response to crimes in progress, and criminal investigations all are intended to boost the chances that criminals will be detected.

Theory Versus Practice

Criminal deterrence theory is sound, with the evidence most strongly supporting the certainty of punishment rather than the severity or swiftness of it.4 Several factors work against the effectiveness of deterrence-based strategies.

For example, not all offenses are reported to police, police do not detect or apprehend many offenders, prosecutors are not able to bring formal charges against all arrestees, judges and juries do not convict all those who are tried for crimes, punishments meted out (usually fines, jail time, community service, or some form of conditional release) are not always perceived as sufficiently harsh, and the imposition of punishment sometimes occurs long after a crime has been committed. Sometimes, even when people will be punished harshly and quickly, they do not believe ahead of time that they will be. Ultimately, punishment deters only to the extent that people believe that they will be caught and that the punishment will be certain, severe, and swift. Finally, it only deters if people do not want to be caught and punished (which, odd as it sounds, is not always the case).

“The broad concept [of focused deterrence]… is to move law enforcement forces away from random non-strategic—at times outright haphazard—strikes based merely on random intelligence flows, or from blanket ‘zero-tolerance’ approaches against lowest-level offenders, and toward strategic selectivity and to give each counter-crime operation enhanced impact.”
—Felbab-Brown (2013)

“The revised focused deterrence model offers some progress in that the improved integration of criminal justice and social services potentially broadens the legitimate opportunities available to at-risk individuals. In addition, the model aims to improve the legitimacy of law enforcement by making police action commensurate with criminal behavior and consistent across cases, bringing together the community and the police as a united front against violence, and communicating sanction risk to offenders in a stern, yet respectful, tone.”
—Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012)

It is easy to assume that everyone understands the risks of being caught and punished if they commit crimes and to assume that they fear consequences. The reality in most communities, however, is that relatively few people are caught for each crime they commit and, even when people are caught, the punishments they endure are often far less severe or swiftly administered than might be expected.3 This means that the general threat of punishment from routine policing and prosecution is relatively weak, and more prolific offenders who have cycled through the justice system many times—know this better than most people. Thus, although prolific offenders know that their odds of getting caught and punished over time are nearly certain, their odds for any particular crime they commit are rather low.5

Focused deterrence aims to address some of the weaknesses in the application of deterrence theory. As its name implies, it focuses official and community attention and resources on the relatively few individuals who commit a disproportionate number of crimes, typically violent crimes, and removes any sense of anonymity they might believe they enjoy. It builds on known information about prolific repeat offenders.b Incidentally, prolific violent offenders are also frequently victims of violent crime resulting from victim/victim associate retaliation.6 In addition, because prolific gun offenders, as well as their shooting victims, usually have extensive histories of involvement in the justice system, they are often on some form of conditional release (bail, probation, parole), which gives criminal justice officials legal leverage over them (hence lever-pulling).7

Focused-deterrence initiatives can also work through situational crime prevention mechanisms. Situational crime preventionc aims to reduce crime opportunities by making it harder for people to commit crimes, increasing the risk of getting caught, making crime less rewarding, and removing the provocations and excuses that encourage them to commit crimes. Focused deterrence can actually help in most of these regards.8 For instance, it can increase people’s perceived risks of getting caught or deny them others’ assistance (because they too are deterred by the prospect of being carefully monitored, making it more difficult for the high-risk offender to commit crimes).

Focused deterrence can further weaken people’s motivation to continue offending by providing them with the assistance necessary to start a non-criminal lifestyle. If, for example, high-risk offenders succeed in getting a job or assistance for their family—which they value—they have something meaningful to lose by returning to offending. On a related note, most FDIs explicitly incorporate restorative justice principles in making high-risk offenders more acutely aware of how their offending has harmed individual victims, the community at large, their own families, and themselves.

Depending on how an FDI is designed, its effects may be operating not only through deterrence theory and situational crime prevention, but also through such other theories as Broken Windows, collective efficacy, informal social control, and procedural justice. Focused deterrence is a shorthand description for a multi-faceted strategy that has many important features working simultaneously to change people’s attitudes and behaviors in a variety of ways.9

 Many programs funded through the U.S. Department of Justice replicated Boston’s initiative, including the Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative, and the Smart Policing Initiative. The National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College maintains a listing of jurisdictions that have implemented or are implementing some form of focused-deterrence strategy, which can be viewed online at http://nnscommunities.org/impact/cities

b In conjunction with this guide, read Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 11, Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending, by Nick Tilley. 

c For a brief explanation of situational crime prevention, see the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing webpage at http://www.popcenter.org/about/?p=situational.