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Rational Choice Theory

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The rational choice approach to crime causation is composed of several different concepts. According to this theory, criminal behavior is the product of careful thought and planning. Offenders choose crime after considering both personal factors-money, revenge, thrills, entertainment- and situational factors, such as target availability, security measures, and police presence (Siegel, 2008). Once the decision has been made to commit a specific crime, the offender then chooses whether or not to follow through with it based on them weighing and evaluation the information available to them.

Violent crimes have been one focus of rational choice theorists for years. Let’s take theft as an example. Many thieves have an economic need (or want) that cannot be met by conventional measures. According to Siegel, burglars choose targets based on their value, freshness and resale potential (Siegel, 2008). These thieves will also specifically choose locations which are close to where they live in order to make a quick escape and to assure they know the area. This is a fine example of how premeditated crimes are products of rational decision making.

The rational choice theory states that street-smart offenders (1) calculate the potential success of committing crime; (2) select their targets on the basis of risk assessment; and (3) will choose not to commit a crime if the disadvantages, such as getting caught and punished, outweigh the benefits, such as making a lot of money (Siegel, 2008). This, in theory, means that more needs to be done to deter these criminals from committing these crimes. This brings us to the topic of specific and general deterrence.

Despite efforts to punish criminals and make them fear crime, there is little evidence that the fear of apprehension and punishment alone can reduce crime rates. General deterrence suggests that you can prevent others from committing crimes by making an example out of another person who has already committed a crime. On the other hand, specific deterrence focuses on preventing an offender from committing future crimes through sentencing for crimes that have already been committed.

There are several strategies that can and have been put into place to help deter and displace crime. Such strategies include patrolling neighborhoods in well marked police vehicles, assuring would-be criminals that their criminal acts will certainly be punished (possibly severely) and get-tough policies – such as the “three strikes your out” sentencing policy and the death penalty (Siegel, 2008). “Three strikes your out” indicates that once a criminal has committed three felony offenses, he will then be sentenced to life in prison.

In summation, the rational choice theory and deterrence theory have had a powerful impact on modern crime prevention strategies. By implication, crime can be prevented or displaced by convincing potential criminals that the risks of violating the law exceed the benefits. The certainty and swiftness of punishment seems to deter crime. However, if people do not believe they will be caught committing a crime, even the harshest punishment most likely will not impact crime rates.

Works Cited:

Siegel, L. J. (2008). Choice Theory: Because They Want To. In L. J. Siegel, Criminology: The Core, Third Edition (pp. 72-90). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

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