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During the late 1970s, the routine activities theory by Cohen and Felson posited that rates of predatory crime are reflective of how three specific variables are distributed in time and space. In short, the theory stated that for crime to be committed, three elements converge: an available target, a motivated offender, and a lack of guardians. Whether or not the three come together presumably reflects how people in a given social context conduct their lives and pursue sustenance activities (Tittle, 2000). Routine activity theory asserts that the lack of guardianship, or in some instances weak guardianship, occurs when frequent outside activities lure the homeowner away from home for extended periods. Target selection, as with any type of predatory crime, is directly related to the value, size and portability of objects to be stolen. The third aspect being that of a motivated offender is assumed constantly present regardless of place, time or guardian presence.
Many scholars believe that regardless of the opportunity created by suitable and unguarded targets, motivated offenders will seize the moment should the opportunity present itself. Some researchers, on the other hand, have suggested that minorities, males, and youths have more motivation for illegal conduct and have therefore employed demographic measures as proxies for criminal motivation (Tittle, 2000). Many theories attempt to explain criminal events by defining either the criminal or the victim in a particular crime set. The routine activity theory, however, addresses both components and a broader grouping of theories of opportunity. Much of the early research of routine activity theory focused on property crimes, as it was generally believed the theory was not readily adaptable to personal or violent crimes (Mustaine & Tewksbury, 2000). This was, in part, because the theory focused on victims as static conditions and immobile objects, rather than as social actors. This thought process was challenged by some in the early developmental stages of routine activity theory and has been abandoned only in recent years.
Contemporary routine activity theory research has clearly shown its utility for understanding violent crimes offenders, and victims (Mustaine & Tewksbury, 2000). The original philosophy of the routine activity approach associated offenders as a given, however, later work focused more on informal social control of offenders by linking the routine activity philosophy to Hirschi’s social control theory (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). As a result, a two-step version of the control theory was created that not only established social bonds, but also social control as well. This particular theory posits that parents develop an emotional attachment between themselves and their children in which the parent becomes an intimate handler. As such, through close proximity, the parent has an intimate knowledge of the child’s behavior, which manifests itself as a form of social control. As a result, anyone recognizing the youth can exert social control over the youth merely through the knowledge of, and association with, the child’s parents (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).
This level of social control is based not only on identification of the youth but on the identification of who exactly is breaking the rules. In a smaller community, the task of determining who is breaking the rules is not necessarily a difficult one, since people in smaller communities tend to be more easily recognizable. However, it becomes easier to evade social controls as individuals become more transient and move to larger metropolitan locations where they are not recognized (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). In essence, this notion of informal social control then requires keeping likely offenders near capable guardians in order to discourage crime from occurring. It can also be accomplished by establishing capable guardians to control or monitor places when monitoring likely offenders becomes more delimited. So, in effect, the role of the capable guardian can be assumed by not only a parent or homeowner but by a hotel doorman, a restaurant manager, a private security officer or a close neighbor who can discourage crime by monitoring locations rather than individuals (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). In other words, taking on the role and responsibility of a conscientious citizen adds a level of “social guardianship” and can assist in discouraging criminal activity.
Felson further describes the responsibility for places, into four separate categories. The first, Personal Responsibility, asserts that those assume responsibility for some places, who own them or who are intimately related to owners (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). The second, Assigned Responsibility, asserts that responsibility for some places is assumed by employees specifically assigned to look after those places. Incentive to perform is provided to these employees for fear that they might be disciplined or fired, should a crime be allowed to be perpetrated in that particular place (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). Third, Diffused Job Responsibility, asserts that responsibility for places is assumed by other employed persons with less precise responsibility. Therefore, a member of the office secretarial pool might take note of somebody loitering in the building or entering the suite of offices without justification, even if not assigned the job responsibility of checking, and take appropriate action (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). And finally, General Responsibility asserts that any conscientious citizen or visitor assumes responsibility for some places whose presence discourages crime or who realizes that illegal activity is or might be occurring there (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).
Empirical studies have yielded many theoretical explanations that substantiate and generally support routine activity theory, however, some have proven to be inadequate in illuminating a theoretical explanation. Early studies utilize routine activity theory as an explanation that addresses the likelihood of criminal victimization on a macro level, even though Cohen and Felson (1979) actually constructed the theory to be tested at a micro level. Rather than emphasizing the characteristics of offenders, with this approach scholars began to concentrate on the circumstances in which they carry out predatory criminal acts (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Subsequent scholars have expanded the examination of routine activity theory in an attempt to explain not merely criminal victimization in a broader sense but to build a systematical theoretical position that coherently examines individual victimization, and attempts to hammer out inconsistencies and contradictions of position regarding the importance of places (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). Part of the rationalization for focusing on crime places is the notion of hot spots. Numerous studies have suggested that crime is not spread equitably throughout a city and that there is significant clustering of crimes in smaller areas called hot spots (Braga, 2007). These hot spots tend to generate over half of all criminal events (Sherman, 1989; Braga, 2007), even within the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, as crime showed the tendency to cluster at a few discrete locations while others remained relatively crime free (Sherman, 1989).
The policing of hot spots, many times made more robust through data-driven or evidence-based policing, has become a very popular way for police departments to prevent crime. Recent studies have revealed that 7 in 10 departments with more than 100 sworn officers reported using crime mapping to identify crime hot spots (Braga, 2007; Weisburd et al. 2003). In fact, a growing body of research evidence suggests that focused police interventions, such as directed patrols, proactive arrests, and problem-oriented policing, can produce significant crime prevention gains at high-crime “hot spots” (Braga 2002; Eck 1997, 2002; Skogan and Frydl 2004; Weisburd and Eck 2004). However, many critics of place-based interventions posit that such policing strategies result in displacement, whereas the criminals then move to places not protected by police intervention (Braga, 2007; Repetto 1976) or not yet recognized through evidence-based data. Given the growing popularity of hot spots policing, regular systematic reviews of the empirical evidence on the effects of focused police interventions on crime hot spots by police administrators should be conducted to assess the value and sustainability of this approach to crime prevention (Braga, 2007).
Although victimization is the most popular dependent variable, it is important that scholars have also begun to study types of victimization, crime concentration of particular areas, the preventive effects of various place features, the mobility of offenders, and the perplexing concept of how offenders select their targets. Some scholars have gone as far as to examine Cybercrime, in an attempt to evaluate the extent to which the theory’s concepts and an etiological schema can be transposed to crimes committed in a virtual environment (Yar, 2005). Substantively, although some of the theory’s core concepts can indeed be applied to cybercrime, there remain important differences between virtual and terrestrial worlds that tend to limit the theory’s usefulness (Yar, 2005).
In any event, there have been numerous studies have that have focused on testing routine activity theory at both the macro and micro levels, while at the same time attempting to explain criminal victimization, as well as criminal offending. Despite advances made both theoretically and empirically over the last three decades, efforts to synthesize the existing body of scholarship have fallen short. During this time, however, theories of crime have been greatly informed by an influx of thinking that supersedes criminology’s traditionally myopic focus on offenders. Most notably, the exposure/lifestyle theory (Hindelang et al. 1978), routine activity theory (Cohen and Felson 1979) and work relating to environmental criminology and crime pattern theory (Brantingham and Brantingham 1981) have significantly influenced thinking about criminal victimization and crime rates (Farrell, Clark, Ellingworth, & Pease, 2005). The role of victims and other targets, and their interaction with the environment or context, are now understood to play a major role in determining the opportunity structure (Clarke and Cornish 1986) in which offenses occur and aggregate crime rates are determined (Farrell et al., 2005).
Traditional routine activity research has had the tendency to focus on understanding criminal events, causes of crime, victims, and offenders. Typically, however, the emphasis has only been directed at one party to the event, that being the victim (Mustaine & Tewksbury, 2000). Such a narrow focus implies that a pool of potential offenders is always present, and therefore it is more important to focus on victims. However, one must not minimalize the importance of location and the varied opportunities that locations bring to the equation. For years after the release of the Kansas City experiment, and lacking any credible replicated studies, criminologists and law enforcement policymakers alike touted that there was no evidence to prove that police patrol can affect crime. However, subsequent hot spots studies have provided evidence to the contrary. Research has now shown clear, yet modest, general deterrent effects of substantial increases in police presence in crime hot spots (Sherman & Weisburd, 1995). Studies have also indicated that there are problems inherent with directed patrol within hot spots that are systemic to law enforcement agencies, in that many police officers find directed patrol distasteful and boring, as its focus is on preventing crime from occurring rather than the higher profile and more exciting prospect of apprehending criminals subsequent to the crime has already occurred. Additionally, directed patrol efforts have more recently drawn fire by social activists, as a practice that promotes systemic discrimination, creating and perpetuating disadvantage for minority individuals.
Obviously, one theoretical approach is not the end-all explanation to the problem of who, how, why and when crime is committed. The lack of a capable guardian will always provide a lack of structure that leaves time available for deviant acts to occur. Socializing with peers away from the home environment and authority figures can encourage deviant behavior if an opportunity presents itself. Routine activities account for an immense amount of the relationship between deviance and the structural variables of age, sex, and social status and are a key intersection between the macro-level of social structure and the micro-level of individual lives (Osgood, Wilson, O’Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996). Therefore, the routine activity perspective is representative of a radical departure from traditional theories in the study of deviant and criminal behavior (Osgood et al., 1996).
The routine activities theory was developed in an attempt to assist in the understanding of the spatial distribution of crime. As with other related theories such as broken windows theory, it reaffirms that crime theories should incorporate an understanding of the many causal factors related to deviant behavior, not merely victimization. It reflects the various influences on the suitability of targets, upon the motivation and ability of potential offenders, upon the capability of guardianship, or upon the frequency of their interaction (Farrell et al., 2005). Offenders are but one element in a crime, and for that matter, not the most important one either. Predatory crimes need targets absent a guardian, fights thrive on audiences and troublemakers, illegal drug sales depend on camouflaged settings that are easy to access and exit. The routine activity theory emphasizes how illegal activities thrive on the legal routine activities of everyday life (Felson, 1998), but it also defines our responsibility as conscientious citizens.
Braga, A. (2002). Problem-oriented policing and crime prevention. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.
Braga, A. A. (2007). Effects of hot spots policing on crime. Retrieved from http://www.aic.gov.au/campbellcj/reviews/titles.html
Brantingham, P. J., & Brantingham, P. L. (1981). Environmental Criminology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979, August). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44, 588-608.
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Eck, J. (2002). Preventing crime at places. In L. Sherman, D. Farrington, B. Welsh, & D. L. MacKenzie (Eds.), Evidence-based crime prevention (pp. 241-294). New York: Routledge.
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Farrell, G., Clark, K., Ellingworth, D., & Pease, K. (2005). Of targets and supertargets: A routine activity theory of high crime rates. Internet Journal of Criminology, 1-25.
Felson, M. (1998). Crime and everyday life (2nd ed.). London: Pine Forge Press.
Mustaine, E. E., & Tewksbury, R. (2000, August). Comparing the lifestyles of victims, offenders, and victim-offenders: A routine activity theory assessment of similarities and differences for criminal incident participants. Sociological Focus, 33, 339-362.
Osgood, D. W., Wilson, J. K., O’Malley, P. J., Bachman, J. G., & Johnston, L. D. (1996, August). Routine activities and individual deviant behavior. American Sociological Review, 61, 635-655.
Repetto, T. (1976). Crime prevention and the displacement phenomenon. Crime and Delinquency, 22, 166-177.
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Sherman, L. W., & Weisburd, D. (1995, December). General deterrent effects of police patrol in crime hot spots: A randomized controlled trial. Justice Quarterly, 12(4), 625-648.
Skogan, W., & Frydl, K. (Eds.). (2004). Fairness and effectiveness in policing: The evidence. Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Tittle, C. R. (2000). Theoretical developments in criminology. Criminal Justice, 1, 51-101.
Weisburd, D., & Braga, A. (2003). Hot spots policing. In H. Kury, & J. Obergfell-Fuchs (Eds.), Crime prevention: New approaches (pp. 337-354). Mainz, Germany: Weisser Ring.
Yar, M. (2005). The novelty of cybercrime: An assessment in light of routine activity theory. European Society of Criminology, 2(4), 407-427.
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