Research on the deterrent effects of punishment falls into two categories: macro-level studies of the impact of aggregate punishment levels on crime rates, and individual-level studies of the impact of perceived punishment levels on self-reported criminal behavior. For policy purposes, however, the missing link—ignored in previous research—is that between aggregate punishment levels and individual perceptions of punishment. This paper addresses whether higher actual punishment levels increase the perceived certainty, severity, or swiftness of punishment.
Telephone interviews with 1,500 residents of fifty-four large urban counties were used to measure perceptions of punishment levels, which were then linked to actual punishment levels as measured in official statistics. Hierarchical linear model estimates of multivariate models generally found no detectable impact of actual punishment levels on perceptions of punishment. The findings raise serious questions about deterrence-based rationales for more punitive crime control policies.