Using Opportunity Theories to Explain Property Crime

Instructor: Paula Prior

Paula has taught Criminal Justice since 1997 and has a PhD in Criminal Justice

This lesson helps students to understand and apply three prominent 'Theories of Opportunity' to explain and address crime, using property crime as an example.

Ripe for the Taking

Have you ever seen someone leave their car running while they ran into a convenience store to grab something? Maybe you've done it yourself? Few people realize that this simple act facilitates property crime.

Keys in ignition Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

This situation shows just how opportunistic property crimes happen. Here, the car is left unattended with its keys in the ignition. Anyone walking by could, if they wanted to, just take it and be long gone before the owner returned, no planning required. Opportunity Theories say that the owner of this car is begging for it to be stolen.

Opportunity Theories of Property Crime

Theories of Opportunity are a family of explanations that focus on how offenders, rather than going out and actively looking for opportunities to commit crime, simply come across them as they go about their daily activities. Such theories argue that this is why more property crimes occur on busy streets or near heavy-traffic areas than in quiet, seldom-used ones. And, the more people who see an opportunity for crime, the more likely that one of them will take the opportunity and commit the crime.

Routine Activity Theory

Routine Activity Theory (RAT) holds that most offenders don't go out of their way to look for crimes to commit. Instead, they discover criminal opportunities while engaging in their 'routine activities' and choose to take advantage of them. Under RAT, for any crime to occur, three items must be present at the same time and place. These are:

  1. a suitable target
  2. a motivated offender
  3. lack of guardianship

Diagram of Routine Activity Theory created by author

In the introductory scenario, the car is the target. Anyone who wants it can take it. Nobody is there to stop them. Thus, there is a suitable target with no guardianship. All that remains is for a motivated offender to come along and all three conditions for a crime to occur are met.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory is another theory of opportunity. Here, potential offenders weigh the costs and benefits of a given crime. When they come across an opportunity for crime, they informally assess the situation to see whether or not it's worth taking. For example, if the running car is out in front of a police station, the potential benefit from stealing the car will likely be outweighed by the increased likelihood of getting caught. However, if the running car is parked at the edge of a large parking lot, the risk is much lower. This evaluation process takes only seconds and makes the difference between just walking by and getting in and driving off.

Crime Pattern Theory

Crime Pattern Theory builds on the Routine Activities Theory and Rational Choice Theory, combining the two. It takes into account locations but does so in relation to the offender. Some important concepts of Crime Pattern Theory are:

  • nodes
  • activity space
  • awareness space
  • edges

Nodes are places where people go on a regular basis. These include work, school, home, the gym, the grocery store or a nightclub. Activity Spaces center around these busy Nodes and are typically where crime occurs. This, for example, could be the parking garage of a favorite shopping center or a restaurant or theater in close proximity to a Node.

An individual's Awareness Space is made up of the routes and areas an individual is familiar with and comfortable using. Consider the different routes you might use to get home from work. There are probably two or three that you already know without having to use a map or GPS. Those routes and the various locations along the way are part of your Awareness Space.

In contrast, Edges are where an individual's awareness ends and where unfamiliar territory begins. Imagine you encounter a detour on the way to work and are re-routed into an area where you've never been before. Rather than relaxed and routine, the trip becomes tense and stressful because you don't know where you are and can't be sure you'll get to work on time. You've been pushed beyond the Edges of your Awareness Space. So much so, you probably wouldn't even notice any interesting places along the way.

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