Routine Activities Theory

Routine activities theory seeks to explain the occurrence of crime events as the confluence of four circumstances (Cohen and Felson, 1979; Felson, 1986,1994). First, there must be a motivated offender. Second, there must be a desirable target.Third, the target and the offender must be at the same place at the same time. Finally, three other types of controllers—intimate handlers, guardians, or place managers—must be absent or ineffective. Intimate handlers are people who have direct personal influence over an offender (such as parents, teachers, coaches, friends, or employers). In the presence of such people, potential offenders do not commit crimes. Most adults are away from intimate handlers for many hours of the day, and many offenders, both juvenile and adult, have few or no intimate handlers (Felson, 1986). People who can protect targets are guardians.They too must be missing from the place. Guardians include friends (as when four women decide to walk together to the parking lot after a night class in order to protect each other) as well as formal authorities,such as private security guards and public police. People or objects that are separated from guardians for sustained periods have elevated risks of victimization. People who take care of the places are place managers. Place managers, such as janitors and apartment managers, regulate behavior at the locations they control. For a crime to occur, such people must be absent, ineffective, or negligent (Eck, 1994).

Crime Pattern Theory

Crime pattern theory is particularly important in developing an understanding of crime and place, as it combines rational choice and routine activities theory to help explain the distribution of crime across places. The distribution of offenders, targets, handlers, guardians, and managers over time and place will describe crime patterns. With the growth of shopping malls, strip malls, and stand-alone fitness centers, for instance, there is often an increased number of potential targets, while the people who can protect those facilities (handlers, guardians, and managers) and the people who frequent them (potential victims) may have little or no contact (e.g., in elevators, stairwells, and large parking areas). Reasonably rational offenders, while engaging in their routine activities, will note places that are without guardians and managers and where their handlers are unlikely to show up. Crime pattern theory explores the interactions of offenders with their physical and social environments that influence offenders’ chosen targets.

According to crime pattern theory; how targets come to the attention of offenders influences the distribution of crime events over time, space, and among targets (P.L. Brantingham and PJ. Brantingham, 1993).This occurs because offenders engage in routine activities. Just like other nonoffending individuals, offenders move among the spheres of home, school, work, shopping, and recreation. As they conduct their normal legitimate activities, they become aware of criminal opportunities. Thus, criminal opportunities which are not near the areas that offenders routinely move through are unlikely to come to their attention. A given offender will be aware of only a subset of the possible targets available. Criminal opportunities found at places that come to the attention of offenders lead to new potential targets for crimes (P.L. Brantingham and P.J. Brantingham, 1993).While a few offenders may aggressively seek out uncharted areas, most will conduct their searches within the areas they become familiar with through noncriminal activities.

The concept of place is essential to crime pattern theory. Not only are places logically required (an offender must be in a place when an offense is committed), but also the characteristics of certain places influence the likelihood of a crime. Place characteristics highlighted by routine activities theory include the presence and effectiveness of managers and the presence of capable guardians. Crime pattern theory links places with desirable targets and the context within which they are found by focusing on how places come to the attention of potential offenders.

Although crime pattern theory and routine activities theory are mutually supportive in many respects, they can give rise to differing explanations of crime at specific locations. Given a set of high-crime locations, a crime pattern theorist would focus on how offenders discover and gain access to the place. A routine activities theorist would focus instead on the behaviors of the targets and the possible absence of controllers whose presence could have prevented the offenses from taking place—guardians, handlers, and place managers. In other words, for the crime pattern theorist, places are problematic because of their location and relationship to the environment. For the routine activities theorist, places are problematic because of the types of people present and absent from the location. Clearly, both explanations can be valid in different contexts and situations. It would seem that crimespecific explanations may show that for some events, crime pattern theory is a particularly useful explanation; for other events, routine activities theory offers greater insights; and for a third group of events, some combination of the two theories is needed.

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