Chapter Four The Development of Rational Choice Theory

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Chapter Four The Development of Rational Choice Theory. Criminology 9th edition Larry J. Siegel. From Classical Choice Theories to Modern Rational Choice Views. The basis of this perspective over time has dealt with four key relationships : 1) Law 2) Crime 3) Punishment 4) Deterrence.
Chapter Four The Development of Rational Choice Theory

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Chapter four the development of rational choice theory l.jpgSlide 1

Chapter FourThe Development of Rational Choice Theory

Criminology 9th edition

Larry J. Siegel

© 2003 Wadsworth Publishing Co.

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From Classical Choice Theories to Modern Rational Choice Views

The basis of this perspective over time has dealt with four key relationships:

  • 1) Law

  • 2) Crime

  • 3) Punishment

  • 4) Deterrence

Questions l.jpgSlide 3


Do you think that a criminal act

is a matter of “rational choice?”

In order for behavior to be rational -

must this behavior be learned first?

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People choose

all behavior,

including criminal

behavior. Derived from

the notion of free-will.

People’s choice

can be controlled

by the fear of


The more severe, certain and swift

the punishment, the greater its ability

to control criminal behavior.

Punishment must also be proportional

to the crime.

Core Concepts of Choice or Classical Criminology

Four utilitarian objectives of punishment l.jpgSlide 5

When it cannot prevent a crime, to convince the offender to commit a less serious one.

To prevent all

criminal offenses.

To prevent a crime

as cheaply as possible.

To ensure that a criminal

uses no more force than

is necessary.

Four Utilitarian Objectives of Punishment

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Beccaria – Classical TheorylRational Choice----------------------------------------------------Bentham – Classical TheorylUtilitarianism-----------------------------------------------------8th Amendment – U.S. ConstitutionlCruel and Unusual Punishment

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Choice Theory Resurgence in the 70’s

  • National surveys fail to find rehabilitation programs “that work,” i.e., Martinson’sWhat Work’s.

  • Thinking About Crime by James Q. Wilson debunks view that crime was a function of external forces.

  • Wilson proposes a forceful reaction to crime, otherwise, those sitting on the fence will get the idea that “crime pays”

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1980’s - Crime Control

  • Dim view of rehabilitation

  • Conservative view takes over, i.e., Ronald Reagan

  • Federal Sentencing Guidelines enacted and elimination of federal parole

  • State sentencing guidelines in 22 states

  • Mandatory Minimums, i.e., drug crimes

  • Just deserts policies, i.e, lex talionus and the retributive philosophy

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Criminals tend to

overestimate the money they receive

from crime

Criminals believe there

is no choice, legitimate

work is not available.

Criminals are overly

optimistic about getting

away with each

individual crime

Research indicates that crime

pays relatively little.

Questions10 l.jpgSlide 10


If crime pays relatively little,

why are there so many criminals?

What is the distinction between

crime and criminality?

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The Concepts of Rational Choice

  • Rational choice theory is based on the concept of the “reasoning criminal,” i.e., risk/punishment, potential value, immediate gain.

  • Rational choice theory is offender specific – offender criminality is a result of structured behavior as opposed to a random act.

  • Rational choice theory is offense specific – offenders react selectively to the characteristics of a particular offense.

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Rational Choice Theory

  • Rational choice theory is concerned with conditionswhich promote crime and enhance criminality.

  • Rational choice theory is concerned with situational crime prevention, i.e., reducing opportunities to commit crimes.

  • Both Jeffery and Clarke propose strategies to reduce the overall crime rate by controlling the environment and specific targets, i.e., defensible space – they focus on eliminating criminal opportunity in residential areas.

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Personal Factors Associated With Why People Choose Criminality

Learning and experience,

i.e., limitations

Learning criminal

techniques, i.e.,

type of crime, time and place, and specific crime target

Perceptions of

economic opportunity,

i.e., legal opportunity

vs. illegal profit/benefit

Structuring crime l.jpgSlide 14

Structuring Crime

Criminals structure their career

when they rationally choose:

  • The type of crime to commit

  • Where it occurs

  • Who or what will be the target

  • The time the crime will be committed

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Are there different

definitions of


How Are These Crimes the Product of Rational Thought?

  • Street Crime

  • Drug Use

  • Violence

Question l.jpgSlide 16


What can a criminal “gain”

from criminal activity?

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Benefits or “Gains” from Crime

  • Illicit earnings: Cash, property, drugs, etc.

  • Power: Control of their environment

  • Establishing or proving themselves within the criminal enterprise

  • Self-esteem

  • Short-term problem solving

  • Increased feeling of competence, assertiveness, and/or power as a result of antisocial acts

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Rational Choice and Routine Activities

  • Routine activities provides a macro view of crime, rational choice theory provides a micro view of why individuals offenders decide to commit specific crimes. The connection between the two theories:

    • target vulnerability is a consideration

    • presence of capable guardians may deter crime

    • crime rates correspond to the number of motivated criminals.

  • The strength of this approach is that it can explain fluctuations in crime and delinquency rates and shows how victim behavior can influence criminal choices.

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Increasing Perceived Effort

1. Target hardening

2. Access control

3. Deflecting offenders

4. Controlling facilitators

Increasing Perceived Risks

5. Entry / exit screening

6. Formal surveillance

7. Surveillance by employees

8. Natural surveillance

Reducing Anticipated Rewards

9. Target removal

10. Identifying property

11. Reducing temptation

12. Denying benefits

Inducing Guilt or Shame

13. Rule setting

14. Strengthening moral condemnation

15. Controlling disinhibitors

16. Facilitating compliance

Situational Crime Prevention

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Situational Crime PreventionCosts and Benefits

  • Diffusion

  • Discouragement

  • Displacement

  • Extinction

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Rational Choice and Philosophies of Punishment

Deterrence l.jpgSlide 22


The punishment philosophy that says punishment’s aim is to

prevent future offenses

by setting an example

for both the offender and others;

i.e., specific and general.

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General Deterrence

The version of deterrence that seeks to prevent crime by using punishment to show others who are considering a criminal act that they will suffer painful consequences if they commit that act.

Concepts: certainty, severity (capital punishment), informal sanctions, and shame.

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Studies of General Deterrence

  • There is little clear cut evidence that the perception or reality of punishment can deter most crime.

  • The certainty of punishment seems to have a greater influence on the choice of crime than the severity ofpunishment.

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Specific Deterrence

  • The version of deterrence that seeks to prevent crime by using punishment to show the criminal that the criminal act was undesirable because it brought more pain than pleasure.

  • Findings are mixed as to the effect of the severity of punishment on recidivism for juvenile and career offenders. As a result, the effect of specific deterrence as a punishment strategy is uncertain at best.

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Testing The Assumption That Capital Punishment Deters Violent Crime

  • Studies that have tested this assumption have focused on:

    • Immediate impact

    • Comparative research

    • Time-Series Studies

      What do these studies show?

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The punishment philosophy that says punishment’s aim is to prevent an offender’s freedom to move about.

Traditionally, this was accomplished by placing the offender in prison, but recent technology suggests that incapacitation might also be achieved with tools like electronic monitoring.

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What is the difference between

traditional incapacitation and

“selective incapacitation” methods?

Have they been successful

in controlling crime rates?

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Selective Incapacitation

Under this version of incapacitation, imprisonment is used only for a select group of especially dangerous repeat offenders whose freedom of movement must be restricted to protect society.

Example: “Three Strikes and You’re Out Policies”

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How has the just desert model

influenced justice policy?

What are some characteristics of the

just deserts theoretical model?

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Are criminals rational decision makers or,

are they motivated by

uncontrollable psychological and emotional drives?


If you were caught by police while shoplifting,

which would you be more afraid of:

receiving criminal punishment

or, having to face your friends or relatives and experience shame and embarrassment? Explain.

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