Abstract Recently, some researchers have attempted to resurrect deterrence theory. These researchers have focused on the relationship between certainty and severity of punishment and subsequent rates of crime. An inverse relationship has been found, leading these researchers to conclude that penal sanctions deter crime. This paper presents another hypothesis, namely, that increases in crime may overburden existing legal machinery, and thus cause decreases in the certainty of punishment as a result. Using the same data employed in past deterrence studies, this paper demonstrates that crime may affect certainty of punishment more strongly than certainty of punishment affects the crime rate, a finding which seriously questions the ability of legal threats as currently administered in American society to deter crime.