To discuss critically evaluate the
extent to which rational choice theory (RCT) provides an adequate platform for
situational crime prevention, RCT must first be explored. RCT developed from
economic theories of crime (Becker, 1968). Under Clarke and Cornish’s new
formulation of the earlier ‘choice’ model, decision making is explored in terms
of the preferences and needs of an individual. The starting point of RCT is the
criminal’s wish to benefit themselves through their behaviour in a reasoned cost
and benefit analysis (Clarke and Cornish 1996). Siegal expands on this: “before choosing to commit a crime, the
reasoning criminal evaluates the risk of apprehension, the seriousness of the
expected punishment, the value of the criminal enterprise, and his or her immediate
need for criminal gain” (Siegal, 1992:131).
is necessary to expand upon the term ‘rational’. RCT does not suggest that the decision
to embark upon an offence is objectively
logical. Rather, the rational element of the offender’s decision is his subjective analysis and assessment of
the costs and benefits within that criminal opportunity.
crime opportunity occurs when the actual or perceived benefits of an act
outweigh the actual or perceived costs. The importance of opportunity in terms
of the cost/benefit analysis are pivotal within the RCT framework. This is
evident in the British Gas Study of Clarke and Mayhew (1988). A 35% decline in
the number of suicides occurring in England and Wales between the years 1958
and 1977 had a direct causal link to the reduction of the carbon monoxide
content of domestic gas in ovens. Clarke notes the importance of opportunity
here, and the lack of displacement to other methods of suicide is strong
evidence in support of the RCT. Upon the removal of a relatively easy death via
carbon monoxide, the perceived costs and benefits of the situation were skewed.
RCT assumes that criminals fit within
the “normal” decision making of noncriminals, as seen in the Clarke and Mayhew
study (1988), through their interaction with the immediate environment and in
the motives that persuade or dissuade their reactions to that environment (Bernard
and Snipes, 1996:334).
A pivotal point to note is the crime
specific nature of RCT; it recognises that different crimes meet different
needs (Cornish and Clarke, 1986:2). This crime specific focus marks a shift in
traditional criminological thought in its focus upon the crime itself, rather
than the offender. Clarke and Cornish purport that RCT provides a counter
weight to theoretical preoccupations with the offender (Cornish and Clarke,
1986:2). The four models of Clarke and Cornish seek to address the specific
nature of crime and its rationality. The models are as follows: Initial
Involvement, the Criminal Event, Continuing Involvement and Desistance. Cornish’s
further development of ‘crime scripts’ focus upon the criminal event itself, in
opposing the generally thought of single decision to embark upon the commission
of an offence (Cornish, 1994). Simply, a crime script represents the complete
sequence of actions adopted prior to, during, and following the commission of a
particular crime (Leclerc 2013).
The assumption that offenders are
rational, goal-orientated actors is rooted within RCT. Clarke and Cornish assert
the notion of human decision making – RCT accepts, on a universal level, that
humans seek to maximise pleasure and minimise pain; this being no different
from the offender to the nonoffending person.