Essay on Rational Choice Theory and Crime

It is known that one of the major issues of public concern is an increasing crime rate. According to Steven P. Lab (2010), today crime remains “an indisputable fact of life for many, if not most, members of modern society” (p. 2). Although the statistics show that crime rate continues to fall, large numbers of people still become crime victims every year. Besides, those people who have never been victimized are fearful of crime consequences and victimization. Crime and fear make people turn to the system of justice for help, including the court and police officers. In addition, crime and fear have an enormous impact on the lives of many people in our society. That is why it is necessary to continue pursuing the appropriate strategies of preventing crime and fear among population. Rational choice theory can be very effective in reducing crime. This theoretic approach helps to shift the key areas of activity of crime control away from an individual’s disposition and toward situational opportunity. The major goal of this paper is to discuss how effective rational choice theory is in reducing crime.


            Rational choice theory is focused on the principle of expected utility, which maintains that all people make rational decisions that are “based on the extent to which they expect their choice to maximize their benefits” (Cote, 2002, p. 285). This theory helps to better understand the major decisions to commit crime. In addition, it is known that rational choice theory examines criminal behavior of individuals from a so-called situational perspective. Today criminologists use a situational analysis of the crime to better understand the connections that exist between certain situational contexts and the individuals’ behaviors that occur.  In accordance with the recent research, this theory focuses on “various situational contexts to explain not only the likelihood of criminal activity but also who will likely be victimized” (Cote, 2002, p. 285).


            It is known that rational choice theory is closely connected with the Ron Clarke, who in the 1970s established the situational approach to crime prevention which is based on rational choice. According to rational choice theory, all crimes committed by individuals in our society are broadly the result of their rational choices that are focused on the “analysis of anticipated costs and benefits” (Kennedy & McGarrell, p. 220). This theoretical approach means that individuals are involved in criminal activity in order to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. However, this theory has some policy implications on how to reduce crime ”“ situational crime prevention. According to Leslie W. Kennedy and Edmund F. McGarrell (2011), “situational crime prevention introduces environmental change to reduce the opportunity for crimes to occur”(p. 220). This fact means that crimes will be reduced or prevented through changing the aspects of the situations in which these crimes occur. The major goal is to make it more difficult and less profitable to commit crimes. The experts in criminology state that it is easy to manipulate the major components of situations.  As a result, it will be more difficult and less attractive to make rational choice of crime.

According to Clarke, it is necessary to find out “how crime opportunities can be made less attractive for criminals” (Kennedy & McGarrell, 2011, p. 220). First of all, it is necessary to find more effective physical barriers to reduce crime, including the use of such prevention techniques as alarm systems, anti-robbery screens, reducing the number of exits, screening exits, etc. Secondly, it is very important to find the appropriate ways of increasing the chances of crime detection. Thirdly, it is necessary to find the ways of reducing the rewards of crime (e.g. limiting the cash funds in the selling unit). Fourthly, it is very important to find the appropriate strategies “to reduce excuses, such as set rules, signs” (Kennedy & McGarrell, 2011, p. 220).

In other words, in rational choice theory, the major goal has always been connected with building “a bridge between situation (crime) and disposition (criminality)”, according to Daniel Gilling (1997, p. 60). The crime can be viewed as a function of criminal’s opportunities and rewards offered within this or that environment or situation.


General deterrence strategy has the major goal ”“ “to make the potential criminals fear the consequences of crime” (Siegel, 2011, p. 129). In other words, the threat of punishment can convince criminals with rational approach that crime is wrong. The term deterrence can be viewed as a forward looking philosophy based on punishment techniques (Siegel, 2011, p. 129). General deterrence uses a criminal as an example to other members of society. Though these strategies, many people can be prevented from criminal activity. The major forms of general deterrence include “increasing police activity in certain parts of the country, the involvement of special police task forces, and the death penalty” (Siegel, 2011, p. 130).

Specific deterrence strategy is focused on “punishing criminals so severely that they will never be tempted to repeat their offences” (Siegel, 2011, p. 129). In case the crime is rational, severe punishment will help to prevent similar crimes in future. The major examples of this strategy include stiff fines and harsh prisons.

In addition, there is one more strategy which is based on rational choice ”“ incapacitation strategy. This strategy helps to reduce crime rate by “denying motivated criminals the opportunity to commit crimes” (Siegel, 2011, p. 129). In case, some criminals continue to commit crimes, despite the threat of severe punishment, the only way to stop crimes is to incapacitate these criminals for a certain period of time. The major examples of the use of this strategy include long prison sentences and placing more criminals in prisons.


In conclusion, it is necessary to say that rational choice theory can be effectively used in reducing crime. The advocates of rational choice theory are sure that it is possible to achieve crime prevention by reducing the opportunities to commit crimes. This approach is known as situational crime prevention. According to rational choice theory, the individuals may decide not to be involved in criminal activity if the risks are rather high and the rewards are too small after their rational calculation. Today rational choice theory is used for crime analysis and in policing strategies which help to reduce crime rate. Besides situational crime prevention, there are some other strategies based on rational choice: general deterrence strategy, specific deterrence strategy and incapacitation strategy. Although crime is considered to be a normal aspect of modern life, the police and the US government should provide effective strategies to reduce crime rate.

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