Routine activities theory is a theory that was created in the late 1970’s meant to explain crime and victimization. The routine activities theory is based off of the assumption made in previous theories such as deterrence and rational choice theory, which offenders rationally think out criminal behaviors before they engage in them. This assumption includes the theory that offenders calculate risks and consequences before committing a crime. The routine activities theory suggests that there are three elements that contribute to whether a crime will be committed or not.
In order for a crime to be committed according to theory there must be: a motivated offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a guardian.
Motivated offenders are individuals who are not only capable of committing criminal activity, but are willing to do so. Motivation could be the excitement of committing the crime, or committing a crime in order to gain money or other benefits. Motivated offenders have usually already decided on the fact that they are going to commit a crime, and move on to how, when, where, and against who that the crime will be committed.
The term guardian most often refers to members in the community who may potentially witness a criminal act. For example a guardian could be but is certainly no limited to a police officer. Other guardians may be neighbors, friends, family members, or just by standers. They say that there is safety in numbers, and according to this theory, it is true. The lack of a guardian creates a mindset of “no one is watching” which combined with a motivated offender and a vulnerable target, increases the likelihood that a crime will occur.
A “suitable target” can refer to either a person or an object depending on the crime. According to Felson, there are a number of factors that can create a “suitable target.” One factor is the value that a target holds which can be defined by the amount of money a target is worth. Value can also refer to items that are popular at the given time such as ipods, beats, or trendy clothing. Another factor is inertia, which refers to how easily an item or person is to access. For example if an item is lightweight or easy to move such as a bicycle, it is much more likely to be stolen versus a heavy or stationary item. A lightweight object could be a computer, a television, or other valuable but small objects. Visibility is also a factor and refers to how visible the target is to the motivated offender. In the instance of property, if an item or person is “left in plain sight” without a guardian there is a higher chance of criminals act being committed. The last factor is access. Access addresses how easily the offender can go to where the crime will be committed, commit the crime, and exit the crime scene in a non-interrupted fashion.
Routine activities theory better applies to property crime rather than to personal crime. In this instance the routine activities theory will be used to explain burglary. Burglary is defined as the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft. Burglary rates for various reasons such as law enforcement, education, and the economy, have fluctuated up and down. With that said there are still victims of burglary every day, and according to research there is a victim of burglary every 15 seconds. Victims of burglary may experience a loss of personal property and, or the loss of a peace of mind inside their own home, or property.
According the routines activities theory, a burglar will first decide to commit the crime through a thought out process, and then will use the same rationality to chose a target. The burglar will weigh both the risks and the benefits of specific targets in order to choose a target that presents the least amount of risk factors that would lead to being caught, and also the target in which they will have the most to gain. Burglars will most likely chose neighborhoods that they know well so that they can maneuver throughout without being noticed. Burglars will chose houses that are the most accessible. Accessible meaning, houses that are easy to get in and out of undetected such as homes that are located on streets with two entrances and exits versus homes that are located in cul-de-sacs.
Burglary is more likely to occur in homes and neighborhoods that have fewer guardians. Burglaries do not occur as often in homes where more members of a family stay at home, acting as guardians. In recent years there has been an increase in burglaries due to lack of guardianship that is correlated to the increase of women in the workforce versus women being “house wives”. With no one home during the day, the house becomes a more suitable target. In better-established neighborhoods there is a higher likelihood of neighbors acting as guardians to help prevent property crimes. With that being said, better-established neighborhoods do not always have lower burglary rates. Burglars often choose homes by the attractiveness or the value in which the burglars associate with the physical appearance of a home. A neighborhood full of nice homes could potentially become a target because of the valuable items that are predicted to be inside the homes according to how valuable the house appears on the outside.
The lifestyle approach is a theory that is closely related to the routine activities theory and also effectively explains possible causes and factors related to the criminal act of burglary.
The lifestyle approach theory focuses a lot on the victim’s side of a crime and what factors could increase the change of becoming a victim. For example, it examines the increase of rates of victimizations throughout racial and ethnic minorities such as African Americans. It also addresses how a person’s personal lifestyle can affect the likelihood of becoming a victim of a crime. The lifestyle approach suggests several lifestyle choices that could possibly lead to victimization.
One approach of the theory is that individuals who choose to spend time in public places versus at home, especially at night, become at a higher risk to be victimized. As it relates to burglary, a person who is not at home as much may cause their property to be at a higher risk due to their absence. A person who is often away from the home at nighttime increases this risk due to the fact that there will be less guardians during a night time crime and also due to the fact that a crime committed at night time presents less risks for the criminal. A person’s interaction with other people in the community also presents a link to victimization. It is human nature for people to be social with people who share similar lifestyles. In the instance that a person does commit crimes such as burglary, he/she will most likely interact with other criminals.
Interacting with criminals makes a person more likely to become a victim of a crime. Also a non criminal who socializes with criminals is more likely to eventually become a criminal. Although, the situations mentioned are situations that can be changed in order to prevent victimization, there are some lifestyle factors that a person cannot simply change. For example a person, who is living in a risky neighborhood may financially not be able to move into a better neighborhood, and unfortunately become suitable targets for criminals that are living in the same demographic area.
Although these two theories address the circumstances and explain the rationalization a burglars thought process, there are some aspects of burglary and crime in general, which the theories do not explain. In both theories there is no focus given specifically to the individual that is committing the crimes in relation to personality, socioeconomic status, current economy, personal lifestyle, or past events. In both theories there is a significant amount of attention focused on the circumstances caused by the victim, and members of the society, but nothing about what creates a motivated offender. There are items that the theories could include in order to better explain burglary. One example would be to include factors that lead a person to make a rational choice to commit a crime. Why does one person become a “motivated offender” versus another person?
Between the two theories that were discussed, routine activities theory and lifestyle approach, there was information that one theory covered that the other did not. If the information between the two theories were combined it would create an overall better explanation of burglary. For example the routine activities theory addressed the factors in which made a burglar more likely to be commit a burglary, where the lifestyle approach focused more on how a victims made themselves vulnerable to burglaries according to their lifestyle. Each theory would be more valuable in including both sides of the criminal and the victim. The lifestyle approach addresses how crime rates and victimization affect racial and ethnic minorities.
Both theories present valuable information to both the study of criminal behavior and educational suggestions for potential victims. The theories explain clearly how a persons lifestyle, environment, safety precautions, and the role of potential witnesses, all create or destroy a criminal’s opportunity to make that person a victim.