Focused Deterrence Strategies by the National Institute of Justice

Practice Goals

Focused deterrence strategies (also referred to as “pulling levers” policing) are problem-oriented policing strategies that follow the core principles of deterrence theory. The strategies target specific criminal behavior committed by a small number of chronic offenders who are vulnerable to sanctions and punishment. Offenders are directly confronted and informed that continued criminal behavior will not be tolerated. Targeted offenders are also told how the criminal justice system (such as the police and prosecutors) will respond to continued criminal behavior; mainly that all potential sanctions, or levers, will be applied. The deterrence-based message is reinforced through crackdowns on offenders, or groups of offenders (such as gang members), who continue to commit crimes despite the warning. In addition to deterring violent behavior, the strategies also reward compliance and nonviolent behavior among targeted offenders by providing positive incentives, such as access to social services and job opportunities.

Target Population
Focused deterrence strategies generally target a specific type or group of offenders, such as youth gang members or repeat violent offenders. Many focused deterrence interventions have primarily targeted incidents of homicide and serious violence (criminal activities that usually involve chronic offenders) in urban settings (Kennedy 2006). Some strategies have focused on eliminating public forms of drug dealing (such as street markets and crack houses). These strategies are known as drug market interventions and they work by warning dealers, buyers, and their families that enforcement is imminent.

Practice Theory
Deterrence theory posits that crime can be prevented if potential offenders believe the costs of committing a crime outweigh the benefits (Zimring and Hawkins 1973). Three key concepts play an important role in deterrence theory: the certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment. The deterrent effects of crime prevention programs and policies are a function of a potential offender’s perceptions of the certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment (Nagin 1998). Focused deterrence strategies combine elements of classic deterrence with additional elements thought to prevent crime. First, focused deterrence strategies typically begin with an intense focus on particular types of crime and the chronic offenders most responsible for carrying out those crimes. The most frequent target of focused deterrence strategies is gun violence. Second, focused deterrence strategies are often referred to as “pulling levers” strategies because they seek to apply every lever available, whether formal or informal, in deterring offenders. Third, unlike conventional deterrence strategies which may alter objective sanction risks, focused deterrence strategies seek to directly influence perceived sanction risks among offenders by communicating directly with them about the consequences of their actions. An important part of altering perceived risks among offenders is administering sanctions swiftly so potential offenders can observe the immediate consequences of their actions. Finally, since many focused deterrence strategies target groups (like street gangs) rather than individuals, another key element is the idea of collective responsibility: holding all members of the group responsible for the actions of any individual member. Together, these program elements are intended to influence the perceived risk of sanctions among potential offenders, thereby altering their decisions about whether or not to carry out an offense.

Practice Components
The focused deterrence framework was developed in Boston during the 1990s. Operation Ceasefire (Boston) was a problem-oriented policing project to stop serious gang violence by directly communicating to gang members that violence would no longer be tolerated, and backing up that message by “pulling every lever” legally available when violence occurred. At the same time, youth workers, probation and parole officers, and other community-based organizations offered services and resources to gang members (Kennedy 1997).

At a general level, the approach of focused deterrence strategies includes the following:

  1. Selecting a particular crime problem (such as youth homicide);
  2. Convening an interagency working group that may include law enforcement, social service, and community-based practitioners;
  3. Developing a response to offenders or groups of offenders that uses a variety of sanctions (“pulling levers”) to stop continued violent behavior;
  4. Focusing social services and community resources on target offenders to match the prevention efforts by law enforcement; and
  5. Directly and continually communicating with offenders to make them understand why they are receiving special attention (Braga and Weisburd 2012).

There are several similarities and overlapping features between focused deterrence strategies and other policing models, such as community-oriented, problem-oriented, and hot spots policing. Community-oriented policing draws on a variety of approaches to address crime and disorder issues. Often partnerships are formed between law enforcement and organizations outside of policing, especially community-based groups. Hot spots policing strategies rely mostly on traditional law enforcement approaches. However, police powers and resources are directed toward dealing with a specific crime-ridden area or group of offenders. Problem-oriented policing combines the resource targeting strategies of hot spots policing with the variety of approaches of community-oriented policing (National Research Council 2004; pg. 249). Focused deterrence strategies rely primarily on a problem-oriented policing approach, but also use elements of community-oriented policing (for example, forming partnerships between the police and community-based organizations through the creation of an interagency work group).

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