In 1979, Cohen and Felson questioned why urban crime rates increased during the 1960s, when the factors commonly thought to cause violent crime, such as poor economic conditions, had generally improved during this time. Cohen and Felson (1979) suggested that a crime should be thought of as an event that occurs at a specific location and time and involves specific people and/or objects. They argued that crime events required three minimal elements to converge in time and space: (1) an offender who was prepared to commit the offense; (2) a suitable target, such as a human victim to be assaulted or a piece of property to be stolen; and (3) the absence of a guardian capable of preventing the crime. The lack of any of these three elements, they argued, would be sufficient to prevent a crime event from occurring. Drawing from human ecological theories, Cohen and Felson suggested that structural changes in societal routine activity patterns can influence crime rates by affecting the likelihood of the convergence in time and space of these three necessary elements. As the routine activities of people change, the likelihood of targets converging in time and space with motivated offenders without guardians also changes. In other words, opportunities for crime—and, in turn, crime patterns—are a function of the routine activity patterns in society.
Cohen and Felson (1979) argued that crime rates increased after World War II because the routine activities of society had begun to shift away from the home, thus increasing the likelihood that motivated offenders would converge in time and space with suitable targets in the absence of capable guardianship. Routine activities that take place at or near the home tend to be associated with more guardianship—for both the individual and his or her property—and a lower risk of encountering potential offenders. When people perform routine activities away from the home, they are more likely to encounter potential offenders in the absence of guardians. Furthermore, their belongings in their home are left unguarded, thus creating more opportunities for crime to take place.
One of the greatest contributions of routine activities theory is the idea that criminal opportunities are not spread evenly throughout society; neither are they infinite. Instead, there is some limit on the number of available targets viewed as attractive/suitable by the offender. Cohen and Felson (1979) suggested that suitability is a function of at least four qualities of the target: Value, Inertia, Visibility, and Access, or VIVA. All else being equal, those persons or products that are repeatedly targeted will have the following qualities: perceived value by the offender, either material or symbolic; size and weight that makes the illegal treatment possible; physically visible to potential offenders; and accessible to offenders. Cohen and Felson argued that two additional societal trends—the increase in sales of consumer goods and the design of small durable products—were affecting the crime by means of the supply of suitable targets. These trends in society increased the supply of suitable targets available and, in turn, the likelihood of crime. As the supply of small durable goods continued to rise, the level of suitable targets also rose, thus increasing the number of available criminal opportunities.
Since its inception, routine activities theory has been developed to further specify the necessary elements for a criminal event and those that have the potential to prevent it. The people who prevent crime have been subdivided according to whom or what they are supervising—offender, target, or place—and are now collectively referred to as controllers. Handlers are people who exert informal social control over potential offenders to prevent them from committing crimes (Felson, 1986). Examples of handlers include parents who chaperone their teenager’s social gatherings, a probation officer who supervises probationers, and a school resource officer who keeps an eye on school bullies. Handlers have some sort of personal connection with the potential offenders. Their principal interest is in keeping the potential offender out of trouble. Guardians protect suitable targets from offenders (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Examples of guardians include the owner of a car who locks his vehicle, a child care provider who keeps close watch over the children in public, and a coworker who walks another to his car in the parking garage. The principal interest of guardians is the protection of their potential targets. Finally, managers supervise and monitor specific places (Eck, 1994). Place managers might include the owner of a shop who installs surveillance cameras, an apartment landlord who updates the locks on the doors, and park rangers who enforce littering codes. The principal interest of managers is the functioning of places. Eck (2003) depicted this more comprehensive version of routine activities theory was as a crime triangle (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Crime Triangle
The inner triangle represents the necessary elements for a crime to occur: A motivated offender and suitable target must be at the same place at the same time. The outer triangle represents the potential controllers—guardians, handlers, and managers—who must be absent or ineffective for a crime to occur; the presence of one effective controller can prevent the criminal event.
Controllers have been described in greater detail. Felson (1995) indicated who is most likely to successfully control crime as a guardian, handler, or manager. He asserted that individuals’ tendency to discourage crime—by supervising targets, offenders, or places—varies with degree of responsibility. He described four varying degrees of responsibility:
- Personal, such as owners, family, and friends
- Assigned, such as employees with a specific assigned responsibility
- Diffuse, such as employees with a general assigned responsibility
- General, such as strangers and other citizens
Controllers who are more closely associated with potential offenders, targets, or places, are more likely to successfully take control and prevent crime. As responsibility moves from personal to general, the likelihood that crime will be prevented diminishes. For example, a shop owner will be much more likely to take control and prevent shoplifting in her store compared with a stranger who infrequently comes to the store. Residents will be more likely to prevent crime on their own street block, rather than on the blocks they travel to and from work.
The characteristics of a suitable target have been expanded and applied to products that are frequently targeted for theft. Clarke (1999) extended Cohen and Felson’s (1979) work on target suitability to explain the phenomenon of “hot products.” Clarke suggested that relatively few hot products account for a large proportion of all thefts. He argues there are six key attributes of hot products that increase the likelihood that they will be targeted by thieves. Specifically, crime is concentrated on products that are CRAVED, that is, Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable (Clarke, 1999).
To summarize, routine activities theory is a theory of crime events. Routine activities theory differs from other criminological theories in a fundamental way. Before the advent of routine activities theory, nearly all criminological theory had focused solely on factors that motivate offenders to behave criminally, such as biological, sociological, and economic conditions that might drive individuals to commit crimes. Conversely, routine activities theory focuses on a range of factors that intersect in time and space to produce criminal opportunities and, in turn, criminal events. Although standard criminological theories do not explain how crimes happen to occur at some places (but not others), at some times (but not others), and to some targets (but not others), routine activities theory does not explain why some people commit crimes and others do not. It is important to note that routine activities theory suggests that crime can increase and decline without any change in the number of criminals. Instead, there might be an increase in the availability of suitable targets, a decline in the availability or effectiveness of controllers, or a shift in the routine activities of society that increase the likelihood that these elements will converge in time and space. This notion that the offender is but one contributor to the crime event has both theoretical and practical implications. First, it insinuates that theories that focus only on offender factors are not sufficient to explain crime patterns and trends, only the supply of motivated offenders. Second, it suggests a much broader range of prevention possibilities. Whereas other criminological theories suggest changes to the social, economic, and political institutions of society to alter the factors that motivate people to commit crimes, routine activities theory indicates that shifts in the availability of suitable targets; the characteristics of places; and the presence of capable guardians, place managers, or handlers can produce immediate reductions in crime. Furthermore, changes in the routine activity patterns of society that affect the likelihood that these elements will converge in space and time can also prevent crime events without directly affecting the supply of motivated offenders. Given these policy implications, researchers have derived various testable hypotheses from routine activities theory to explore its validity.