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“Rational Choice” and Opportunity Theories

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“Rational Choice” Theories and
Situational Crime Prevention
“Rational Choice Theory”
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Economics (language, theory)
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“Expected Utility” = calculation of all risks and
rewards
Note: This is much broader than deterrence
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Includes risks not associated with criminal justice
Same assumptions as deterrence theory
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Human nature = rational, calculating, hedonistic
This is because “economic theory”
(supply/demand, rational consumers) has same
“classical school” roots
Rationality Assumption
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How “RATIONAL” is the offender?
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PURE = only expected utility (rational calculation
of risk/reward) matters
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Few, if any, take this position
LIMITED = then, what else matters?
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CORNISH AND CLARKE good example
Cornish and Clarke (1986)
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Crime as a Rational Choice
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Criminal Involvement: the decision to engage in
crime (versus other activity)
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Criminal Event: factors that influence the decision
to commit a specific crime
Criminal Involvement
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Choices to become involved in crime, to
continue in crime, and to desist from crime
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Each (involvement, continuance, desistence)
need separate explanation
Involvement decisions are multistage and multifactor, extending over long time periods
Example of factors that explain initial
involvement:
Background Factors
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temperament, intelligence, cognitive style, sex, class,
education, neighborhood, broken home…
Previous experience
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Direct and vicarious learning, moral attitudes, selfperception, foresight and planning
Solutions evaluated
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Degree of effort, amount/immediacy of reward,
likelihood and severity of punishment, moral costs
Criticisms
What happened to our “rational” offender guided by
“free will?”
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In their models, rational thinking and free will are very
constrained/limited
Not much different from other theories of crime
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control theory…
At what point does their theory cease to be a “rational
choice” model and start to become a learning, social
control, IQ theory of crime?
Example of Continuance in Burglary
Increased Professionalism
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pride in skills, reduce risk (better planning), acquire
fencing contacts, skill in dealing with criminal justice
system
Changes in Lifestyle and Values
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choose work to facilitate burglaries, enjoy “life in fast
lane,” devalue legitimate work
Changes in Peer group
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lose contact with prosocial friends, labeled as criminal,
quarrels with family...
The Criminal Event
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Focus on predictors of specific crimes, look at
immediate (situational) factors
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Area
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e.g., what might lead a person to commit a burglaries in
middle class neighborhood?
Easily accessible, few police patrols, low security
Home
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anyone home?, especially wealthy, detached, bushes/other
cover, dog, security system...
Evaluating Rational Choice
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Empirical Support?
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Criminal Involvement
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Criminal Event
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Ethnographic research suggests limited (if any)
rational reasoning or weighing of costs/benefits.
Ethnographic research somewhat supportive, but
many crimes suggest limited appraisals.
Parsimony and Scope?
Policy Implication?
Routine Activities Theory
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Cohen and Felson (1979): “Crime and
Everyday Life”
Crime as the Convergence in Time and
Space of Three Factors
1. Motivated Offenders (typically ignored)
2. Suitable Targets
3. Lack of Capable Guardianship
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Scope: “Direct-Contact Predatory Crimes”
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Felsonпѓ in 1990s extended to white collar
crime, drug crime
Motivated offenders taken for granted
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Assumption is that they are always present
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Criticized for this (really a theory of crime?)
Really explains “victimization” or the “criminal
event”
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Similar to Cornish and Clarke in that respect
Suitable Targets
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Value ($, ability to fence)
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Some universal ($) some dependent upon
offenders environment
Visibility (sights and sounds)
Inertia (why autos are victimized, high tech
movement)
Access (cul-de-sac vs open-ended street,
garage parking vs. street parking)
Lack of Capable Guardianship
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Protection from police??
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Informal social control
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Less emphasis in this over time
“…not usually someone who brandishes a gun or
threatens an offender with quick punishment, but
rather someone whose mere presence serves as
a gentle reminder that someone is looking.”
Strength in numbers
Time spent at home
Evaluating Routine Activities Theory
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Empirical Support
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Household activity ratio related to crime
Criminal “Hotspots” within high crime areas
Prison Studies (% time outside of cell)
Victimization Studies
Criticism? Confirming common sense.
Environmental Criminology and
Situational Crime Prevention and
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Environmental Criminology
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An umbrella term (catch-all) to describe
opportunity theories that focus on the criminal
event (e.g., routine activity theory)
Situational Crime Prevention
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A policy implication of routine activities/RCT (not a
specific theory)
Policy Implications
Deterrence vs. Environmental Crim
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In deterrence theory, if the CJS (e.g., threat
of arrest/imprisonment) is not effective, the
only other option is incapacitation.
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This has been the preferred U.S. strategy
Environmental Criminology suggests that we
can remove or limit the opportunity to offend
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This has been the preferred strategy in the UK
Benefit of this approach over incapacitation??
Examples of Situational Crime Prevention
(Ronald Clarke)
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Increase the perceived effort of crime
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Increase perceived risks of crime
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Target hardening (better window locks)
Control access to targets (electronic access to parking
garage)
Natural surveillance (street lights, defensible space)
Formal surveillance (red light/speed cameras)
Reduce anticipated rewards of crime
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Reduce targets (removable car radios, women’s refuges)
Deny benefits (prompt graffiti cleaning)
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