Although many people obey laws because they feel obliged to do so, the possible sanctions for violating laws also matter. As Hoebel (1954:26) eloquently states, “The law has teeth, teeth that can bite if need be, although they need not necessarily be bared.” The sanctions recognized and used by legal systems are usually diverse. In primitive societies, sanctions may take the form of cruel punishments or social ostracism. In modern legal systems, the administration of sanctions is, as a general rule, entrusted to the organs of political government. These sanctions may include punishment by fine or imprisonment; the imposition of damage awards; the ordering by a court of specific actions at the threat of a penalty; and, rarely, the impeachment and removal of a public officer for dereliction of duty. As Hans Kelsen (1967:35) once noted, the sanctions characteristic of modern legal systems go beyond the exercise of merely psychological pressure, and authorize the performance of disadvantageous coercive acts, namely, “the forcible deprivation of life, freedom, economics and other values as a consequence of certain conditions.”
Robert B. Seidman (1978:100) pointed out that “laws more or less consistent with the existing social order need not rely upon the threat of legal sanction to induce behavior.” However, not all laws are consistent with the existing social order, and an advantage of the law as an agent of social change is that actual or perceived risk and the severity of sanctions may deter potential violation of the law. Even the threat of sanctions can deter people from disobedience. Sanctions may also work because they may induce a moralistic attitude toward compliance (Schwartz and Orleans, 1970).
The types of possible sanctions vary with the purposes and goals of a law or legal policy.
An essential distinction is whether the main purpose of a law is to prevent individuals from doing things that others in society oppose as being harmful or immoral, or whether the purpose of the law is to create new types of relationships or policies involving groups or individuals (Grossman and Grossman, 1971). The distinction is not always perfect.
The former purpose, preventing harmful or immoral behaviors, usually involves negative sanctions (punishment), while the latter purpose may involve both positive sanctions (rewards) and negative sanctions (Friedland, 1989). Rewards, such as federal contracts or subsidies, are frequently part of regulatory statutes attempting to change established patterns of economic behavior and have been used widely as an incentive for compliance with desegregation laws. Those who violate such laws not only lose prospective rewards but also may be liable for fines or criminal penalties. Grossman and Grossman (1971:70) point out: “Laws or statutes which seek positive societal changes of major proportion must rely as much on education and persuasion as on negative sanctions. For the carrot and stick approach to be successful, the latter must be visible and occasionally used”.
The circumstances are different where the changes sought through the law are the reduction or the elimination of deviant behaviors. In such instances, the law does not provide rewards or incentives to dissuade individuals from committing such acts—only the possibility, if not the certainty, of detection and punishment. In such instances, the emphasis is on deterrence and punishment, and the aim is to eliminate or reduce a particular behavior considered harmful.