Rational Choice Theory

4. Applications

Think for a moment about what deterrence theory and RCT say about what causes crime: Crime will occur whenever a would-be offender thinks that the advantages or benefits of crime outweigh both the costs of crime and the benefits and costs of non-crime. This means that there are several different avenues by which to pursue public policy if one wanted to reduce crime through an appeal to RCT. To reduce crime, one or all of the four following general actions could be taken:

  • A. Increase the cost of crime.
  • B. Increase the benefits of non-crime.
  • C. Reduce the benefits of crime.
  • D. Reduce the costs of non-crime.

Sometimes these policy paths would overlap such that when we increase the cost of crime we may also be increasing the benefits of non-crime. However, with these four general points in mind, we can briefly explore the crime-reduction possibilities of RCT.

A. Increase the Cost of Crime

One of the most frequently taken paths of criminal justice policy is to enhance the formal penalties for crime with the expectation that such an increase will lower the commission of that particular crime (and maybe others, if there is a spillover effect whereby if we punish more severely for Crime X it also inhibits people from committing Crime Y). Readers who think about the major criminal justice response to the increase in crime during the 1990s and early 21st century will discover that most states responded by increasing the number of people in prison and increasing the length of time inmates were spending in prison. A reduced use of probation, “get tough on crime” judges, “three strikes and you’re out” policies, increased use of the death penalty, the end of parole, and greater use of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are but a few of the criminal justice “reforms” that have taken place over the past 20 to 25 years. If you ask yourself, “What was the expectation that policymakers had when they created these programs?” you will quickly conclude that the policymakers thought that by increasing the certainty of punishment (the number of people who go to prison) and the severity of punishment (how long people stay there), crime will be reduced. They thought this because they assumed (either implicitly or explicitly) that offenders and would-be offenders are rational beings who take into account the costs and benefits of their behavior, and if a behavior is made more costly with enhanced punishment, then rational people will be disinclined to commit it.

Whether they realize it or not, proponents of a “get tough on crime” stance usually are assuming a rational choice view of crime. In fact, rational choice assumptions permeate the criminal justice system and form its foundation. Former President Bill Clinton made as one of the important supports of his crime control policies the requirement to hire 100,000 new police officers and put them out on the streets. He might not have explicitly said that his policy was based on RCT, but it was. Increased numbers of police officers increase the expected cost of crime by increasing would-be offenders’ perceived certainty of getting caught and arrested (on the assumption that the more police officers there are on the streets, the more eyes there are watching you). Thus, under the assumption that offenders and would-be offenders contemplate the risk of incurring a cost, the idea of putting 100,000 new police officers out on the streets was based on RCT and deterrence theory.

Frequently, then, when there are calls for more police, less plea bargaining in courts, more prison terms and less use of probation, and more certain and longer prison terms, these calls are based on the expectations of RCT that such measures will increase either the objective or expected costs of crime and, other things being equal, will reduce the level of crime.

B. Increase the Benefits of Non-Crime

Increasing the costs of crime is only one way under deterrence theory and RCT to reduce the level of crime; one can also lower crime by increasing the benefits of activities that compete with crime. For example, one of the reasons kids in inner-city neighborhoods get involved with crime and drugs is that they get thrills or some kind of “kick” out of doing it. In other words, crime and drug use supplies them with a rush. One way to inhibit crime would be to get kids involved in other activities that are legal (non-crime) that can provide them with some sort of pleasure/fun/relief from boredom. In the 1990s, there was an effort to get inner-city kids involved in midnight basketball programs, because it makes perfect sense to provide a pleasurable noncriminal activity as an alternative to crime if you believe in the assumptions of RCT. Recall that the theory holds that people consider the costs and benefits of both crime and non-crime before making a rationally based decision as to what to do. This means that when these programs are set up, inner-city youth will weigh the costs and benefits of crime along with those of midnight basketball. Before they choose crime or drug use, then, youth will be in the position of considering the benefits of playing basketball, and this might (together with the lesser cost of a basketball injury vs. an arrest for crime or drug use) be substantial enough to tip the utility balance toward noncrime rather than crime.

A similar example can be used for adults and adult crime. One of the ways to increase the benefits of noncrime would be to provide vocational opportunities and jobs to individuals who are at high risk of committing crimes as well as to make it easier for those who have already committed crimes to turn away from it in favor of more conventional opportunities. The Job Corps, for example, is an educational and vocational training program run by the U.S Department of Labor for youth 16 through 24 years of age. It targets youth who by most accounts would be considered at high risk for committing crimes—young, mainly minority males, from urban areas—and helps them finish high school, earn a GED, learn a trade, and find a job and keep it. The whole purpose of the Job Corps is to take young people with a bleak future and train and educate them so that they can find well-paying jobs and become productive citizens. The Job Corps program, then, provides a direct alternative to criminal opportunities so that to the extent to which the training and long-term vocational prospects surpass those provided by illegitimate opportunities, the route of job training and education will be selected over crime.

C. Reduce the Benefits of Crime

There are a number of ways that the benefits of crime can be reduced. Among the characteristics of crime is that it is generally the easiest way to satisfy one’s needs—so, for example, if I want to have a car, one of the easiest ways to get one would be to steal one or buy a stolen one at a great discount. The benefits of crime can be reduced if crime is made more difficult in addition to more costly. The benefits of auto theft, for example, would be dramatically reduced if people would not leave their keys in the ignition, if they would lock the car, or if they would purchase an inexpensive car alarm or car location device. These things make stealing a car more difficult and therefore less beneficial. The benefits of burglary can be reduced by making it more difficult for a thief to break into one’s home or apartment. Trimming the bushes around the windows so they can be seen from the street is a good idea; having outside motion-sensitive lights is another. Home burglary alarm systems are another way to make burglary more difficult. We can make it more difficult for thieves to fence stolen goods by etching our names or other type of identification on portable objects in our homes, such as computers, televisions, or stereo systems, which are highly attractive targets for thieves. Heroin use provides an analogy: One of the benefits of heroin use is that it reduces the strong physiological craving for the drug. If there are alternative, legal drugs, such as methadone or LAAM (levoalpha acetyl methadol), that can, under proper medical supervision, similarly reduce the craving, then the benefits of heroin use and its attraction will be reduced. In sum, any action on the part of society as a whole or individual potential victims to make crime more difficult, more time consuming, less financially lucrative, are ways to reduce the benefits of crime. Under RCT, if the benefits of crime are reduced, then crime will be less likely because it has less utility or is less profitable. Although these kinds of crime prevention practices have been most frequently associated with another criminological theory, routine activities theory, the ideas of routine activities are perfectly compatible with a rational choice view of crime.

D. Reduce the Costs of Non-Crime

A final way to reduce crime according to RCT is to lower the cost of engaging in conventional behavior. The following is just one example of how the costs of being conventional can be reduced. A consistent finding from criminological research is that about two thirds of inmates released from state prisons return to crime after being released. One of the reasons why so many ex-offenders commit crimes upon release is that we make it difficult or costly for them to become “normal” citizens, to such a degree that crime is easier and has more utility (Petersilia, 2003). If we remove these barriers to or costs of non-crime, chances are they would be more attractive than criminal alternatives. For example, there are barriers that prevent ex-offenders from securing conventional employment that makes traditional, legal work more difficult and costly and crime easier and more attractive. Job applications generally ask the job seeker if he or she has ever been convicted of any crime; those who respond “yes” are less likely to get the job in the first place and less likely to get promoted if they do get a job. In some states, ex-offenders are legally prevented from holding a number of jobs, such as in the areas of education, child care, security, and nursing and home health care. The licensing requirements for jobs such as cutting hair or collecting garbage often preclude those who have been arrested or convicted of a crime. Public employment (working for local, state, or federal government) is difficult for ex-convicts to obtain and is outright denied to them in six states. Some unions bar ex-offenders. Even if there are no legal barriers, employers are reluctant to hire individuals with a criminal record because they fear the possible legal liabilities. In addition, there are other barriers to becoming a normal law-abiding citizen that ex-offenders must confront that may make non-crime more difficult and costly and if removed would make non-crime less costly and therefore a more attractive alternative to crime. Felons are barred from voting, and in some states even the conviction for a single felony bars the person from voting for the rest of his or her life. Public housing and welfare benefits are frequently denied people who have been convicted of a felony. For these and other reasons, therefore, it would appear that we have made a life of non-crime so difficult and costly for ex-convicts that even if they wanted to change, the costs are much higher than continuing in crime.