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Bentham’s Sanction Typology and Restrictive Deterrence: A Study of Young, Suburban, Middle-Class Drug Dealers

Restrictive deterrence is the process whereby offenders limit the frequency, magnitude, or seriousness of their offenses to avoid pain. Prior research on drug dealing and restrictive deterrence largely focuses on the effect of formal control, or political sanction. Bentham, ...

Published onAug 08, 2013
Bentham’s Sanction Typology and Restrictive Deterrence: A Study of Young, Suburban, Middle-Class Drug Dealers


Restrictive deterrence is the process whereby offenders limit the frequency, magnitude, or seriousness of their offenses to avoid pain. Prior research on drug dealing and restrictive deterrence largely focuses on the effect of formal control, or political sanction. Bentham, however, suggests there are four other types of sanction that may deter offenses: moral, sympathetic, religious, and physical. This paper explores whether and how each sanction type restricts drug sales among a sample of 29 young, suburban, middle-class drug sellers. We conclude by discussing the usefulness of studying interconnections between the sanctions and by outlining the reasons to choose Bentham's sanction typology in future work.


The notion that crime can be deterred by a government’s threat to punish it runs throughout the history of criminology, and continues to dominate both the discipline and real-world crime control efforts (Beccaria, 1995 [1764]; Cook, 1980; Jacobs, 2010; Nagin, 1998). Illicit drug sellers, in particular, have been the target of formal deterrence measures (Musto & Korsmeyer, 2002; NRC, 2001, 2010), as selling—in the U.S. at least—frequently leads to arrest, jail, asset forfeiture, and long prison sentences (Baumer, 2008; Moskos, 2008; Sevigny & Caulkins, 2004). The deterrence approach to crime control is grounded on the rational choice perspective, which posits that people choose whether to commit a crime by engaging in a cost-benefit analysis (Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Decker, Wright, & Logie, 1993; Paternoster, 1987; Piquero & Paternoster, 1998; Stafford & Warr, 1993). In theory, persons are more likely to be deterred from selling drugs as punishment for doing so becomes more severe, certain, and swift (MacCoun & Reuter, 2001; NRC, 2001; Zirming & Hawkins, 1992).  

Deterrence, however, is not always absolute (Gibbs, 1975). Dealers may not be entirely scared out of selling, but nonetheless limit the frequency, magnitude, and seriousness of their sales to avoid pain; this is known as restrictive deterrence (Gibbs, 1975; Jacobs, 1996; see, e.g., Decker & Chapman, 2008; Gallupe, Bouchard, & Caulkins, 2011; Jacobs, 1993, 1996; Sandberg & Pedersen, 2011).[1] For example, a New York City seller known as Queen Bee said, “[When] I see them [police] coming, I give ‘em respect. I don’t do nothing in front of them … to draw their attention” (Johnson & Natarajan, 1995, p. 56). Dealers are also known to curb their business hours to avoid sanction; a seller in St. Louis explained: “As long as the [liquor] sto’s be open, poh-lice just think you be goin’ to the store … But you be out like at 2, 3 in the mornin’, you can’t be tellin’ no poh-lice” that is where you are going (Jacobs & Miller, 1998, p. 558). Another preventive technique is to constrain the scale of the operation; a California-based supplier noted, “[A]s long as I don’t get involved with anything on a really heavy level then the Karma around what I’m doing isn’t going to disturb the police” (Adler & Adler, 1980, p. 451).

Prior scholarship on restrictive deterrence and drug dealing tends to focus on evading apprehension and punishment by government officials. Yet there are other springs of sanction. As outlined by Bentham (1988 [1789]) in The Principles of Morals and Legislation, “[t]here are … distinguishable sources from which … pain … flow: considered separately, they may be termed the physical, the political, the moral, and the religious” (p. 24).[2] Later in life, Bentham (1995 [1791]; 2005 [1843]) concluded there is still one more type: the sympathetic sanction.[3] Political sanction is dispensed by government officials. Moral sanction is mete out by community members (not acting on behalf of the government). Sympathetic sanction is grief from one’s own conscience. Religious sanction is the product of supernatural power. Physical sanction results from natural processes. Together, these pains comprise Bentham’s sanction typology.[4]

This paper’s goals are to reintroduce Bentham’s sanction typology to criminology and use it to improve understanding of restrictive deterrence and drug dealing. To accomplish these objectives, first we review prior research bearing on our topic. Then we describe our participants, method, and data, namely qualitative information obtained in interviews with 29 young, suburban, middle-class drug dealers. We draw on this data to show whether and how dealers restrict their sales due to fear of each sanction, and also to explore how perceptions of each sanction may amplify or negate the other sanctions’ restrictive effect on sales. The paper concludes by detailing the relative merits of Bentham’s sanction typology over the one most commonly used in the study of restrictive deterrence: the formal-informal control typology. 

Prior Research on Restrictive Deterrence and Drug Dealing

There are two styles of restrictive deterrence (Jacobs, 1996). One is probabilistic reasoning: “some individuals curtail their violations of law in the belief that repetition is likely to result eventually in their suffering a punishment” (Gibbs, 1975, p. 33); an example is a seller who quits dealing due to reasoning “If I keep doing it then I’ll get caught.” The second style involves particularistic techniques: “reduction in offense frequencies based on tactical skills offenders use that make them less likely to be apprehended” (Jacobs, 1996, p. 425); an example is a seller refraining from making deals with people who attract police attention.

Drug sales, and also drug consumption, can be restricted in three ways. A drug offense’s (1) frequency is reduced when it is committed less often over time; (2) magnitude is limited when a smaller amount is sold or used at any one time; and, (3) seriousness is curtailed when a less physiologically damaging substance is involved.[5],[6]

Among the five pains outlined by Bentham, avoidance of political sanction dominates the literature on restrictive deterrence and drug dealing. Prior studies find sellers avoid this pain by enacting a number of preventive measures. These include not trading when near a suspicious person or too late at night (Jacobs 1996; Jacobs & Miller, 1998; Johnson & Natarajan, 1995), and refusing to make exchanges with persons who do not use proper code words, do not look the part, are unwilling to consume the drug on the spot, or unable to name persons from the neighborhood (Jacobs, 1996, 1999; Knowles, 1999; Sandberg & Pedersen, 2011; VanNostrand & Tewksbury, 1999). All of these techniques have the potential to reduce political sanction, but they come at the cost of making fewer drug sales.

Moral sanction has received the second largest amount of attention in the literature on restrictive deterrence and drug sales. Moral sanction commonly occurs in the context of turf wars in which rival dealers fight over control of a selling territory (see Jacques & Wright, 2011; Reuter, 2009). These battles restrict sales in the immediate and, for the losing party, over the long term. For example, Levitt and Venkatesh (2000) find that gangs sold significantly smaller quantities of drugs during periods marked by gang wars; moreover, the defeated gang’s post-war profits was cut by about a third. The reduction in sales is largely due to dealers limiting street sales for fear of being hurt by rivals.

A third sort of pain is sympathetic. Some sellers have been found to fear grief and therefore limit their sales. A dealer interviewed by VanNostrand and Tewksbury (1999) said, “I stayed away from junkies because to me, they didn’t need it. Believe it or not, I actually had a conscience about who I sold to. People that couldn’t afford to and wanted me to front it, I didn’t sell to because I knew that they was goin’ too far with it” (p. 71). Another study noted that “a few sellers exhibited concern for their customers by refusing to sell to friends who they believed were abusing Ecstasy. One participant saw himself as a ‘drug dealer with a conscience’” (Jacinto et al., 2008, p. 398). Although these sellers feel that forgoing such trades is more conscionable, the downside is it limits the number of sales they make.

Although there are studies of religious sanction and deterrence generally (see Baier & Wright, 2001), no study examines how fear of supernatural pain restricts drug dealing or other crimes (Topalli, 2013).[7] The closest example is that of Topalli, Brezina, and Bernhardt (2013). They examine the role of religion in the lives of offenders, some of whom are drug dealers. These criminals explain how their Christian or Muslim faith pardons them from supernatural sanction. For example, one offender said that his sins on earth would not cost him hellish incarceration: “Jesus forgives you for all your bad shit if you donate some money to the church, or pray and say you’re sorry” (p. 11). Another offender suggested even homicide can be swept from the record: “I mean, anything can be forgiven” (p. 11). Criminals with such perceptions believe there is no need to restrict their lawbreaking because they could literally get away with murder in “God’s eyes.”

The fifth type of pain that may restrictively deter drug selling is physical sanction. To be clear, a sanction is physical when—and only when—it is caused by something other than a person or supernatural being. Thus, even though a person, for instance, may experience bodily discomfort from being tortured by a government official (political sanction), shot by a retaliator (moral sanction), struck with a lightning bolt sent by God (religious sanction), or by going against their conscience (sympathetic sanction), these sorts of physical pain are not physical sanction per se. As Bentham means it, physical sanction refers to such things as sunburn from overexposure to ultraviolet rays, tearing a muscle from lifting weights that are too heavy, and lung cancer due to smoking cigarettes.

As with religious sanction, no prior research has explicitly inspected if fear of physical sanction restrictively deters drug selling. The research closest to this topic is that on harm reduction among drug users. Scholarship on harm reduction demonstrates that drug users restrict the frequency, magnitude, and seriousness of their consumption to limit its negative health effects (Denning, Little, & Glickman, 2004). For example, a study of ecstasy users finds they do not consume “excessively to ensure … avoiding negative effects” (Jacinto, 2008, p. 397). Heroin users are known to limit the frequency of consumption in order to avoid addiction (Zinberg, 1984). Drug users also reduce adverse effects by not consuming substances they perceive as more detrimental to health than others. An illicit drug user interviewed by Perrone (2009) explains, “There’s really nothing that we do that’s gonna … send you to the hospital, ya know? No one’s doin’ heroin. No one’s gonna overdose and die” (p. 146). As a foreshadowing of findings to come, note that the research on harm reduction among users is important to understanding drug selling because many dealers, including our participants, are motivated to sell as a way to offset the costs of their drug habit (see, e.g., Mohamed & Fritsvold, 2010; Murphy et al., 2005).

To summarize, prior research on restrictive deterrence and drug dealing has looked in-depth at political sanction; some attention has been given to the moral and sympathetic sanctions; left unexplored are the religious and physical sanctions. One way to advance understanding of restrictive deterrence among drug dealers is to simultaneously investigate all of the sanction types outlined by Bentham, as we do in the pages to come. This approach is useful not only because each sanction has the potential to singularly deter dealing—which is an empirical question worthy of investigation—but also because each pain has the potential to enhance or diminish the others’ deterrent effect. 

The Present Study

This paper draws on qualitative accounts obtained in interviews with 29 drug dealers to examine all of Bentham’s sanction types: political, moral, sympathetic, religious, and physical. For a person to be included in the study, he or she had to be between 18 and 23 years of age, raised in suburbia by middle-class parents, and currently selling drugs or had done so within the prior two years. The town in which the majority of the dealers attended high school is about 90 percent white, 90 percent of adults have a high school degree or higher, and the median household income is almost $70,000.[8] All of the participants are white, except for one person who is mixed-race (white and Asian). When interviewed, all respondents had graduated from high school; since then many have gone on to earn college degrees. Two are female. Drugs sold by these participants include marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, and hallucinogenic mushrooms; none reported selling crack cocaine or heroin.

Twenty-two of the participants were recruited through a straightforward purposive sampling strategy (Wright et al., 1992); they received no payment for taking part in the study. The other seven participants were recruited through snowball sampling; each of these respondents was remunerated with $20 for their cooperation. The interviews usually lasted about an hour. They were semi-structured to maintain consistency in topic coverage, and open-ended to allow for flexibility in responses. Questions centered on their modus operandi of selling, their subjection to sanctions (or lack thereof), and perceptions of them. For example, respondents were asked about whether their drug dealing had or would lead them to experience arrest, retaliatory violence, shaming by parents, hell, grief, or naturally occurring pain. We also asked participants to explain how such perceptions affected their drug selling, if at all.

The sample consists of retail dealers who sell a few grams at a time to users.[9] However, some of these sellers also worked as suppliers, meaning they sold a few ounces at a time to retail dealers, in addition to selling directly to consumers. All of the sellers characterized their customers as predominantly “friends” known through school and sport, “friends-of-friends,” and coworkers (for details, see Author, XXXXa; see also Belackova & Vaccaro, 2013). What may help explain why our participants became involved in frequent drug use and later drug dealing, as well as why many of their customers are peers (Coomber and Turnbull, 2007; Murphy et al., 2005; South, 2004; Taylor and Potter, 2013), is the normalization of drug use that has occurred in Western countries (Aldridge, Measham, & Williams, 2011; Parker, Aldridge, & Measham, 1998).

Although some individuals sold to make “extra money,” as they referred to it, all of the respondents mentioned “free drugs” as a motive for dealing (see Author, XXXXa). No dealer sold a substance that he or she did not first consume, typically on a regular basis; this is the common pattern for dealers of this age and social class (see also Blum & Associates, 1972; Carey, 1968; Mohamed & Fritsvold, 2010; Murphy et al., 2005). For instance, when Phillip was asked why he sold ecstasy his response was “Free pills. I mean you get a little bit of profit on the side too. But, it wasn’t for the money, just pretty much for the free pills.” Matt was asked why he got into selling marijuana and said, “I wanted to be able to smoke for free ... I never had any profit out of it.” As explained by Pete, “The first time I bought an ounce [of weed] I bought it for 350 bucks and sold all of it but an eighth, and I got an eighth for myself for free.” The way free drugs are earned is by purchasing a relatively large quantity of a drug at a price lower than street value and then selling all of it except for that meant for personal consumption. A dealer, for instance, will buy an ounce of marijuana (which is 28 grams) for $350 and then sell “eighths” (which are 3.5 grams each) for $50 apiece; having earned back all of their investment and with an eighth remaining, the dealer can “smoke for free.”

Rapport between the interviewer and interviewees was strong because, prior to participation, these parties were friends (if recruited through purposive sampling) or friends-of-friends (if recruited through snowball sampling); research suggests that the closer the relationship between researchers and subjects, the more valid is the obtained information (see, e.g., Weinreb, 2006). Still, some participants may have resorted to lying or distortion, as is true with any self-report study (but see Sandberg, 2010). To curtail this possibility, respondents were promised confidentially, informed of their rights as a research participant, and asked to clarify comments deemed unusual or unfounded.  

Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. In preparation for qualitative analysis, the transcripts were coded with identification tags corresponding to relevant research issues. The tags permitted us—with the help of a qualitative data software package, NVivo—to retrieve information about our research interests. During the first stage of coding, the breadth of tags was generally broad and focused on the variables of primary interest: the frequency, magnitude, and seriousness of drug sales as well as the five sanctions outlined by Bentham. Then we sifted through the initial codes and engaged in detailed analysis of variance across cases to determine how dealers limit their sales, and why they do or do not fear any particular sanction. Specifically, we read through the broader categories and, for each issue, created narrower categories that capture distinctions mentioned by the dealers as relevant. Thus, our analysis technique is deductive and inductive, which is akin to what Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (2011) call “retroduction” (p. 173). It is deductive in that our initial codes and theory are oriented by Bentham’s sanction typology and existing notions of drug sales and restrictive deterrence. It is inductive because participants’ accounts are used to determine how and why each sanction affects the commission of drug sales or not.[10]

Due to space limitations, this paper does not look at every conceivable aspect of each sanction. For example, our analysis of the moral sanction is restricted to retaliation by fellow drug traders and parental punishment, and thus we do not look at pain related to employment (e.g., “getting fired”), romantic relationships (e.g., “breaking up”), and sports (e.g., “getting benched”). Further research will be needed to entirely understand sanctions and restrictive deterrence. The selection of presented quotes was determined by their empirical detail and ability to shed light on the topic at hand (see Weiss, 1994). As encouraged by Katz (2004), we “show the people” by using extended, unbroken quotes in which dealers “speak in their own contextualized and historically specific vocabularies” (p. 83). This approach is worthwhile because it allows for “seeing” (1) participants’ explanations of their actions separate from (2) our rational choice-based explanations of their actions. Although our goal is to unify these two sorts of explanation, we leave the door open for alternative interpretations of the data by quoting stretches of conversation. We believe the presented data to be representative of our participants’ experiences as a whole, although exceptions are noted as appropriate. All names are pseudonyms. 

Bentham’s Five Sanctions & Restrictive Deterrence among Dealers

In this section we explore whether dealers in our sample fear each sanction type and, if so, how they restrict their crime to offset the risk.[11] After examining the singular restrictive effect of each pain, we consider how sanctions may magnify or diminish the other’s impact on crime. 

Political Sanction

Political sanction is punishment by a “sovereign or supreme ruling power of the state” (Bentham, 1988 [1789], p. 25), such as police, judges, and correctional officers. As noted in the literature and by our participants alike, the most widespread technique of preventing this pain is customer filtering. This is the process whereby dealers sell to some persons but not others based on those individuals’ characteristics, such as appearance or reputation (see also Jacobs, 1993, 1996, 1999; VanNostrand & Tewksbury, 1999). To avoid police attention, our respondents refrained from making sales with two kinds of buyers: complete strangers and immature persons.

A complete stranger is someone with whom no prior relationship exists, either directly or indirectly (e.g., through a friend). Dealers avoided doing business with complete strangers for two reasons. First, they could be undercover police officers. As Jason recounted:

Jason: [W]hen people called me if I didn’t really know who they were, they would say they got my number from somebody who knew me, then I would just hang up. … [T]hey could be like an authority or something, you know, and at that point when they call you say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and that would cover the authority thing.

Refusing to make an exchange with an unknown person is a double-edge sword. Our participants were motivated to conduct sales in order to obtain free drugs and even some extra cash, but these benefits could come at the cost of arrest, prosecution, and fines or prison time. To avoid such pains, the dealers in our sample refrained from capitalizing on potentially profitable trade opportunities when they perceived the supposed buyer as potentially an undercover police officer.

Some potential buyers are known by a dealer but perceived as a liability. Through stereotyping, direct observations, or gossip, dealers come to believe that particular individuals engage in overly risky behaviors (e.g., conspicuously smoking marijuana) and thereby invite police sanction when it could be avoided. Such individuals are seen as immature. Dealers protected themselves from political sanction by refusing to sell to immature buyers, as to do otherwise would risk being snitched on.

Older dealers frequently stereotyped relatively young buyers—such as a sophomore compared to a senior—as immature and, therefore, avoided them as trade partners. Joe explained how his willingness to make a deal depended both on his relationship to the customer and their perceived maturity:

Joe: I got to know who it is that I’m selling to. If someone called me and said, “My friend gave me your number,” I would tell his friend to tell me exactly who it was that he gave my number to and his name. There were a few times where I just didn’t feel comfortable really with the situation. If the kid sounded really young, I wouldn’t; I just wouldn’t sell anything to them because I’d be worried their parents would catch me and like rat me out [to the police].

Age-based stereotypes about maturity are one way to discriminate between customers, but more personalized information would become available to dealers about their (potential) clientele. Ed stopped dealing with a customer after seeing evidence of that person’s immaturity:

Ed: I was downtown drinking beer one time in front of a bar. … [The customer] was sitting there … smoking in a van or something, parked downtown. I was like, “OK, that’s the end of that guy.” I don’t fucking sell to anybody that’s going to be fucking smoking in a van downtown like on Friday.

Both Joe and Ed, among other participants, were selective in who they did business with, refusing to trade with persons they perceived as immature. Joe was willing to take on new patrons, but not if he got the sense that a potential new customer was too young and thus too likely to get in trouble. And Ed cut off a customer who he saw act in a manner that could easily draw police attention. This selectivity was a way to protect against political sanction, but the cost was fewer sales. 

Moral Sanction

Moral sanction is punishment by “persons in the community … according to [their] spontaneous disposition, and not according to any settled or concerted rule” (Bentham 1988, [1789], p. 25). It includes banishment from the group, the denial of employment, and the loss of outward signs of respect (see, e.g., Goffman, 1963). In turn, we focus on two forms of moral sanction: retaliation by fellow drug traders, and punishment by parents.

Retaliation is when a victim, or at least someone who perceives themselves as such, seeks justice by hurting, defrauding, stealing from, or damaging the property of the victimizer (Black, 1998; Jacobs & Wright, 2006). Fellow drug traders—including customers, suppliers, and competing sellers—are most likely to retaliate against dealers (Goldstein, 1985; Jacques, 2010). When a seller restricts their sales to avoid retaliation, restrictive deterrence is at work.

Although the dealers we studied almost always settled their conflicts peacefully (see Author, XXXXb), violent retaliation occurred occasionally. As noted above, prior research shows that drug sellers limit sales in order to avoid victimization related to turf wars (Levitt & Venkatesh, 2000). A similar process goes on between individuals who act solely on their own accord, rather than on behalf of an organization (see, e.g., Jacques & Wright, 2011).

One of our participants, Josh, became upset when his price was undercut by a competing dealer. In response, Josh threatened to assault the competitor if he continued this practice:

Josh: This guy from [another high school nearby] that I met at a party with my friends,… he was slinging and he was selling to people at the party and he’s like, “If you find somebody that’s selling it for more then let me know, and I’ll sell it for less.” And so I got pissed off ’cause I was there at the same time and I was slinging it at the same time and I got pissed and I was a little drunk and I kind of got in his face a little bit and told him that if he keeps doing it he’s gonna get his ass beat.

In time, Josh discovered his warning had fallen on deaf ears. At that point he made good on his words:

Josh: And then I had another conflict with him [at a later date] and like told him again, and I hit him twice, and he hit me once. But I told him that if he keeps doing it [then] it will be even worse. He got the hint and quit doing it.

To recap, Josh was angered by another dealer who advertised lower prices. Presumably, the latter seller’s motivation for this practice was to attract more customers in order to make more sales. Josh was unhappy about this business strategy because he was losing sales. To counteract his losses, Josh threatened his competitor with the intent of deterring that individual’s price cuts. When the threat did not work, he turned to physical violence. This countermeasure proved effective, as the competitor stopped undercutting Josh’s price and, as a result, likely lost business.

Parental sanction is another risk faced by dealers in our sample. Our participants’ parents punished their children in many ways, including shaming, reducing allowance, and grounding. To avoid these punishments, the dealers hid their lawbreaking from parents through various techniques. Two widespread tactics were “closing time” and “taking a break.”

Closing time happens on a day-to-day basis: to avoid raising caregivers’ suspicion when living at or visiting “home,” dealers make sales at particular times, such as only before their parents arrive home from work. For instance, Christian told us: “The best time to sell is right after school. At night my parents are home so I’d have to take it easy.” Although closing time protects against parental sanction, it comes at the cost of fewer sales because it involves forgoing trades at particular times of the day. Some customers were willing to wait until the next day, but many of them would simply call another dealer. The implication of this impatience is that when a seller sought to avoid parental punishment by having a closing time, the dealer was choosing to make fewer sales than otherwise possible or desired.

A second technique of preventing parental sanction, known as taking a break, is enacted over longer stretches of time. As Dave explained:

Interviewer: How long have you been dealing?

Dave: I guess about 2 and 3 years on and off.

Interviewer: Why on and off?

Dave: There’s reasons for those breaks. You got family stuff. …

Interviewer: Well what’s an example of a time you took a break for family stuff?

Dave: Well, I was living with my parents, so I didn’t want them finding out, and my dad is paying for my cell phone bill, didn’t want him to catch on with that. It’s just a lot of things that you don’t even think about that could happen, so if you take breaks then you can think about those things, see what’s happening.

As with a closing time, the purpose of taking a break is to avoid trouble with parents. A drawback of this technique is it limits sales. Indeed, the very design of taking a break involves forgoing trade opportunities for a long stretch of time in order to avoid punishment by caregivers. Had dealers not been worried about parental sanction, they would have had less reason to take a break. In this paper’s final section, we delve into further detail about how dealers avoided parental sanction.

Sympathetic Sanction

Four of the sanction types are “self-regarding”—solely related to the offender’s experience (Bentham, 2005 [1791], p. 292). But the sympathetic sanction is “other-regarding”—tied to pain of another individual. Examples include feeling regret, shame, and embarrassment for psychologically, physically, or financially hurting a parent, lover, or friend.

Not all of the dealers we interviewed felt grief for their crimes and the anguish it could cause other people. Consider two of our participants’ rationale for a lack of remorse:

Interviewer: Do you feel guilty about dealing drugs?

Ron: No…. They’re going to get it anyways.


Interviewer: Why were you saying you don’t feel guilty?

Justin: Because, the fact that pot is illegal is fucking retarded. Just growing up you know so much of the percentage of the United States is down with smoking pot. So you have something that’s illegal and just creates opportunity for people to make money off of it because there’s a need out there for it. If I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t have affected anything. I mean I was so low-scale. The amount of drugs being moved has nothing to do with me. If I wasn’t there to buy them somebody else would’ve.

Ron and Justin suggested, respectively, that their involvement in the drug trade does not affect either the supply of dealers for buyers or the demand of buyers for dealers. Therefore, they reasoned, there is nothing to feel guilty about. With that said, there is an air of neutralization to their statements, as Ron denied injuring his customers and Justin condemned the condemners (Sykes & Matza, 1957). 

Yet there were sellers who came to perceive their drug sales as directly tied to another person’s pains. Although our participants did not intend to facilitate other people’s problems, they nonetheless felt guilty about doing so, perhaps because these people were oftentimes their friends. As a result of this negative emotion, sellers limited their sales. Mike described how his grief affected his business:

Mike: It was different for me with people who I … didn’t think they had a problem with drugs … [But with people] getting in trouble, like Ricky, people that had bad experiences with drugs, I didn’t like selling to people like that. I had too many guilty feelings about selling to people anyways. Ricky is a good example: Ricky sold stuff to me more than I ever sold to him, but then I could get him acid and other stuff like that, and then his whole life kinda went downhill and part of it was because of drug use. Just stories like that made it to where I didn’t like selling. People were getting messed up in other ways. What I didn’t like were people who were getting in trouble with shit, in trouble with their families, or getting coke problems and shit like that, those are the things I didn’t like and I didn’t like selling to them. I’d be like, “I don’t want to sell to you.”

Mike was generally willing and eager to make sales, as this provided him with free drugs and extra cash. But he perceived that his dealing facilitated some people’s problems, which bothered him emotionally. He felt guilty that persons he was dealing to were “getting in trouble” with the drugs he sold. To avoid this sympathetic pain, or at least to avoid making it worse, he refused to trade with individuals he deemed to have a “problem with drugs,” despite this costing him sales. Had he not felt grief for the negative effect of his ware on buyers, he would have been more likely to sell to them despite their problems.

Religious Sanction

Religious sanction is punishment “from the immediate hand of a superior invisible being, either in the present life, or in a future [life]” (Bentham, 1988 [1789], p. 25). In other words, a religious sanction comes from a supernatural being, and may be incurred by the offender while alive or after death. Our respondents’ perceptions of religious sanction depended on whether they were certain of God’s existence.

An atheist is a person who believes there is no deity, whereas an agnostic believes this kind of knowledge is unknown. These groups are similar in that both refrain from actively believing in a supernatural power. Not surprisingly, the atheist and agnostic dealers were unafraid of religious sanction and, thus, did not restrict their offending to avoid it. As said by an agnostic, Clay, “I don’t think if you sell drugs you’re going to hell or something like that.” After all, as Nicole explained, “God doesn’t exist so how’s he gonna punish someone?”

A theist is a person who believes in the existence of a supernatural force, namely a god or gods. Examples include Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. All of the theists in our study identified themselves as Christian. Relative to atheists and agnostics, we could guess that Christians should be more fearful of religious sanction. Yet the Christian dealers said religious sanction did not deter them because their God is not concerned with punishing drug selling or because they are exempt from supernatural sanction. Matt responded to our question of whether God would punish him for dealing by saying, “No. I just don’t think he will. I never took advantage of anybody.” Nathaniel, referring to marijuana, reasoned that “God made it” so it must be okay to sell. And in Fred’s words, “I’m a Christian. I believe that God forgives you for anything you do as long as you accept Him. So I pretty much don’t think that would happen.”

Ironically, believers and non-believers in our sample had totally opposing views on whether supernatural sanction is possible but nonetheless agreed that—at least for their own life—the impact of such punishments will be nil. For that reason, they did not restrict sales to avoid this pain.

Physical Sanction

Physical sanction is pain that comes “from the ordinary course of nature” (Bentham, 1988 [1789], p. 25).[12] Among our participants, physical sanction was not found to directly restrict drug sales. This offense—in and of itself—appears to have little, perhaps no, association to naturally occurring negative consequences. For example, respondents never mentioned being injured from lifting their product onto a scale, becoming sick from overexposure to it, or concern for any such pains. Therefore, it is unnecessary for these dealers to restrict their sales to avoid physical sanction.[13]

However, fear associated with another crime, namely drug use, indirectly deterred selling. To fully determine the relationship between sanctions, fear, and crime, it is necessary to study such indirect effects. This is because the commission of some offenses flows from the commission of others. For instance, the more often people are victimized, the more opportunities there are to retaliate; less victimization, then, leads to less retaliation (Authors, XXXXc; Jacobs & Wright, 2006). While some indirect criminogenic effects are logical, such as the link between predation and retaliation, others are more theoretical, as is the one we now describe.

Recall from above that all of our participants were motivated to deal in order to earn “free drugs.” In other words, they offset the expense of drug use by selling drugs. Because drug use and dealing were linked in this way, their fear of physical pain associated with drug use indirectly restricted drug deals. In short, dealers did not sell drugs that they were afraid to consume (on a regular basis). It was widely recognized by our dealers that substance use can produce adverse mental and physical effects, from short-term discomforts (e.g., “bad trips”), to severe ailments (e.g., cancer), to sudden death from overdose (see also Jacinto et al., 2008; Perrone, 2009; Zinberg, 1984), with the amount of risk depending on the type of drug as well as the frequency and magnitude of use. Hard drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine were viewed as unnatural (in the sense they require a manufacturing process) and addictive, traits synonymous with unhealthy. Soft drugs, such as marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms, were thought of as natural and non-addictive, or at least far less addictive than hard drugs. This perception is in line with research demonstrating illicit hard drugs are significantly more harmful to users’ health than illicit soft drugs (Nutt, King, & Phillips 2010; Trimbos Institute 2010). Thus, it is more serious to sell or consume the former than the latter kind of substance.

These perceptions of drug seriousness affected which drugs our participants used, how often they used them, and in what magnitude at any one time. While not intentional, the fear of physical sanction associated with drug use indirectly restricted the seriousness of some participants’ drug sales. Some dealers entirely abstained from using more serious drugs. Rob, a heavy marijuana smoker and dealer who also dabbled in psychedelic mushrooms, rationalized his drug use as such:

Rob: For the most part, I like try to stick to what you would call the more safer drugs, just like weed and like mushrooms, just like natural shit that’s not really like touched and that isn’t like chemically enhanced or they’re putting something on it that might like really fuck you up or kill you or something like that.

Other sellers limited the frequency and magnitude of more serious drug use. Christian began to sell marijuana after developing an everyday habit of consuming it. He never, however, sold methamphetamine, which he used in limited amounts due to fear of its negative health effects:

Christian: Everyone knows that ice [methamphetamine] is bad for you … [H]ave you seen those people [who are addicted]? They look like shit: acne everywhere; thin as a motherfucker; missing teeth. I didn’t want to look like that. … So once I had started doing it, I told the dealer, ‘Hey, I don’t want to get addicted to this or anything, so I don’t want you to sell to me more than once a week. And I don’t want more than a tenth [of a gram].’ He understood.

Rob and Christian wanted to avoid consumption that could result in physical sanctions, ranging in severity from a poor appearance to death. Had they not feared these problems, they may have consumed serious drugs more frequently and eventually turned to selling them. But because of their fear, they refrained from becoming heavily involved in these substances and, therefore, never had the impetus to earn “free drugs” of this kind by dealing them. In this way, the fear of physical sanction associated with drug use indirectly restricted the seriousness of drug sales. 

The Interplay of Sanctions

All of Bentham’s sanction types are important to study because each has the potential to singularly deter crime. It is also important to study them as a group because each could intensify or diminish the others’ effect on offending. This is because when offenders take steps to avert one pain they may inadvertently increase or decrease the odds of another. If we do not uncover such interconnections then we will underestimate the deterrent effect of some pains and overestimate the effect of others.

 For example, prior research has determined that having a criminal record, a facet of political sanction, can hurt employability, a facet of moral sanction (Bentham, 1995, p. 68; Blumstein & Kiminori, 2009). Fear of political sanction should be greater when its occurrence is perceived to result in moral sanction (see Toby, 1957). Moreover, offenders may feel grief, a facet of sympathetic sanction, when unemployment stemming from a criminal record makes their family go hungry. Thus fear of moral sanction and political sanction should increase when perceived as leading to sympathetic sanction (see Hirschi, 1969; Kornhauser, 1978). If the fear of sanction deters offending, these sorts of interactions between sanction types should reduce offenses to an extent greater than that accounted for by each sanction’s independent effect.   

Sanction types, however, do not always work together in deterring crime. They can negate one another, too. As seen above, fear of religious sanction—or rather a lack thereof—has implications for offending. Our participants spoke to how their religion pardons them from supernatural punishment (see also Topalli, Brezina, and Bernhardt, 2013). But there is more to the story than that. Their belief that they will not go to hell and, moreover, will go to heaven conceivably dampens their fear of the non-religious sanction types. Pains on earth are only momentary in comparison to eternal bliss.

While space limitations prohibit us from fully fleshing out all of the relationships between the sanction types, we will consider one conflicting choice: whether it is more important to guard against parental or political sanction. This choice is problematic because preventive acts aimed at one of these pains could increase the other’s probability. For dealers who live with their parents, the riskiest time and place for incurring parental sanction is when making sales at home. With that in mind, sellers often chose not to sell at home; instead, they made trades at public places. For instance, Phillip said:

Phillip: [I] preferred meeting at a really public place, like a place where there’s a million people walking around and you wouldn’t think twice about a car just sitting in the parking lot. Places like grocery stores that are open 24 hours. I’d just stop by there and drop something off.

While public trades reduce the odds of parental sanction, this business practice increases the chance of being caught by police. As Robert told us, “The only time that I was really at [legal] risk was when I had marijuana in my car and was driving.” Thus, a method of combatting parental sanction—selling out of one’s vehicle—increases the odds of political sanction; the flipside of this is that while a dealer’s residence is safer from police, it is less safe from parents. Unlike Phillip, Robert mostly sold from his home because it was less risky for him than “parking lot dealing” because his mother was rarely home during daylight hours and his father did not live there.

Were we to consider Phillip’s or Robert’s behavior in light of only a single sanction type, be it political or moral (specifically parental), then we would have less understanding of why they acted as they did. If our only concern was political sanction, Phillip’s choice to sell at public places would appear irrational because selling from home is safer from the police, or at least it was for our respondents. On the other hand, if our focus was solely on moral sanction then Robert’s decision to sell at home would appear irrational, as making deals at your parents’ home increases the chance of being caught by them.

To fully grasp why people offend at all or in particular ways, we must consider all of the sanction types in conjunction. Both Phillip and Robert were afraid of political and moral sanction, but their individual circumstances led them to perceive different certainties of each pain and, in turn, focus on preventing one at the cost of increasing the other’s odds. Because Robert’s parents exercised less supervision than Phillip’s, the former dealer sold more from home while the latter chose to take his chances in public. These examples illustrate how the multiple sanction threats that dealers encounter make for complex cost-benefit analyses. They have to choose which sanctions to focus on avoiding by roughly calculating their relative certainty, swiftness, and severity. Such conflicting decisions are one reason why scholars should simultaneously examine all of the sanction types outlined by Bentham.

Why to Choose Bentham’s Sanction Typology

This paper’s goals have been to advance knowledge of restrictive deterrence and drug dealing by reintroducing Bentham’s sanction typology to criminology. We find that among sellers in our sample, their fear of the political, moral, and sympathetic sanctions led them to restrict their drug sales; the restrictive impact of physical sanction is indirect, operating through fears associated with drug consumption; and, the religious sanction had no apparent deterrent effect.[14]

The finding that religious sanction had no effect and physical sanction had only an indirect effect on restricting drug sales should not be interpreted as meaning these aspects of Bentham’s typology are irrelevant to drug-related behavior or crime generally. Other offenders, be it another sample of dealers or another type of offender altogether (e.g., burglars and robbers), may fear these pains and therefore limit their offending. For example, methamphetamine manufacturers may be afraid of blowing themselves up while cooking their product (this would be physical sanction) and, as a result, somehow restrict their involvement in this offense. Unless we study each and every type of sanction outlined by Bentham, we will not know how criminals differ in their fears, why this is so, and the effect on their lawbreaking.

On that note, we propose that the comprehensiveness of Bentham’s sanction typology makes it superior to the typology that has dominated research on restrictive deterrence: the formal-informal control typology (see, e.g., Jacobs, 1993, 1996; Jacobs, Topalli, & Wright, 2000; Jacobs & Wright, 2006; Wright & Decker, 1997, 1997). Formal control is synonymous with political sanction in that both are exercised by the government. Informal control is the handling of wrongdoing by non-governmental actors (Cooney, 2009); this amounts to an umbrella concept for the moral, sympathetic, and—depending on one’s interpretation—religious sanctions. As reviewed above, all of the prior research on restrictive deterrence and drug selling has looked at formal control (i.e., political sanction) and informal control, specifically the moral and sympathetic sanctions; left out of the picture have been the religious and physical sanctions.

To be clear, a typology is “a purposive, planned selection, abstraction, combination, and (sometimes) accentuation of a set of criteria with empirical referents that serves as a basis for comparison of empirical cases” (McKinney, 1966, p. 3; also see Lazarsfeld & Barton, 1951). A typology does not explain behavior; rather, the role of a typology is to provide concepts that are useful for theory as independent or dependent variables (see Bailey, 1994; Cooney & Phillips, 2002). Just as theories differ in their value (Kuhn, 1977; Popper, 2002 [1959]), so too do typologies. A typology is “better” when it is more comprehensive, precise, simple, generalizable, theoretical, or powerful (see Bailey, 1994; Cooney & Phillips, 2002).

Based on those evaluative criteria, Bentham’s sanction typology is better than the formal-informal control typology; see table 1 for a summary of their relative merits.

—Table 1 About Here—

Before examining how the typologies are different, first we provide a quick word on the ways they are similar. Both apply across time and space, which makes them equally generalizable. And both can be used to explain offending and deterrence; this makes them equally theoretical. In all other respects, the two typologies are discernibly unequal.  

Compared to Bentham’s sanction typology, the formal-informal control typology is simpler. This is because two kinds of control is less than five, of course. One reason the latter framework is simpler is because it does not include physical sanction. Thus, it is more parsimonious because it leaves something out, which means it is less comprehensive. Second, its simplicity derives from grouping the moral, sympathetic, and religious sanctions together as “informal control.” Although parsimony is generally laudable, we contend that the formal-informal control typology is too simple because it obscures important differences (see Tark & Kleck, 2004). While the concept of informal control has proved useful in criminology, the time has come to break it up into the parts outlined by Bentham.

The reason why informal control should be dissolved into Bentham’s notions of moral, sympathetic, and religious sanction is that these concepts are more precise. Simplicity and precision are usually a trade-off. The benefit of conceptual precision is it aids in theory development and the collection of accurate observations (see Popper, 2002 [1959]; Stinchcombe, 2005). For example, the fear of being shamed by one’s parents is distinct from the fear of feeling bad for having hurt their feelings. As these are distinct pains, they may have distinct effects on crime. Such differences are easily masked by the concept of informal control. Drawing explicit attention to them, as Bentham’s sanction typology does, should help to improve research and advance theory. 

Another, more clear-cut, way that Bentham’s typology rises above the formal-informal control typology has to do with their respective comprehensiveness. Bentham’s sanction typology includes everything that does the formal-informal control typology and more. Unlike the formal-informal control typology, Bentham’s typology includes the concept of physical sanction, which, again, is pain resulting from a natural event—meaning punishment not mete out by a government, person, one’s conscience, or supernatural being. Because Bentham’s typology is more comprehensive, it is better.

Related to the above is that scholars have long hailed the task of coherently connecting previously unrelated findings in order to expand explanatory power (see, e.g., Messner, Krohn, & Liska, 1989; Tittle, 1995). A typology is a source of power in the sense it allows “facts to be better explained” (Cooney & Phillips, 2002, p. 78).

The typology itself provides no explanation—it merely orders reality—but it creates categories that may liberate a theory or model to explain a set of empirical findings more fully. The more facts a typology permits to be explained, the more powerful, and the more scientifically valuable, it is. (ibid.)

The comprehensiveness of Bentham’s typology makes it more powerful than the formal-informal control typology. If we do not examine the physical sanction, we will be unable to fully understand crime and deterrence. For instance, some of our participants were less likely to sell more serious drugs due to their fear of physical sanction associated with hard drug use; if the physical sanction had been left unexamined then this finding would not have emerged. A benefit of including the physical sanction as a kind of punishment is it brings some of the research on “harm reduction” (see, e.g., Jacinto et al., 2008; Perrone, 2009; Zinberg, 1984) under the same conceptual roof as the deterrence literature. Furthermore, by adding the sympathetic sanction to the mix then there are gain four more interactions to study: specifically, that between physical sanction and the political, moral, sympathetic, and religious ones.

Bentham’s sanction typology is better than the formal-informal control typology, which has dominated prior work on restrictive deterrence. Although the two typologies are equally general and theoretical, Bentham’s typology is more comprehensive, precise, and powerful. The formal-informal control typology is simpler, but this simplicity puts research and theorizing in a conceptual fog because it compromises precision. If criminologists are rational decision makers then their future work should employ Bentham’s typology over its competitor. There is little to risk, but comprehensiveness, precision, and power to gain. 


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Table 1. Relative Merits of Bentham’s Sanction Typology and the Formal-Informal Control Typology


Bentham’s Sanction Typology

Formal-Informal Control Typology















Note: ‘+’ denotes typology’s superiority in specific regard;        ‘–’ denotes typology’s inferiority; ‘=’ denotes typologies’ equality.  


[1] Criminologists have long been aware of restrictive deterrence, even if they did not call it by that name (see Shaw, 1930, p. 143-4; Sutherland, 1937, p. 210). Research demonstrates that many types of offenses are restrictively deterred (see Jacobs, 2010), including robbery (Jacobs, Topalli, & Wright, 2000; Wright & Decker, 1997), burglary (Wright & Decker, 1994), auto theft (Cherbonneau & Copes, 2006, p. 201), and prostitution (Caputo, 2008; Holt, Blevins, & Kuhn, 2009).

[2] In today’s language sanction is analogous with cost, but for Bentham it could be positive or negative. In Latin, sanctio is the act of binding. For Bentham (1988 [1789], p. 25, fn1), sanctions are both the pleasures and pains that bind, or motivate, people to act in certain ways. In the present paper, sanction will be used only to refer to punishments, not rewards.

[3] Although not explicitly discussed in The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham does mention sympathetic sensibility: “the propensity that a man has to derive … pain from the unhappiness … of other sensitive beings” (Bentham, 1988 [1789], p. 50). This form of sanction is discussed at greater length in the lesser known writing of Bentham’s (2005 [1843]), “Logical Arrangements, or Instruments of Invention and Discovery, employed by Jeremy Bentham.”

[4] Bentham’s five sources of sanction are distinct from Bentham’s twelve types of pain; for information on the latter, see Chapter 5 of The Principles of Morals and Legislation, titled “Pleasures and Pains, Their Kinds.”

[5] For a comprehensive study of drug seriousness, see Nutt, King, & Phillips (2010).

[6] In criminology, the word “seriousness” has taken on multiple meanings. For some, seriousness is synonymous with our definition of magnitude; for instance, a more serious drug deal, robbery, or burglary is that which involves more money. For others, seriousness refers to how negatively people perceive it, or how severely it is punished by the community or government. A third approach to defining and, in turn, measuring seriousness is that of this paper. 

[7] Studies of supernatural deterrence analyze whether “non-believers” and “believers” differ in the likelihood of offending (Hirschi & Stark, 1969). As a whole, this body of work suggests that persons who are more religious and more involved in religious activities (e.g., attending church) are less likely to offend (Baier & Wright, 2001). But these studies are of deterrence generally, not restrictive deterrence. A study of religion and restrictive deterrence would analyze whether and how offenders’ fear of supernatural power limits the frequency, magnitude, and seriousness of their offenses through probabilistic reasoning or particularistic techniques.

[8] To protect the confidentiality of participants we cannot reveal the name of the town. Accordingly, we have not provided a full reference for the source information on the town’s statistics.

[9] For information on the different levels of the drug dealing hierarchy, see Sevigny and Caulkins (2004). For an examination of the differences, similarities, and connections between “social supply” and “real dealing,” see Taylor and Potter (2013).

[10] It is important to keep in mind that while criminals’ perceptions of sanctions can affect their behavior, the opposite is also true. In other words, how people act and what they consequently experience—such as avoiding or being subjected to punishment—can lead to particular perceptions about sanctions (see, e.g., Stafford & Warr, 1993). In all likelihood there is a cyclical process: perceptions of sanctions affect actions, and experiences with sanctions (including a lack thereof) affect such perceptions.

[11] Given the qualitative nature of our data we will refrain from suggesting whether these techniques are successful in avoiding sanction as that is far better suited to a quantitative design (see, e.g., Gallupe, Bouchard, & Caulkins, 2011).

[12] For a discussion of this sanction type in relation to offending generally, see Gottfredson & Hirschi (1990).

[13] It is possible that major suppliers who deal with many pounds or kilos of drugs take such precautions, although the extent of this is undocumented in the literature, as far as we know.

[14] It is important to recognize that fear does not wholly explain sellers making fewer sales than they could have. Some participants passed up on sales simply because they were not motivated to make any more “free drugs” or “extra cash” than they already had made or could expect to make from selling to a limited number of individuals.

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