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Criminology Rational Choice Theories
by
John Paul Wright

Introduction

Rational choice theory and its assumptions about human behavior have been integrated into numerous criminological theories and criminal justice interventions. Rational choice theory originated during the late 18th century with the work of Cesare Beccaria. Since then, the theory has been expanded upon and extended to include other perspectives, such as deterrence, situational crime prevention, and routine activity theory. The rational choice perspective has been applied to a wide range of crimes, including robbery, drug use, vandalism, and white-collar crime. In addition, neuropsychological literature shows that there are neurobiological mechanisms involved in our “rational choices.”

General Overviews

Cornish and Clarke 1986 includes numerous theoretical and empirical essays that describe the process of criminal decision making. Piquero and Tibbetts 2002 includes scholarly chapters that address a number of issues relating to rational choice theory, such as the methodological issues associated with rational choice and the integration of rational choice theory into other theories (such as feminist theory). This book also contains chapters that describe how rational choice can be applied to a number of criminal behaviors, such as organized crime, corporate crime, and violent behavior. Clarke and Felson 1993 includes a series of essays that apply rational choice to different types of crimes, and that discuss the integration of rational choice with other theories. In addition, this volume includes essays that discuss how opportunity structures and rational choice come together to create a criminal offense. Ariely 2008 discusses how human decision-making processes are more irrational than rational.

  • Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: HarperCollins.

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    Covers decision making from a general standpoint. Provides numerous examples of how people’s decisions are often more irrational than rational. In addition, the author discusses how various factors, such as sexual arousal and relativity, shape decision-making processes.

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  • Clarke, Ronald V., and Marcus Felson, eds. 1993. Routine activity and rational choice. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

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    Discusses how rational choice and routine activity theory can be applied to victimology, corporate crime, gun crimes, violent offending, political violence, and kidnapping. The second part of the book discusses how routine activity, opportunity structures, and decision-making processes lead to the commission of specific types of crimes.

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  • Cornish, Derek B., and Ronald V. Clarke, eds. 1986. The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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    Contains a number of essays that are relevant to decision-making processes regarding crime. In particular, there is a chapter on Cornish and Clarke’s rational choice model, while other chapters discuss theoretical issues regarding rational choice theory. Further, the book includes chapters that empirically evaluate offenders’ decision-making processes for a variety of offenses, such as shoplifting and robbery.

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  • Piquero, Alex R., and Stephen G. Tibbetts, eds. 2002. Rational choice and criminal behavior: Recent research and future challenges. New York: Routledge.

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    Contains essays regarding the integration of rational choice with traditional criminological theories. In addition, there are chapters that apply rational choice to a host of antisocial behaviors at a theoretical, empirical, and practical level.

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Data Sources

There are four different types of data sources that include measures of rational choice concepts: (1) data sources that contain criminal decision-making variables as reported from offenders, (2) data sources that can be used to test the effectiveness of deterrence-based programs and policies, (3) general population samples that are used to investigate the theoretical link between rational choice variables and antisocial behavior, and (4) data sources that include measures of the situational characteristics of offenses. Data sources that contain criminal decision-making variables often measure the preplanning stages of criminal events and the reasons why offenders committed a particular offense. Quasi-experimental data on deterrence-based programs and policies can be used to test whether the certainty and severity of punishment influence recidivism and offending. General population studies that include rational choice variables can be used to examine whether perceived certainty and punishment are related to self-reported antisocial behavior. Finally, data sources that contain measures of the situational characteristics of the offense allow researchers to examine the interrelationships between victim characteristics, offender characteristics, and situational characteristics for a variety of offenses.

Classical Theory

Classical theory assumes that individuals will choose to engage in crime when the costs of offending do not outweigh the benefits of crime. Beccaria 2004 provides the foundation for classical criminological theory. It outlines many of the key principles that underlie the use of punishment in current criminal justice systems, such as the principle of proportionality of punishment to the seriousness of the crime. Beccaria and other philosophers grounded their perspectives in the work of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (see Hobbes 2006). Jeremy Bentham’s 1789 perspective of utilitarianism (Bentham 2007) is an extension of Beccaria’s and other philosopher’s perspectives. Yet, unlike these previous theorists, Bentham argues that the severity of punishment should outweigh the seriousness of the offense. Kant 2002 provides a critique of utilitarianism and offers support for the philosophy of retribution.

  • Beccaria, Cesare. 2004. On crimes and punishments. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger.

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    A classic reading on the subject of retribution, written in 1764. Also contains principles that have guided the use of punishment and sanctions in Western criminal justice systems. For instance, Beccaria specifies how punishment should be delivered and who has the right to deliver it.

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  • Bentham, Jeremy. 2007. An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. n.c.: Plaat Press.

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    A classic work on the concept of utilitarianism, written in 1789. This book has provided the foundation for deterrence theory and policies based on deterrence theory.

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  • Hobbes, Thomas. 2006. Leviathan. New York: Dover.

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    Provided the foundation for many works of political science and classical criminology. Hobbes describes the role of the social contract in controlling behavior. Further, he presents the principles of punishment, that have been integrated into classical criminological perspectives. Written in 1651.

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  • Kant, Immanuel. 2002. The philosophy of law: An exposition of the fundamental principles of jurisprudence as the science of right. Translated by W. Hastie. Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange.

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    Kant’s book, written in 1796, contributes to the literature on retribution. He discusses the role of natural law in social control and the relationship between will and punishment.

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Economic Models

Economic models of decision making were some of the first models used to explain criminal involvement and criminal events. In addition, the economic models of decision making provide the theoretical foundation for many of the deterrence-based theories and policies. Gary S. Becker, an economist, applies the expected utility model to criminal behavior (Becker 1968). Block and Heineke 1973 discusses how uncertainty regarding the rewards of crime may influence decision making. Ehrlich 1973 provides a test of expected utility theory with aggregate-level data, while Nagin and Paternoster 1993 tests a subjective version of the expected utility theory with individual level data. Other studies, such as Lattimore and Witte 1986, critique the use of expected utility models in the explanation of offending.

  • Becker, Gary S. 1968. Crime and punishment: An economic approach. Journal of Political Economy 76:169–217.

    DOI: 10.1086/259394Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Articulates the expected utility model in mathematical terms. In addition, Becker discusses the characteristics of optimal policies and sanctions.

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  • Block, Michael, and John M. Heineke. 1973. The allocation of effort under uncertainty: The case of risk-averse behavior. Journal of Political Economy 81:376–385.

    DOI: 10.1086/260033Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Puts forth the hypothesis that crime may increase, rather than decrease, when there is uncertainty regarding the amount and rate of rewards from crime.

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  • Ehrlich, Isaac. 1973. Participation in illegitimate activities: A theoretical and empirical investigation. Journal of Political Economy 81:521–565.

    DOI: 10.1086/260058Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Empirically evaluates the expected utility model using state-level data. Highlights the role of labor force participation, risk of apprehension, and risk of imprisonment on crime rates.

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  • Lattimore, Pamela, and Ann Witte. 1986. Models of decision-making under uncertainty: The criminal choice. In The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. Edited by Derek B Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke, 129–155. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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    Discusses the potential limitations of the expected utility model in explaining crime. The authors also discuss how prospect theory, an alternative model, may provide a better explanation for offending.

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  • Nagin, Daniel S., and Raymond Paternoster. 1993. Enduring individual differences and rational choice theories of crime. Law and Society Review 27:467–496.

    DOI: 10.2307/3054102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyses of data from a sample of college students reveals that rational choice variables were significantly related to youths’ decisions to engage in crime, after controlling for individuals’ level of criminal propensity.

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Psychological and Neurobiological Factors

Cognitive and neurobiological models underlie the propositions of rational choice theory. Simon 1955 puts forth a cognitive model of rational choice which argues that humans’ rationality is bounded. Kahneman and Tversky 1979 proposes a prospect theory as an alternative to the expected utility model. Tversky and Kahneman 1986 critiques pure rational choice theories by stating that people assign greater weight to the risks of behaviors than to the perceived benefits of such behaviors. Platt and Huettel 2008 describes the neural processes that underlie decision-making processes under uncertainty. Rushworth and Behrens 2008 discusses the brain structures and neurotransmitter systems that are implicated in decision-making processes under uncertainty.

  • Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky. 1979. Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47:263–292.

    DOI: 10.2307/1914185Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Prospect theory details the cognitive processes that individuals use when presented with a decision or option. These processes generally include identifying the potential costs and benefits, comparing costs and benefits to a baseline, and then evaluating and choosing one option.

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  • Platt, Michael L., and Scott A. Huettel. 2008. Risky business: The neuroeconometrics of decision making under uncertainty. Nature Neuroscience 11:398–403.

    DOI: 10.1038/nn2062Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Different regions of the brain correspond to different components of decision making. In particular, different regions of the prefrontal cortex and midbrain are linked to different functions in anticipating and processing rewards and punishments.

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  • Rushworth, Matthew F. S., and Timothy E. J. Behrens. 2008. Choice, uncertainty, and value in prefrontal and cingulate cortex. Nature Neuroscience 11:389–397.

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    Details the roles of dopamine and several brain structures (including the striatum, prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex) in the expectation of rewards and the discrepancy between predicted and actual rewards.

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  • Simon, Herbert A. 1955. A behavioral model of rational choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics 69:99–118.

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    Argues that there is a discrepancy between actual costs and benefits and the subjectively perceived costs and benefits.

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  • Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. 1986. Rational choice and the framing of decisions. Journal of Business 59:S251–S278.

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    Illustrates that individuals may focus on what they risk to lose from a decision rather than what they stand to gain. This pattern of results holds true even when the end results are equal.

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Deterrence

The theory of deterrence focuses on the "perceived costs" component of rational choice theory. Deterrence theory argues that increasing the costs associated with crime can reduce criminal behavior. Paternoster 1987 reviews the empirical research on the relationship between deterrence-based variables and criminal behavior. Gendreau, et al. 2000 examines the effectiveness of correctional programs that are grounded in deterrence theory. Nagin and Pogarsky 2003 uses an experimental design to assess the relationship between deterrence-based variables and cheating on a quiz among university students. Sherman 1993 discusses the conditions under which deterrence will be ineffective.

  • Gendreau, Paul, Claire Goggin, Francis T. Cullen, and Donald A. Andrews. 2000. The effects of community sanctions and incarceration on recidivism. Forum on Corrections Research 12:10–13.

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    This meta-analysis reveals that deterrence-oriented policies either have no effect on recidivism or are associated with higher recidivism rates.

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  • Nagin, Daniel S., and Greg Pogarsky. 2003. An experimental investigation of deterrence: Cheating, self-serving bias, and impulsivity. Criminology 41:167–194.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb00985.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that perceived certainty of punishment is significantly related to cheating on a quiz, even after controlling for antisocial personality traits.

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  • Paternoster, Raymond. 1987. The deterrent effect of the perceived certainty and severity of punishment: A review of the evidence and issues. Justice Quarterly 4:173–217.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418828700089271Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the empirical research on perceptual deterrence and criminal behavior. In addition, Paternoster discusses how the strength of this relationship varies by research methodology.

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  • Sherman, Lawrence W. 1993. Defiance, deterrence, and irrelevance: A theory of the criminal sanction. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30:445–473.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427893030004006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the individual and situational characteristics (such as illegitimacy of sanctioning agent) that will impede deterrence.

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Routine Activity Theory

Routine activity theory (RAT) argues that individuals’ daily activities shape the types of choices and opportunities that are available to them. Cohen and Felson 1979 puts forth routine activity theory to explain changes in direct predatory crimes over time. The authors argue that crime occurs when motivated offenders come into contact with suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians. Felson 2002 elaborates upon the original version of RAT by describing how larger changes in society, such as changes in transportation, may produce changes in opportunity structures. Further, Felson discusses the specific characteristics of targets that may make them more attractive to motivated offenders. Felson 1986 expands upon RAT by introducing handlers into the model. Handlers are individuals who have a legal or emotional relationship to the offender, and may thus prevent the offender from engaging in crime. Eck 1994 also expands upon RAT by stating that place managers may decrease opportunities for crime by effectively monitoring and regulating the activity of a place. Felson 1995 further expands upon RAT by stating that guardians, handlers, and managers can be divided into four subcategories: personal, assigned, diffuse, and general. Finally, Wortley and Mazerolle 2008 contains essays on routine activity theory, patterns of crime events, and methods to control crime using the RAT model.

  • Cohen, Lawrence, and Marcus Felson. 1979. Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review 44:588–608.

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    This article marks the origin of routine activity theory. Cohen and Felson provide data from a number of sources that show that changes in activity patterns have influenced target suitability and the capability of guardians, which in turn has led to higher crime rates.

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  • Eck, John. 1994. Drug markets and drug places: A case-control study of the spatial structure of illicit drug dealing. Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Maryland.

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    Discusses the role of place managers in controlling drug crimes in San Diego, California. In the study, drug dealers chose to deal drugs in places where place managers would not interfere with their activities. In an open drug market, dealers often sell drugs to strangers, in areas that are near arterial routes and that lack place managers. In closed drug markets, dealers often sell drugs to people they know, in areas that are away from arterial routes and that lack place managers.

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  • Felson, Marcus. 1986. Linking criminal choice, routine activities, informal control, and criminal outcomes. In The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. Edited by Derek B Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke, 119–128. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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    Integrates control theory with RAT to explain how handlers may prevent offenders from engaging in crime.

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  • Felson, Marcus. 1995. Those who discourage crime. In Crime and place. Edited by John E. Eck and David Weisburd, 53–66. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press; Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.

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    Argues that guardians, handlers, and managers can be further subdivided into four categories: personal, assigned, diffused, and general. Further, the level of responsibility to intervene or prevent crime varies with each category, with personal guardians having the highest level of responsibility and general guardians the lowest level.

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  • Felson, Marcus. 2002. Crime and everyday life. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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    Discusses how changes in transportation, social structure, family dynamics, role transitions, and the timing of sexual development have shaped opportunities for crime. In addition, Felson discusses the characteristics of targets that make them attractive to potential offenders, as well as the types of interventions that can be used to decrease crime.

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  • Wortley, Richard, and Lorraine Mazerolle, eds. 2008. Environmental criminology and crime analysis. Cullompton, UK, and Portland, OR: Willan.

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    Includes essays that describe the theoretical aspects of rational choice, routine activity, crime patterns, and situational crime prevention. In addition, the book discusses the practical issues associated with crime mapping, including ways to use this information to create interventions to prevent future crime.

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Criminal Decision Making

Researchers study offenders’ decision-making processes by documenting their decision making during the commission of a crime. Wright and Decker 1994 investigates the environmental cues and behavioral scripts that active burglars use when burglarizing residential structures. Petrosino and Brensilber 2003 uses data from incarcerated convenience-store robbers to examine offenders’ motives, the amount of planning that goes into the decision, and the environmental cues that influence decisions. Carroll and Weaver 1986 traces the decision-making processes of expert shoplifters. Jacobs and Wright 1999 examines active armed robbers’ motives for engaging in robbery, including how their involvement in street life shapes their decision to commit a robbery. Hochstetler 2001 investigates how group dynamics shape robbers’ and burglars’ decision-making processes.

  • Carroll, John, and Frances Weaver. 1986. Shoplifters’ perceptions of crime opportunities: A process-tracing study. In The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. Edited by Derek B Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke, 19–38. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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    Using interviews and verbal protocols to compare criminal decision-making processes among expert and novice shoplifters, the authors found that experts focus more on the perceived risks of shoplifting, while novices focus on the perceived benefits of shoplifting a particular item.

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  • Hochstetler, Andy. 2001. Opportunities and decisions: Interactional dynamics in robbery and burglary groups. Criminology 39:737–764.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2001.tb00939.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Interviews with convicted robbers and burglars reveal that their involvement in street life provides the social context for their criminal activity. In addition, the results show that social interaction within a group can influence the choice of a crime type (robbery or burglary) and the selection of a particular target.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce A., and Richard Wright. 1999. Stick-up, street culture, and offender motivation. Criminology 37:149–174.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1999.tb00482.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Interviews with active armed robbers reveal that street life (gambling, using drugs) creates a need for fast cash. In addition, robbers’ street life and prior criminal behavior prevent them from attaining money through legitimate avenues (legal work, borrowing from family or friends).

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  • Petrosino, Anthony, and Diana Brensilber. 2003. The motives, methods, and decision making of convenience store robbers: Interviews with 28 incarcerated offenders in Massachusetts. In Theory for practice in situational crime prevention. Edited by Martha J. Smith and Derek B. Cornish, 237–263. Monsey, NY, and Devon, UK: Criminal Justice Press.

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    Focuses on the motivations, environmental cues and deterrents, and post-crime actions of twenty-eight incarcerated convenience-store robbers.

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  • Wright, Richard T., and Scott Decker. 1994. Burglars on the job: Streetlife and residential break-ins. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Describes the decision-making processes of active burglars in St. Louis, Missouri. The results show that there is minimal planning involved in these offenses and that burglars typically choose targets that are familiar to them. The concepts of “street life” and the need for fast cash are also seen in this case study.

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Applications of Routine Activity Theory and Rational Choice

Routine activity theory and rational choice have provided a theoretical basis for crime-prevention interventions. Atlas and LeBlanc 1994 discusses how the use of barricades in residential areas helps decrease crime rates in those areas. Matthews 1993 describes a multiagency crime-prevention intervention that was implemented in South London in an effort to reduce prostitution and curb-crawling. Clarke 1997 includes twenty-three case studies that describe crime-prevention interventions that are grounded in routine activity theory and rational choice. Brantingham and Brantingham 1990 discusses successful crime-prevention interventions that have been used in several parts of Canada.

  • Atlas, Randall, and William G. LeBlanc. 1994. The impact on crime of street closures and barricades: A Florida case study. Security Journal 5:140–145.

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    The use of barricades and street closures led to a significant decrease in the rates of robbery, burglary, larceny, aggravated assault, and auto theft in three areas of Miami, Florida. Authors hypothesize that barricades and street closures may have led to lower crime rates because these methods increase the perceived risk of crime and decrease target attractiveness.

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  • Brantingham, Patricia L., and Paul J. Brantingham. 1990. Situational crime prevention in practice. Canadian Journal of Criminology 32:17–40.

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    Details successful crime-prevention strategies that have been implemented in Canada. These strategies often include a legal component, a social component, and/or a “neighborhood/block watch” component.

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  • Clarke, Ronald V., ed. 1997. Situational crime prevention: Successful case studies. 2d ed. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

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    This edited book includes twenty-three case studies that describe successful crime-prevention strategies that have been used to reduce a number of crimes, including motor-vehicle theft, theft from shopping bags, and obscene phone calls.

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  • Matthews, Roger. 1993. Kerb-crawling, prostitution, and multi-agency policing. London: Home Office Police Research Group.

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    This government report describes a crime-prevention intervention that was implemented by neighborhood residents, policing agencies, and traffic authorities in an effort to reduce prostitution and curb-crawling.

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White-Collar Crime

A substantial amount of research has investigated the links between rational choice, opportunity structures, and white-collar offending. Shover and Wright 2001 contains a series of scholarly chapters on the opportunities and decision-making processes that lead up to white-collar crime events. Benson 1985 investigates the justifications that white-collar offenders use to rationalize their crimes. Paternoster and Simpson 1993 puts forth a rational choice model to explain corporate offending. Piquero, et al. 2005 argues that personality factors may influence the calculation of benefits and costs by white-collar offenders.

  • Benson, Michael L. 1985. Denying the guilty mind: Accounting for involvement in a white-collar crime. Criminology 23:583–607.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1985.tb00365.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An ethnographic study on the types of rationalizations that are used by antitrust violators, tax violators, financial trust violators, and fraud offenders.

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  • Paternoster, Raymond, and Sally Simpson. 1993. A rational choice theory of corporate crime. In Routine activity and rational choice. Edited by Ronald V. Clarke and Marcus Felson, 37–58. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Puts forth a rational choice model of corporate crime that integrates perceived benefits of noncompliance, perceived costs of complying to the rules, moral beliefs about corporate crime, perceived legitimacy of the rules, and perceived formal and informal sanctions into one model.

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  • Piquero, Nicole Leeper, M. Lyn Exum, and Sally S. Simpson. 2005. Integrating the desire-for-control and rational choice in a corporate crime context. Justice Quarterly 22:252–280.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820500089034Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the interrelationships among the desire for control, rational choice, and corporate crime, using data from a survey of fourteen business executives in an MBA program and thirty-three MBA students.

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  • Shover, Neal, and John Paul Wright, eds. 2001. Crimes of privilege: Readings in white-collar crime. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Contains essays on defining white-collar crime, the opportunity structures that characterize white-collar crime, the decision-making processes leading up to a white-collar crime, and potential methods for controlling white-collar crime.

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LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0007

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