16. Environmental Criminology

16.6 Rational Choice Theory

Antonio Robert Verbora

The third theoretical framework to be discussed in this chapter is rational choice theory. This theory was first posited in 1987 by Ronald Clarke and Derek Cornish. Rational choice is used to understand a criminal event. For example, if we look at property crime, it is a crime often committed for immediate monetary gain. The complexities of this theory are most often seen when we look at non-property violent crime (i.e., crimes not seen as rational). The fundamental concept within rational choice theory is rationality. Rationality refers to the role of reasoning in human behaviour and views crime as the outcome of an individual thinking through the possible rewards and downsides of a criminal act.

Rational choice theory purports that a potential offender must make four primary choices: (1) whether or not to commit a crime, (2) whether or not to select a particular target, (3) how frequently to offend, and (4) whether or not to desist from crime. Each of these primary choices is discussed in more detail in Table 16.3 below.

Table 16.3: Rational Choice Theory: Four Primary Choices for a Potential Offender
Whether or not to commit a crime There is a plethora of reasons as to why an individual may commit a crime (e.g., psychological, familial, social, and economical). However, here, crime is still seen as a decision, as we are not coerced into a life of crime. There is a clear conscious choice in becoming an offender (see Clark & Cornish, 1987).  “Legitimate and illegitimate opportunities are considered and the “best” choice for that individual is made. Sometimes, the rational choice is to offend” (Andresen, 2010, p. 30).
Whether or not to select a particular target The rational choice of whether or not to select a particular target is of utmost importance. Potential offenders must interpret cues given off by the environment to decide upon what or whom to offend: Is the target valuable enough to risk getting caught? Is the area familiar to the offender? Are there potential guardians in close proximity
How frequently to offend The rational choice regarding how often to offend is mainly dependent on a number of factors: the potential offender’s social network, peer influences, monetary (or other) needs, and their ability to successfully avoid detection. The main point here is that frequency is still a choice.
Whether or not to desist from crime Desisting from crime or continuing crime is another rational choice. A potential offender could have issues with committing a crime: exhausting targets, age-related issues, getting detected – all of which are internal issues. On the other hand, getting married, suffering from an injury, or being offered employment represent external issues that interfere with a life of crime.

 An important point about rational choice theory is the following: if a person commits a property crime, for example, this does not mean this same person will commit a sexual assault. The environmental cues for one crime (e.g., automotive theft) differs from those of another crime (e.g., sexual assault). This can apply to both the frequency of offending and desistance from offending.  With that said, Cornish and Clark (1987) argue against any general rational choice theory of crime.  To understand and/or implement a rational choice theory of crime, we must consider “the rational choices for each type of crime as independent from all others” (Andresen, 2010, pp. 31-32; Cornish & Clark, 1987).

To conclude, it is important to discuss how rational choice theory fits into environment criminology. Environmental criminology is closely connected with situational crime prevention. Situational crime prevention attempts to reduce the opportunity for specific crimes by permanently manipulating the immediate environment. For example, to prevent stealing, some stores have installed electronic access control inserts. This is a practical strategy that focuses primarily on preventing criminal events.  Theories in environmental criminology assume that because offenders behave in a rational manner, we are able to predict their actions, prevent further crime, and reduce crime hot spot activity.  This is all to say that rational choice relates to environmental criminology in terms of the interplay between individual reasoning and environmental cues and situational crime prevention manipulates the environment to specifically act on the rational calculations of potential offenders.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Antonio Robert Verbora is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book