The Rational Choice Theory states that crime is a rational decision to violate any law. It is made for many reasons, such as greed, revenge, need, anger, lust, jealousy, thrill-seeking or vanity. This theory has been passed down through many different time periods. During the early Middle Ages, there was superstition and fear that criminals were going through satanic possession. During the time of the Renaissance, they began to study human nature and behavior to figure out what causes criminal intention.
In the time on the Enlightenment, Jeremy Bentham incorporated the view that human behavior was a result of rational thoughts. The development of rational choice criminology is most identified with the thoughts of Cesare Beccaria. Criminals choose their crime based on the seriousness of the punishment. There are many characteristics that are believed to be true causes of criminality. These include poverty, intelligence quota, education and household. Criminals are rational actors that plan their crimes based on fear of punishment and deserved to be penalized for their misdeeds.
The literature supports that many criminals go through a rational choice process when committing crime. The purpose of this paper is to show why the legal system of the United States is based on this theory, and why it is a strong basis for the justice system. This paper will focus on burglary, and the various surveys collected to support rational choice in burglars.
The justice system of the United States is based heavily on the works of Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1833) and Cesare Beccaria (1738 1794). Their idea of criminology was a utilitarian one that is known as the classical school. This theory was based heavily on the underlying theory of rational choice. Rational Choice Theory states that criminals think about consequences when attempting crimes. They weigh rationally the good and bad consequences of their actions, and conclude whether or not committing the crime is a good risk. Many crimes, seem to be completely irrational, which would not support this theory. Both Bentham and Beccaria were utilitarians. The classical school promotes punishment for crime as a means of deterrence. “Because people are morally self-centered, they must be afraid of punishment to overpower their natural tendencies towards crime” (Cornish and Clarke, 1986a). The Classical School held the attention of American criminologists throughout the 19th century. Other theories originated after this time and the theory was set aside for some time. About the 1970s, higher crime rates and public fear called for a resurgence of Classical Theory. This came to be known as Choice Theory. In a 1975 book, by James Q. Wilson, purported a tough on crime approach, which was readily adopted by politicians of the era and today, to alleviate the fears of the public (Wilson, 1983). This harsh punishment outlook is still present in much of today’s political policy.
As a basis for all of these theories, and an extension of these theories is Rational Choice Theory. Rational Choice theory assumes that the criminal is first a rational being. “It assumes second that he considers his crime rationally, weighing both personal factors, such as being poor, wanting excitement or entertainment and situational factors, such as the availability of the target, the likelihood of being caught, and the seriousness of the crime” (Cornish and Clark, 1986b). Many are confused as to the meaning of these assumptions, especially the latter. When speaking of a criminal considering things rationally, many assume that this is a long process and do not believe that criminals undergo this process. “The rational choice approach, however, does not define this as a long process” (Cornish and Clark, 1986a.) Rather, it can occur in the matter of a few moments, or can be a plan worked on for months. Some crimes are more difficult to explain using rational choice theory. The first would be drug use. “However, one must consider the personal factors and see that, for the drug user, the thrill or excitement is likely to outweigh the likelihood of being caught. So, initially, the drug use is a rational choice” (Petraitis et al., 1995). Drug addiction is an unavoidable consequence of these actions, and will then affect the personal factors being weighed before committing a crime. When need for a drug is calculated in, many crimes that would have otherwise been discarded may be committed by this more highly motivated offender.
When looking at most crimes where monetary gain is an outcome, it is most obvious why Rational Choice Theory is appropriate. As for street crimes, especially violent ones, it is more difficult. Consider assault. “Studies have shown that perpetrators rationally consider their victims based on availability and ease of submission as well as based on personal factors, such as saving face before friends” (Liska and Bellair, 1995). Another proponent of Rational Choice Theory was Oscar Newman. He wrote a great deal about defensible space and Crime Prevention Through Environmental design. He believed that natural surveillance and other factors of opportunity influence crime (Newman, 1972). This theory of CPTED was based upon the idea of OTREP, that is Opportunity is the result of Target, Risk, Effort, and Payoff (Cornish and Clark, 1986b). The assumption of this is that criminals weigh these factors before committing a crime (Kaplan et al., 1978). Although Rational Choice Theory is the basis for the Classical School theory, it is also a modern extension of it. Modern Rational Choice theorists analyze crime as offender-specific and offense-specific. “Offense-specific focuses more on the situational aspects of the rational choice and offender-specific focuses on the personal aspects of the decision” (Cornish and Clark, 1987).
The crime that this paper will focus on is burglary. Burglary is an appropriate focus, because it is a crime that involves a monetary gain and therefore can be evaluated most easily by rational choice theory. Bennett (1986), Bennett and Wright (1984), and Repetto (1974) found that adjudicated burglars made clear choices in considering when and where to commit their offenses. Their findings were supported by various experimental investigations of burglars choices of targets. However, it is important for modern political policy to note that they found that various inhibiting factors did not impede all of the crime. Wright and Decker (1994) in a study of a large number of burglars in St. Louis, report that many burglars consider a potential target before committing the offense. Many of these targets are known to the offender through personal interaction with the victims or information ascertained through second parties. The offenders reported being aware always of potential targets and constantly scanning in search of new opportunities. Wright and Decker (1995), however, do not believe these burglars acted rationally. In a study of burglar alarms in suburban areas, found that burglars are likely to choose a home within three blocks of a major thoroughfare, a home located on a relatively secluded, one more expensive than its neighbors, a home that had been purchased or rented recently, and one that did not have an alarm system installed. They further found that some precautions based on folk wisdom were ineffective, such as barking dogs, while others were effective, such as having good lighting and a security system sign displayed in the yard as well as a car in the driveway. Although burglary is well explained by rational choice theory, many other crimes are also explained well by the theory, such as black widow crimes, drug use as was entailed earlier, and even street crimes such as theft, larceny and most crimes for profit. The only crimes that cannot be described using this theory are crimes committed by an irrational individual. That is why our legal system is set up so that an insane person will be treated rather than convicted, because it is based on this Rational Choice Theory.
Rational Choice Theory is a basis for a law in conjunction with social contract theory. The basic utilitarian concepts, underlying law are combined with the idea that people are essentially selfish, and thus the laws must be created and enforced to maintain a utilitarian balance. Politically, this theory is of utmost importance. The current consensus of the American public is for harsher punishment for crimes. The policies being implemented today are based on the theory that these people can be deterred if the situational consequences, the punishment, outweigh their personal gains. The laws of our society are based still on the lex talons view of a punishment for every crime. Of all theories of criminality, only this theory and its counterparts lend the responsibility for criminal activity to the criminal alone and refuse the notion that other factors are the causes. The other factors are merely considerations of the main causal factor the criminal. This theory will always maintain in popularity among the people because law-abiding citizens maintain order the power of will, and prefer to think of criminals in this indeterministic manner as well. Future laws will most likely, therefore, be even harsher on crime, as the public no longer wants to blame themselves. We will build more, even bigger prisons, and produce more, and harsher sentences for criminals, while still not addressing the problem of recidivism and where deterrence does not function.
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