Deterrence and the Moral Context: Is the Impact of Perceived Sanction Risk Dependent on Best Friends’ Moral Beliefs?

AuthorHelmut Hirtenlehner,Sonja Schulz
Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Deterrence and the Moral
Context: Is the Impact of
Perceived Sanction Risk
Dependent on Best Friends’
Moral Beliefs?
Helmut Hirtenlehner
and Sonja Schulz
Research on differential deterrability suggests increasingly that the size of a potential sanction risk
effect is conditional on characteristics of the person and properties of the setting. Whether the
moral context of young people’s action settings shapes adolescents’ responsiveness to deterrent
cues has been a neglected issue, however. Since youths spend much time in the company of their
peers, close friends’ stance toward crime may serve as a measure of the moral makeup of the
immediate environment in which young people make behavioral choices. Based on a longitudinal
adolescent self-report survey, we test whether the impact of an individual’s sanction certainty
perceptions varies according to the level of his or her best friends’ moral beliefs regarding selected
acts of rule-breaking. Lagged negative binomial regression analyses provide mixed support for the
hypothesis that perceived sanction risk matters more for adolescents whose close friends
encourage criminal activity. These findings have wider implications for perceptual deterrence
research: They suggest that efforts to specify the conditions under which sanction certainty per-
ceptions are related to offending should concentrate on the presence of criminogenic factors.
individual theories of crime causation, crime/delinquency theory, crime policy, courts/law,
quantitative methods, other
Problem and Research Aim
For more than two centuries, deterrence theory has been representing one of the most prominent
explanations of criminal conduct (Beccaria, 1764; Bentham, 1789). The theory posits that actual or
Centre for Criminology, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
GESIS—Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Cologne, Germany
Corresponding Author:
Helmut Hirtenlehner, Centre for Criminology, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Altenberger Strasse 69, A – 4040 Linz,
Criminal Justice Review
2021, Vol. 46(1) 53-79
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820949641
threatened punishment prevents the perpetration of a cts of crime by creating fear of sanctions.
Despite the plausibility of the argu ment, the state of research on the effect iveness of criminal
deterrence is still inconclusive. Evidence in favor of a nonneg ligible crime-reducing impact of
sanctioning severity is scant, whereas a significant portion of the available empirical studies sup-
ports the presence of a weak or modest deterrent effect of the certainty of punishment (Do¨lling et al.,
2009; Paternoster, 2010; Pratt et al., 2006). Consensus is limited to the “certainty not severity”
conclusion that identifies the likelihood of being sanctioned as the more effective deterrent (Apel &
Nagin, 2011, p. 413).
Difficulties in establishing substantial unconditional deterrent effects of legal sanction threats,
but also recent theoretical developments (Wikstro¨m, 2008, 2010) may be the reason why the idea of
differential deterrability (Hirtenlehner, 2019; Loughran et al., 2018; Piquero et al., 2011) has
become popular in recent years. Building on perceptual deterrence theory (Geerken & Gove,
1975), differential deterrability suggests that the effect of sanction threats is not uniform across
individuals and situations. People are assumed to differ in their susceptibility to sanction risk, and
settings are assumed to differ in their capacity for deterrence. Instead of claiming that deterrence
affects all individuals equally, it is acknowledged that the degree to which an individual responds to
the risk of formal punishment will depend on a variety of other factors, among them characteristics
of the person and properties of the setting (likewise the type of crime in question).
Besides self-control, personal morals have received most attention as potential moderator of an
individual’s responsiveness to deterrent cues (e.g., Gallupe & Baron, 2014; Hirtenlehner & Hardie,
2016; Hirtenlehner & Mesko, 2019; Kroneberg et al., 2010; Pauwels et al., 2011; Piquero et al.,
2016; Svensson, 2015, Wenzel, 2004). A slight majority of the relevant studies show that perceived
sanction risk is more consequential among those of weak morality. Individuals holding strong law-
consistent moral beliefs are less influenced by their perceptions of sanction certainty.
However, to what extent the moral rules that dominate in the setting in which the action takes
place condition the size of a possible sanction risk effect has been a neglected issue in perceptual
deterrence research. Few studies took up the question whether and how the moral makeup of the
immediate surroundings (the moral context)
shapes the effectiveness of legal sanction threats. In
these works, the moral nature of the action setting has usually been operationalized as the level of
involvement with delinquent peers. The obtained evidence on the interaction of deterrence and
affiliation with crime-prone others has remained inconclusive. The first inquiry that addressed this
issue found that higher levels of delinquent peer association reduced the impact of young people’s
sanction certainty perceptions (Matthews & Agnew, 2008). Subsequent studies came to opposite
conclusions, showing that perceived sanction risk exercises a greater effect among adolescents who
are more involved with delinquent peers (Hirtenlehner, 2019; Hirtenlehner & Bacher, 2017;
Schepers & Reinecke, 2018).
Inspired by some of Situational Action Theory’s (SAT; Wikstro¨m, 2010, 2019) reflections on the
significance of the current moral context for the perception of action alternatives, we assume that
stronger ties to crime-prone age-mates amplify the deterrent impact of young people’s sanction
certainty perceptions. Because adolescents tend to spend much time together with their friends
(Warr, 2002), the moral context of their immediate action settings is often formed by the attitudes
and beliefs of their peers (Hirtenlehner & Hardie, 2016). We argue that ample exposure to friends
who welcome and encourage criminal conduct provides adolescents with augmented opportunities
for crime, leads them into temptation to exploit the benefits of crime, and makes them perceive
crime as an acceptable action alternative more frequently. All this brings legal sanction risk into play
as a potential behavioral regulative, therewith establishing a dependency of deterrent effects on the
moral attitudes of young people’s close friends. Hence, our concrete research question is “Does the
deterrent effect of young people’s sanction certainty perceptions depend on their best friends’ moral
beliefs concerning the justifiability of offending?” The underlying substantive hypothesis posits that
54 Criminal Justice Review 46(1)

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