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This theory draws on the Classical School represented by the works of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. In particular, it assumes that the rational decision is always the decision that will maximise gain and minimise pain for each individual: the felicitation principle that underpinned the penal policy of deterrence. Hence, if the actor is rational, the state can influence any given decision by ensuring that the system for investigating criminal activity will swiftly detect the person responsible and the system of law enforcement through the courts will dispense sufficient pain to each offender so that there will be both specific deterrence (i.e. that particular offender will never choose to break the law again), and general deterrence (other potential criminals, observing the punishment of the one offender, will be deterred from following in his or her footsteps (Keel: 1997).

The Neoclassical School continues the traditional view that the punishment imposed by the state for the crime represents the deterrent. However, they depart from the original theory by increasing the severity of sentences and limiting judicial discretion, e.g. as in the United States with the three strikes law. This emphasises the social value of punishment rather than seeing punishment as an offender's just deserts in a system of retributive justice. It uses the offender as a symbol through which to send a message to society, rather than as a human being who should be judged on his or her merits. This view has certain moral implications and high costs in maintaining a prison system for an increasing number of prisoners. Research has consistently shown that certainty of arrest rather than severity of punishment is the major deterrent, the statistics have shown a steady increase in reported crime, and experiments in rehabilitation have failed to prevent recidivism. It was therefore argued that the existing theories failed to provide a workable solution to the crime problem. Thus, Rational Choice Theory focuses on prevention as a deterrent to crime rather than punishment, and the modern exponents differ from the Classical School by making allowances for factors such as morality, inaccurate information, and fear. Clarke (1997: 9-10) posits that, "...crime is purposive behaviour designed to meet the offender’s commonplace needs for such things as money, status, sex, excitement, and that meeting these needs involves the making of (sometimes quite rudimentary) decisions and choices, constrained as they are by limits of time and ability and the availability of relevant information." i.e., offenders make decisions that appear rational to themselves, and they can be persuaded not to engage in crime. Clarke also draws on the work of Gary Becker (1968) and the economic theories of crime and punishment but, unlike economic theories that ignore non-cash equivalent rewards, Clarke acknowledges that crime has a reckless element as opposed to the pure self-maximizing decision-making (Clarke, 1997: 9).


The theory has its source in Drift Theory (Matza: 1964) where people use the techniques of neutralisation to drift in and out of delinquent behaviour, and in the Systematic Crime Theory (an aspect of Social Disorganisation Theory developed by the Chicago School), where Edwin Sutherland proposed that the failure of families and extended kin groups expands the realm of relationships no longer controlled by the community, and undermines governmental controls. This leads to persistent "systematic" crime and delinquency. He also believed that such disorganisation causes and reinforces the cultural traditions and cultural conflicts that support antisocial activity. The systematic quality of the behaviour was a reference to repetitive, patterned or organised offending as opposed to random events. He depicted the law-abiding culture as dominant and more extensive than alternative criminogenic cultural views and capable of overcoming systematic crime if organised for that purpose (1939: 8). In a similar vein, Cohen and Felson (1979) developed Routine Activities Theory which focuses on the characteristics of crime rather than the characteristics of the offender. This is one of the main theories of environmental criminology as an aspect of Crime Prevention Theory. It states that for a crime to occur, three elements must be present, i.e. there must be:

  • an available and suitable target;
  • a motivated offender; and
  • no authority figure to prevent the crime from happening.

Routine Activities Theory relates the pattern of offending to the everyday patterns of social interaction. Between 1960 and 1980, women left the home to work which led to social disorganisation, i.e. the routine of leaving the home unattended and without an authority figure increased probability of criminal activity. The theory is supplemented by the crime triangle or the problem analysis triangle [1] which is used in the analysis both of a crime problem by reference to the three parameters of victim, location, and offender, and of an intervention strategy by reference to the parameters of target/victim, location and absence of a capable guardian with the latter helping to think more constructively about responses as well as analysis.

Situational crime prevention

Crime Prevention Theory, as proposed by Clarke (1995, 1997), focuses on reducing crime opportunities rather than on the characteristics of criminals or potential criminals. The strategy is to increase the associated risks and difficulties, and reduce the rewards. It asserts that crime is often committed through the accident of a practical or attractive opportunity, e.g. that a car is found unlocked or a window left open. Patterns in criminal activity are not simply based on where criminals live, but also reflect a concentration of opportunities for crime constituting "hot spots". For example, theft may concentrate on particular "hot products" and some repeat victims are more likely to experience crime than other people. Shoplifting and mugging may be endemic to identifiable locations. Hence, by using statistical data, enforcement resources can target areas, and education can reduce the number of opportunities. See crime mapping, Chainey & Ratcliffe (2005).

Rational Choice Theory

Through Rational Choice Theory, Cornish and Clarke (1986) describe crime as an event that occurs when an offender decides to risk breaking the law after considering his or her own need for money, personal values or learning experiences and how well a target is protected, how affluent the neighbourhood is or how efficient the local police are. Before committing a crime, the reasoning criminal weighs the chances of getting caught, the severity of the expected penalty, the value to be gained by committing the act, and his or her immediate need for that value. Sutton describes how Clark links Crime Prevention Theory to Rational Choice Theory by his proposed set of opportunity reduction techniques. The intention is to increase the perceived effort necessary to commit a crime, or increase the perceived risks of apprehension, or reduce the anticipated rewards of a crime, or remove the excuses to compliance with the law. (Clarke, 1997: 15-25). The intention would be to design out crime, i.e. to make the disincentives to the commission of crime consistently outweigh the potential benefits. This would involve concerted efforts by the manufacturers of standard equipment prone to theft, to design in better security systems so that stolen goods cannot be used without a PIN or can be tracked. It also involves the adoption of surveillance technology to tag goods in stores electronically, instal camera systems to monitor behavior, improve street lighting, have more police officers on patrol, assist householders to improve their home security, etc. A co-ordinated strategy would potentially prevent more crime and so be more cost-effective than imprisoning the few offenders that are currently apprehended. This theory is predicated on the assumption that humans have sets of hierarchically ordered preferences, or utilities. By reducing the opportunities for the commission of crimes and "target hardening", i.e. making it more difficult to break into houses or to steal from shops, and encouraging more authority figures to assume responsibility, potential offenders will be deterred. There is some criticism that better protecting one area will simply displace crime into a less well protected area but the evidence is as yet equivocal on whether displacement does occur. However, the main problem is in re-ordering the political priorities away from a penal-orientation and in favour of a prevention strategy. At present, many states have invested heavily in the former and see no immediate need to change their policies.

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