Which Theory or Theories Work Best for the Crime Analyst?

When comparing the number of different criminological theories, it is clear that no one theory is a perfect explanation of the causes of crime. However, from the point of view of the crime analyst, a more important question needs to be asked: Which theory or theories help to understand the criminal offender’s motivation? And a follow-up question that needs to be asked is this: Can an offender’s pattern of behavior be identified?

In crime analysis, pattern recognition is a critical skill set needed for the crime and intelligence analyst to be able to deduce the distinct pattern or method of operation. There are, perhaps, three theories that provide the greatest utility for the crime analyst.

1. Rational choice theory: In the latter half of the twentieth century, there were criminologists busily constructing alternative theories to the classical theory or the neoclassical theory of crime. The major problem with the classical theory was that this theory held all people equally responsible for their criminal behavior. People—the classical school of thought contended—were all rational, intelligent beings who exercised free will. Yet, this rigid theory failed to take into account what we all know for a fact: people are different. Some people are less intelligent, less rational, and sometimes even severely mentally ill.

This, of course, is why the neoclassical school had an alternative theory. That was that while they agreed that people were rational and made their free will decisions, there were some individuals who committed crimes because of factors beyond their control. Age, mental illness, and other factors could influence the choices people make and affect a person’s ability to form criminal intent, or mens rea.

One alternative was Ronald Clarke and Derek Cornish’s rational choice theory. They argued that delinquents and adult criminal offenders are rational people who make calculated choices about what they are going to do before they act. Clarke and Cornish contend that offenders collect, process, and evaluate information about the crime and make a decision whether to commit it after they weigh the costs and benefits of doing so. Offenders, for instance, will decide where to commit their crime, who or what to target, and how to carry it out. This theory, in fact, has been confirmed through research with criminal offenders. Many offenders do study the potential targets and pick their crime target after considering the alternative targets. Gang violence and drug world violence is not necessarily random, but is often based on choices made to further some goal, such as to enhance prestige, make a big score, or reduce direct competition.

2. Routine activities theory: Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson advanced a theory that is somewhat similar to that put forward by Clarke and Cornish. The routine activities theory examines the crime target, but they argue that three elements must converge before a crime will be committed:

a. Motivated offenders

b. Suitable targets c. An absence of people—referred to as guardians by Cohen and Felson—who might deter the would-be offender This theory suggests that a motivated offender is a person who is inclined or easily tempted to commit a crime. However, there must be a suitable target (e.g., a window to a house left unlocked or a car without locked doors or an alarm system), and there must be an absence of guardians (e.g., police in the area, a security guard, a security camera, or citizens paying attention). In other words, the importance and relevance of this theory is that it says that situational factors and free will are relevant—and maybe crucial—to the commission of a crime.

3. Criminal personality theory: One theory that has been controversial is that proposed by psychologists Stanton Samenow and Samuel Yochelson. They have advanced the theory that criminals, not the environment, cause crime, and that there are patterns of thinking common to all hard-core criminals regardless of their background (Reid, 2009).

According to Samenow and Yochelson, the family has no particular effect on criminals. Instead, people who grow up to be criminals begin at an early age to engage in self-destructive patterns of antisocial behavior. Furthermore, these individuals engage in thinking errors, which are typical for most people at some times, but in the offender are taken to extremes. For example, offenders may make assumptions like the rest of us, but they act on their assumptions and may even assault or kill someone based on their assumptions. Samenow contends that criminals build themselves up at the expense of others, and that they view human relationships as avenues for conquest and triumph. They employ any possible means to achieve their own ends, including deception, intimidation, and brute force. Furthermore, they do not consider the impact of their behavior on others.

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