Criminology | Section 3.5

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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Rational Choice Theory

The expansion of the deterrence concept has been most associated with the introduction of “rational choice” theory into criminology.  Rational choice theory is based on the “expected utility” principle of economic theory.

The expected utility principle states that people will make rational decisions based on the extent to which they expect the choice to maximize their profits or benefits and minimize the costs or losses.

This is the same general assumption about human nature made by classical criminology.

The obvious sameness between rational choice theory and deterrence theory stems from the fact that they both stemmed from utilitarian philosophy of the eighteenth century.  Until very recently however, rational choice was only applied to economics.  Economists studying crime introduced rational choice theory to criminology.

Rational choice theorists claim that the theory is more than just an extension of classical criminology.

Rational choice is more inclusive; it explains all stages of a criminal career including decisions to commit a specific crime and the development of criminal careers.  Decisions are based on the offender’s expected effort and reward compared to the likelihood and severity of punishment and other costs of crime—non-legal costs are included.

Does an offender choose to commit a crime with full knowledge and free will, taking into account only a carefully reasoned, objectively or subjectively determined set of costs and benefits?  So far, there is no empirical support of the criminal calculus argument.

The purely rational calculation of the probable consequences of an action is a rarity even among the general conforming public.  Even offenders who pursue crime on a regular, business-like basis typically do not operate through a wholly rational decision-making process.

In a study of property offenders, Tunnell (1996) found that:

  • The threat of reimprisonment did not deter their recommission of crimes.
  • Offenders thought they would gain income and not get caught (or get short, easy sentences)
  • Offenders were not afraid of prison
  • Offenders unable to make reasonable assessments of the risk of arrest
  • Did little planning for crime

Uninformed about the legal penalties in the state where their crimes were committed, “They simply believed they would not get caught and refused to think beyond that point.”

Rational choice theorists rarely put forth purely choice-based models of reality.  Most theories hold that criminal behavior is partly choice and partly limits and constraints on choices through lack of information, moral values, and other influences—this is an important departure from Bentham’s model.

Detection, apprehension, conviction, and punishment of offenders are all based on the theory that legal penalties are the chief deterrent to crime.  Legislation outlawing certain acts and providing punishment for committing those acts is based on the deterrence theory—through both general and specific deterrence.

Lawmakers have paid the most attention to enhancing severity—they believe the more severe punishments will prevent crime.  This belief is the basis for the wave of “get tough” policies and laws enacted since the late 1970s.  These included such things as restoration of capital punishment, restricting good time, abolishment of parole, restriction of judicial discretion, longer sentences, three strikes laws, and so forth.

The Bottom Line

Deterrence seems to be one factor among many in preventing people from committing criminal acts, but it does not seem to be a very big one.  It seems more likely that people do not commit criminal acts because they believe them to be wrong.  Most sociologists would say this is because people have been socialized to follow the norms of society.

Key Individuals & Terms

Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, Celerity, Certainty, Classical Criminology, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), Deterrence Theory, Expected Utility Principle, Free Will, General Deterrence, Proportionality, Rational Choice Theory, Retribution, Routine Activities Theory, Scared Straight, Severity, Shock Incarceration, Specific Deterrence


Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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