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Rational Choice and Decision Making Theories to Explain Criminal Behavior

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Theory is an explanation, a model or a framework for understanding events or processes. This in turn helps the criminal justice system begin to understand not just why people commit crime but also who commits crime and how offenders stop offending. As stated by Cornish and Clarke, offenders are seeking to benefit themselves through their criminal behaviour; this involves the process of making decisions and choices. Through this we are able to start to try and understand why certain groups of offenders do in fact commit those crimes.

Theory block one: choice and decision-making highlights that offenders have the free will and the inclination to decide whether or not to commit a crime. This is explained through the offender rationally weighing up the risks and rewards and concluding that the potential reward is greater than the perceived risk if they were to be caught. Within this Theory block there are two main sections: Classical which includes the theorists: Beccaria (1738-1794), Bentham (1748-1832), Ferri (1856-1928) and Lombroso (1835-1909). Beccaria and Bentham both believed that in order to dissuade a person from committing a crime the punishment must follow swiftly and be of a greater consequence than the reward from committing the crime (Newburn,2017). In many cases the reward was through gaining material pleasure or of psychological pleasure through the excitement of breaking the law. The second section is more commonly known as Neo-Classical which includes the theorists: Becker (1928-), Clarke (1946-) & Cornish (1939-) and Cohen (1918-2014) & Felson. This section states that the offenders engage in crime in order to advantage themselves in some way, be it financially or through material objects.

Beccaria stated that the law should clearly advertise what acts are forbidden as well as the different sanctions imposed for committing each crime. The punishment for this crime must then be swiftly inflicted and with certainty in order to create a close connection and sureness in people’s minds between a crime and its inevitable punishment. This idea helps to create a deterrence for any criminal who is considering committing a crime as the punishment now outweighs the reward and could have longer effects on the offender. This can include having a criminal record which might prevent future employment or a healthy relationship.

Historically well-known observation show that males offend more than females as males have lower levels of self-control than females (Piquero, A & Tibbetts, S, 2002). This observation was due to the biased thinking that a woman cannot commit a crime due to her maternal nature and her thinking of not wanting to shame her family. However, as our understanding to criminal theory has evolved so has our understanding of offenders. It is now recognised that females can commit petty crimes as well as heinous crimes, which goes against the original idea that females are unable to commit crimes. This understanding has allowed the theory to develop into knowing that people will commit crime if their rewards for doing so is greater than the punishment, this is now known to be because of a variety of reasons such as a person’s situation, mental stability or the circumstances in which they commit a crime. However, two theorists Nagin and Paternoster (1993) stated that social pathologies such as the effect of demographic variables have little to do with someone’s rational choice, which due to the development of the integrated approach has been disproven.

This theory poses many benefits as well as drawbacks when fitting into contemporary society. For example, one drawback is that sociologically trained criminologists constantly question and disagree with rational choice theory because it seems comes across as too financially based and fails to take into consideration the theoretical studies of social influences in crimes. This drawback of Rational choice theory (Clarke & Cornish, 2001) links to the assumptions made by theorist when believing the offenders know or are aware of the punishments available should they commit a crime. This means that the offender has not been educated efficiently enough to recognise what they are doing is wrong and what may be the consequences from committing this crime. Another drawback from this theory is that it suggests all individuals should be treated equally, however, a major flaw in this is that it does not take into consideration the circumstances of differing crimes; for example, what the offender’s situation is and how much threat or danger this crime or offender poses to society. One theory that takes this into consideration is social pathologies; this block suggests that an individual is influenced by communities, culture, society and the wider environment.

It has been suggested by the theorists Gottfredson & Hirschi (1990) that offenders may “age out” of offending, they may not typically develop self – control but may develop protective factors as they age such as: employment, relationships, education and access to legitimate means. This can be shown in the life- course development model. This links to society today because there are more educational opportunities in schools which teach adolescents and younger pupils what the punishments for crimes are, this therefor creates a protective factor and may deter potential offenders, linking into both social pathologies where a person is influenced by their wider environment and to choice and decision-making as the knowledge of the punishments will outweigh the potential rewards or breaking the law.

Through this research I have found that a large proportion of criminals do make conscious decisions on whether to commit a crime or not by weighing up the consequences. However, I do believe through comparing social pathologies theory with choice and decision making, that a person’s environment and context in why they committed the crime also has a strong influence on why people offend.  

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