16. Environmental Criminology

16.7 Pattern Theory

Antonio Robert Verbora

(often referred to as crime pattern theory) is the last theoretical perspective that will be addressed in this chapter. Pattern theory is important to environmental criminology because it aids in our understanding of the importance of place in crime prevention efforts. This theory combines “rational choice and routine activity theory to help explain the distribution of crime across places.” (Eck & Weisburd, 2015, p. 6). It also combines elements of geometric theory, as it is concerned with the built environment and how it shapes the geographic distribution of crime.

To reiterate, routine activity theory seeks to explain the occurrence of crime events as the accumulation of several circumstances (Cohen & Felson, 1979), with the inclusion of a motivated offender, a desirable target, and the absence of a capable guardian. Conversely, rational choice theory helps in illustrating how offenders often select targets and define means to achieve their goals in a manner that can be explained (here, location is important). Geometric theory demonstrates how individuals develop an individual awareness space that consists of their major routine activity nodes (i.e., activity spaces, such as home, school, and workplaces) and the pathways that connect them and everything within the visual range of the offender.

One of the first similarities amongst these three environmental criminological theories is that the environment is important in understanding a criminal event. Our routine activities and the decisions we make regarding those activities and/or movements – can be determined by the physical, social, legal, and psychological environment. “Within that environment are our routine activities that are undertaken within our activity space” (Andresen, 2010, p. 35). Here, we can develop a in which crime could perhaps occur or be prevented there is a rational choice of whether or not to commit a crime. If we modify our routine activities, activity space, and awareness, we can change and/or reinforce this crime template. Rational choices exist at each and every stage of the pattern.

According to Brantingham and Brantingham (1993), pattern theory examines the ways targets come to the attention of offenders and how this influences the distribution of crime events over time and space, (Eck & Weisburd, 2015). Essential to pattern theory is the notion of place since place can influence the occurrence of a crime. The reason why routine activity theory is important here is because pattern theory “links place with desirable targets and the context within which they are found by focusing on how places come to the attention of potential offenders” (Eck & Weisburd, 2015, p. 7). For example, if you are given a high-crime location, a pattern theorist would look at how an offender (1) established and then (2) gained access to the particular place where the crime was committed. The difference here with just using routine activity theory is that we would instead focus on the behaviours of the targets, the potential absence of a capable guardian, etc. Places are of interest to a pattern theorist because of their location and relationship to the environment (Eck & Weisburd, 2015). On the other hand, for a routine activity theorist, the types of people present and absent from the location are the reason that places are impactful and important within the crime event equation or within the commission of crimes.

Pattern theory explains and in crime. This is because the location of the potential criminal activity could be higher during the day and lower during the night or vice versa depending on the type of crime. Domestic assault, for example, may be lower during the day when family members/friends are in different locations and higher at night when they are all together. Some households are vacant during the day (e.g., work or school-related), whereas businesses/facilities are often vacant at night.  In this case, offenders are more likely to commit a crime at those locations when targets (i.e., buildings) are vulnerable. And although the complexities of pattern theory involve a number of factors that must be considered to understand of the criminal event, it illustrates how all three environmental criminological theories are connected. This is important in understanding (1) the criminal event and (2) the cohesiveness of the field of environmental criminology.


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

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