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Implications of Choice Theory on Social Policy & Crime

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  • 0:04 What Is Choice Theory?
  • 0:39 Foundations of Choice Theory
  • 1:22 Choice Theory and Crime
  • 3:09 Deterrence Theory
  • 4:22 Choice Theory and…
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Eric Keith

Dr. Keith holds a PhD in Criminology and has instructed adult and collegiate learners in theory, research, and application of the social sciences.

Choice theory centers around rational individuals exercising their free will to decide to either commit a crime or not. Resulting public policy attempts to deter and prevent crime through punishment and increased public safety resources.

What Is Choice Theory?

You are faced with choices every day: the route you take to work, where to eat lunch, or whether you exercise or not. You rationally weigh your options, as well as the benefits and/or costs of your possible decisions, and you have the free will to finalize and act upon your decisions. You also do this each time you choose to follow general rules, including the law. But think about this: you can also choose to steal or vandalize if you feel you can get away with it and gain something from it. You might not even fear the punishment that comes with getting caught. This is the premise of the choice theory of crime.

Foundations of Choice Theory

Choice theory was based on a classical model of crime in that all offenders are viewed as rational-thinking individuals who make a rational choice to commit a crime. In fact, this theory was based on the foundational work of Cesare Beccaria, an 18th century Italian philosopher, who theorized that all offenders are rational beings exercising their free will to commit crimes. The central piece of this classical view of crime relied upon punishment as a deterrent to crime. This gave rise to the role of choice theory accounting for and explaining crime through key sub-theories, including:

  • Rational choice theory
  • Routine activities theory
  • Deterrence theory
  • Incapacitation theory

Choice Theory on Crime

Think of yourself as a rational-thinking individual exercising free will to either commit a crime or not. In that decision-making process, you consider the benefits, rewards, risks, and costs associated with something like stealing a car versus purchasing one. This includes the potential of an arrest, jail, fines, public humiliation, and perhaps the loss of your job. On the other hand, by stealing the car you get an adrenaline rush, a free car, and perhaps a cheap way to take a road trip with little chance of getting a harsh punishment. This is the basis of the choice theory.

Rational choice theory (RCT) views offenders and non-offenders the same way. They are both rational individuals making decisions based on an individual need to gain some type of benefit or reward. Individuals engage in a rational decision making process to weigh the benefits versus the costs of either offending or not offending. Crime is viewed as a math equation; when the benefits outweigh the costs of crime, crimes are committed in order to obtain what individuals want or need.

Routine activities theory (RAT) is an extension of RCT. RCT indicates why individuals offend. RAT, on the other hand, indicates more or less how crimes take place. The main elements necessary for a crime to take place are a motivated offender, a suitable target or victim, and a lack of capable guardians or police to deter offenders. The essential part of this theory is routines, meaning the daily, normal activities of potential victims that put them in the location of offenders. Crime is viewed as situational; offenders need the right victim, time and circumstances to carry out the crime of choice.

Deterrence Theory

Deterrence theory represents the cost of crime through punishment, which motivates individuals to refrain from criminal activity, thus deterring them from crime. The two sub-theories of deterrence are:

  1. General deterrence, which refers to deterring individuals that have not yet engaged in crime and is intended to deter the general population.
  2. Specific deterrence, which refers to specific individuals who have previously offended, been arrested and punished who choose not to offend in the future based on their experiences.

Deterrence theory centers around punishment. Punishment needs to be severe, swift and certain to be applied relative to the crime in order to effectively deter individuals. Crime is viewed as preventable as long as there is just and equal punishment correlating to the severity and nature of the crime.

Incapacitation theory refers to the process of restricting or removing a person from society to prevent further offending. The most common form of incapacitation is imprisonment. The other major alternative is capital punishment, which constitutes permanent removal from society. Crime is viewed as preventable as long as offenders are separated from society and incapable of committing future crimes.

Choice Theory and Public Policy

Choice theory has led to public policies that incentivize non-offending and de-incentivize crime. Deterrence through punishment and incapacitation has prompted policy makers to institute 'get tough' policies of mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, three-strikes laws to increase jail time, or the death penalty to permanently remove an offender. These policies, based on RCT, are intended to motivate individuals to not offend.

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