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This first of two posts on Rational Choice Theory (RCT) provides an overview of a key New Right theory whose central argument about criminal rationality underpins a range of later Right Realist explanations for crime.

Rational Choice Theory (RCT) is one of a group of theories – including Broken Windows and Routine Activities Theory – that applies ideas developed to explain economic behaviour – in particular the idea individuals are rational and self-interested – to the explanation of criminal behaviour. The theory reflects, as Wilson (1983) puts it, the idea that “some scholars, especially economists, believe that the decision to become a criminal can be explained in much the same way as we explain the decision to become a carpenter or to buy a car”.

Gary Becker

While ideas about individual self-interest and rational choices in economic behaviour are well-established, their application to crime and criminal motivations, initially through the work of economists such as Becker (1968), gives them a contemporary twist that can be outlined in the following way:

1. Offenders are not qualitatively different to non-offenders

There’s nothing in the sociological or psychological background of offenders that either causes or explains their offending. To take a simple example: while many poor, deprived, individuals commit crimes, many more from the same social background do not.

A key concept here is agency: the idea people make choices about their behaviour that are neither determined nor necessarily influenced by their social and / or psychological backgrounds. Rather, choices are made in the context of particular situations – particularly the opportunities that are available for the commission of crimes.

2. Choosing crime

If, as writers such as Wilson (1983) claim, there are no sociological or psychological “root causes” of crime, offending is explained at the level of the individual and the choices they make: the criminological objective, therefore, is to explain how and why some people make decisions that ultimately lead to crime.

3. Opportunities

The first piece of this criminological puzzle is the extent to which opportunities for crime present themselves within an individual’s social and physical environments. For RCT, different criminal choices arise within different environments and the opportunities they present – or do not present – for criminal behaviour.

A purse lying in full view in an open bag, for example, is a criminal opportunity in a way that the same purse securely locked away out of sight is not.

4. Benefits and Costs

The second piece of the puzzle for RCT is that when a criminal opportunity is presented the potential offender acts on the basis of a rational assessment of the likely benefits (or rewards) and costs of offending.

In the case of an unguarded purse, for example, a rational assessment of the likely benefits of stealing it (it may contain something valuable, such as cash, credit cards or jewellery) – is set against the potential costs of such an action. How likely is the offender to be caught, for example, and what might happen if they are?

If, in the light of a rational assessment of costs and benefits in relation to the criminal opportunity, an individual believes the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs then a crime is likely to be committed; if the reverse is true, the opportunity will be rejected.

Controlling Crime

Although RCT has a number of implications for crime control and prevention, two main ones to note are:

a. Increasing the Costs…

One obvious implication of an RCT approach is that in order to cut crime / reduce offending a society needs to increase the likely costs of crime (such as being caught and punished), so they outweigh any possible benefits.

b. Reducing the Benefits…

A second crime-reduction strand to RCT is the idea of making crime less profitable through a range of “target hardening” strategies. Examples here are many and varied, but might include things like installing an alarm to deter a burglar, making car theft more difficult through a range of technological improvements, indelibly marking personal property and so forth.

In general, therefore, RCT argues that the way to reduce and control crime is to make it more difficult, time-consuming, stressful and less financially and emotionally rewarding for the offender. This is accomplished by using a range of situational crime prevention techniques that reduce opportunities for crime coupled with retributive measures (imprisonment, lack of parole and lengthy prison sentences) that raise the potential costs of offending.

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