Choice theories of crime and violence are based on the assumption that humans can exercise free will and that people make rational decisions. According to this view, delinquents choose to act improperly, just as nondelinquents choose to act properly. These theories suggest that youths choose to behave in certain ways based on personal desires such as revenge, survival, greed, or ethics. Choice theories further assume that based on these desires, youths carefully weigh the costs and benefits (or pleasure and pain) of their actions when making decisions. They assume that most delinquents would not commit crimes if the cost (pain) of such actions were greater than the benefit (pleasure) derived from them. Put another way, criminal behavior becomes more appealing if the rewards outweigh the potential punishments.
More than two centuries ago, philosophers Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) theorized that people make life choices (including crime) in this way. This general theory of crime is known today as the classical school of criminology.
The classical school theory states that, to deter or prevent crime, the cost (pain) of the punishment for the crime must outweigh the benefits (pleasure) of the unlawful gain. Classical criminologists further argue that punishments must be swift, sure, and severe. Punishments must be swift, after the person has been proved guilty, to connect in the offender’s mind to the crime and the punishment. Punishments must be sure, so the offender (and society) can both see and learn from the imposed punishment (i.e., crime does not pay). Finally, punishments must be severe, but only severe enough to deter offenders from committing crime; punishments should be more severe for more severe crimes (i.e., let the punishment fit the crime). This classical approach to punishment for crime and violence has been termed “utilitarianism.”
The modern counterpart to the classical school of criminology is called “neoclassical” criminology. Under this view, it is assumed that delinquents “choose” crime in a deliberate, rational manner. “Rational choice” theory assumes that delinquents are constantly acquiring and analyzing information, with their “rational” analysis leading them to the conclusion that crime is a lucrative enterprise where the benefits outweigh the risks. An example would be youth gangs selling drugs, where gang members view drugs as illegal but a productive business enterprise. Rational choice theory views both legal and illegal youth behavior as a personal decision, in which the youth evaluates the criminal opportunity, the potential for success, personal values, and the likelihood of getting caught and punished.
In 1992, researcher Felix Padilla studied juvenile delinquents–gang members– selling drugs for profit. Padilla observed that gang members acted much like traditional employers; that is, they offered job skills and security to juveniles in the drug trade, rationalizing that membership would help them achieve business success that would be impossible in the “legitimate” business world. The perception by some youths that an economic ladder does not exist in the legitimate business world is a main driver of delinquency in rational choice theory. Indeed, Padilla noted that the best solution to youth crime would likely be the institution of policies that would prompt would-be offenders to choose legitimate career paths over criminal ones.
A different take on choice theory was offered by sociologist Jack Katz in his 1988 book, Seductions of Crime. Katz theorized that youth commit crimes and violence because of the “thrill.” According to his argument, delinquents do not need to gain materially from crimes and violence; they must simply get a thrill or rush from them. This theory explains many crimes in which the delinquent does not materially benefit from the act, such as vandalism, graffiti, and the violent defense of meaningless turfs. According to Katz’s theory, committing a crime satisfies a delinquent’s need to challenge moral boundaries and reject societal expectations. Subsequent studies have supported Katz’s “seduction of crime” theory. For example, in 1995, Bill McCarthy updated Katz’s research, with similar findings. McCarthy found that delinquents are more likely to be caught up in the thrill of crime or violence if the potential for loss of respect of their peers or the risk of punishment is low.
As an alternative to this view, researchers Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson developed the routine activities theory of crime and violence. They argued that structural changes in routine activity patterns can influence crime rates by affecting the convergence in time and space of the three minimal elements of direct-contact predatory violations: (1) motivated offenders, (2) suitable targets, and (3) absence of capable guardians against a violation. Cohen and Felson further argued that the lack of any one of these elements is sufficient to prevent successful completion of a direct-contact predatory crime. Also, the convergence in time and space of suitable targets and the absence of capable guardians may lead to large increases in crime rates without necessarily requiring any increase in the structural conditions that motivate individuals to engage in crime.
The routine activities theory makes no attempt to define a “motivated” offender. Indeed, it assumes that all people are potential offenders and that the structure and organization of daily activities may motivate anyone to become a criminal. The only articulated criteria are that the offender have criminal inclinations and the ability to carry them out. The target must be something of value to the offender or something that gives the offender a thrill or pleasure. A suitable target must also be something the offender is physically capable of acting against in a criminal sense in terms of size or weight; it must be available spatially and temporally as well. “Capable guardians” are not just police or organized security guards in a formal sense, but rather may include anyone or anything capable of guarding a suitable target. Any average person may be a capable guardian for a potential suitable target. Also, a physical or electronic device (i.e., a lock or alarm) may serve as a capable guardian. Routine activities theory holds that the manipulation of one or more of these factors would likely reduce youth crimes and violence.
Prevention of juvenile crime and violence under choice theories can be achieved by making the punishments severe enough that the crime is not worth the act, or by making the crime difficult enough that the gain is not worth the risk. Under choice theories, crime prevention strategies have developed based on two premises: (1) deterrence and (2) situational crime avoidance.
The deterrence concept maintains that the choice to commit delinquent acts can be minimized by the threat of punishment. A core principle of deterrence is that the more certain, swift, and severe a punishment is, the more likely a juvenile will avoid that behavior. While deterrence as a crime prevention theory may make sense, using punishment to deter juveniles is problematic. In the criminal justice system, minors cannot be, and are not, punished like adults. This difference has a major impact on deterrence theory as a viable instrument is controlling youth crime. As a consequence, many critics suggest that trying to deter delinquency with legal punishment is futile.
Situational crime prevention appears more promising as a means for reducing juvenile crime. Its strategies focus on making crime more difficult, so that would-be delinquents find the risk of apprehension and punishment not worth the reward of crime. Situational crime strategies rely on (1) increasing the effort a delinquent must perform to commit a crime, (2) increasing the risks in committing a crime, and/or (3) reducing the rewards. These efforts typically involve “target-hardening techniques” such as installing alarms and installing security cameras, or increasing the number of a location’s security guards.
Other strategies involve police “crackdowns” at crime “hotspots.” A crackdown is a strategy used by police in which tremendous law enforcement efforts are concentrated on a certain part of a city or a neighborhood. The crackdown focuses on a hotspot–a relatively small part of city or area where a significant portion of police calls originate. The goal of a crackdown is to lower delinquency through an overwhelming show of force.
While the logic of choice theories is difficult to refute, these theories fail to explain irrational youth crimes such as drug abuse, vandalism, and violence. Moreover, these theories do not answer the question of why some youths continually choose to commit crimes even after they have been caught and punished, sometimes severely. Choice theories are valuable is assessing crime patterns and understanding criminal events, but they do not adequately explain why some youths are “motivated” to be delinquent offenders. Other theories covered in this book are more useful in analyzing why some youths are prompted to commit crime and violence while others chose a more law-abiding lifestyle.
- Beccaria, C. (1977). On crimes and punishment, 6th ed. Trans. Henry Paolucci. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Bentham, J. (1967). A fragment on government and an introduction to the principles of orals and legislation. Ed. Wilfred Harrison. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
- Katz, J. (1988). Seductions of crime. New York: Basic Books.
- Padilla, F. (1992). The gangs as an American enterprise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Wilson, J. Q. (1985). Thinking about crime. New York: Basic Books.