Spatial Crime Theories in Practice

There is no one cause of crime. Crime is a highly complex phenomenon that changes across cultures and across time. Activities that are legal in one country (e.g., alcohol consumption in the UK) are sometimes illegal in others (e.g., strict Muslim countries). As cultures change over time, behaviors that once were not criminalized may become criminalized (and then decriminalized again, e.g., alcohol prohibition in the USA). As a result, there is no simple answer to the question what is crime? and therefore no single answer to what causes crime? Different types of crime often have their own distinct causes. The theoretical and empirical work on research on crime may be traced back to the middle of the 19th century. The social ecology perspective evolved into more specifically focused place-based theories of crime, particularly the routine activities theory (Luc et al., 2000).

Since the 20th century, the interest in crime places continuously grows. The identification of crime hot spots was perhaps a watershed in refocusing attention on spatial/locational features of crime. This interest spans theory from the perspective of understanding the etiology of crime, and practice from the perspective of developing effective criminal justice interventions to reduce crime (Luc et ah, 2000). Three approaches are predominant while studying the spatial criminology as: crime pattern theory, rational choice theory, and routine activity theory. According to the crime pattern theory, rationally and reasonably motivated offenders, during daily routine activities, are in contact with a relatively small part of the city. Among the perceived and unconscious nodes, paths and edges offenders select the appropriate objects or victims of a crime in a multistage decision-making process. The spatial distribution of crime in a city depends on its spatial pattern, land use, transportation system, and the street network (Natalia and Michael, 2017).

Here it becomes essential to provide an overview of some of the key criminological theories which seek to explain the causes of crime. Each of the theories covered has its own strengths and weaknesses, has gaps, and may only be applicable to certain types of crime and not others. The theories covered can be categorized as:

Biological Theories

Biological explanations of crime assume that some people are “born criminals”, who are physiologically distinct from non-criminals. The most famous proponent of this approach is Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso’s most famous work. L'uomodelinquente (The Criminal Man), considered by many historians the founding text of modern criminology. Lombroso focused on the criminal rather than crime. Key concepts in the various editions of L’uomodelinquente were atavism, degeneration, and the idea of the born criminal (Beccalossi, 2010). Lombroso’s work has long since fallen out of favor. However, biological theories have continued to develop. Rather than measuring physical features of the body, contemporary approaches focus on:

  • • Biochemical conditions (e.g., linked to poor diet or hormone imbalance)
  • • Neurophysiologic conditions (e.g., learning disabilities caused by brain damage)
  • • Genetic inheritance and/or abnormality
  • • Intelligence

These attempts, to locate the causes of crime within the individual, suggest that there are identifiable differences between offenders and non-offenders. In other words, the criminal is “other”: in some way different or abnormal to everyone else.

Sociological Theories

Sociological approaches suggest that crime is shaped by factors external to the individual: their experiences within the neighborhood, the peer group, and the family. According to Shaw and McKay, the neighborhoods that have the highest rates of crime typically have at least three common problems: physical dilapidation, poverty, and heterogeneity. Shaw and McKay believed there was a breakdown of informal social controls in these areas and that children began to learn offending norms from their interactions with peers on the street. Thus, the breakdown in the conditions of the neighborhood leads to social disorganization, which in turn leads to delinquents learning criminal activities from older youth in the neighborhood.

Guerry and Quetelet extensively interpreted and analyzed the spatial variation in community crime levels in terms of the varying social conditions of the local populations. The Chicago School of the early 1920s is responsible for the emergence of ecological studies in sociological research. Place-based theories fall squarely within the theoretical tradition of social ecology, but are more specific about the mechanisms by which structural context is translated into individual action. The dominant theoretical perspectives derive from the routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson, 1979) and rational choice theory (Clarke and Cornish, 1985). In both cases, the distribution of crime is determined by the intersection in time and space of suitable targets and motivated offenders (Luc et al., 2000).

The principal focus of attention of the Chicago School and of debate concerning the ecology of crime, however, was the geographical distribution of the residences of offenders rather than the locations at which crime occurred (Weisburd et al. 2012). From the end of the Second World War to the 1970s, criminology privileged person over place. The potential for geography to gain greater prominence in crime analysis thereafter improved, with the emergence of economic perspectives on crime in the form of rational choice theory (Clarke and Cornish, 1985). Collectively, these opportunity theories of crime ushered in a rich new set of ideas with which to explore criminal activity, but with the focus firmly on micro-social reasoning, how- individuals interact in specific locational contexts (Bannister et al., 2019).

Contemporary theories of crime, place, and space include:

  • • Defensible space theory, which examines howf the design of physical space is related to crime.
  • • Broken windows theory, which looks at the relationship between low-level disorder and crime.
  • • Routine activities theory, w-hich considers how opportunities to commit crime are shaped by people’s everyday movements through space and time.

Strain theories state that certain strains or stressors increase the likelihood of crime. Crime may be a way to reduce or escape from strains. Crime may be used to seek revenge against the source of strain or related targets. Merton developed the first major strain theory of crime in the 1930s. Strain theories are among the dominant explanations of crime (Deflem, 2003). Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, criminologists began to suggest that the inability to achieve monetary success or middle- class status was not the only important type of strain. They claimed that the inability to achieve any of these goals might result in delinquency. So, strain theories are based on a simple, commonsense idea: When people are treated badly, they may become upset and engage in crime (Agnew, 2008). Subcultural theories build upon the work of Merton. According to Cohen, lower-working-class population want to achieve the success which is valued by mainstream culture. This results in status frustration, as the person is at the bottom of the social structure and have little chance of gaining a higher status in society. In these subcultures the individual who lacked respect in mainstream society can gain it by committing crimes such as vandalism and truancy.

Social control theory has remained a major paradigm in criminology since its introduction in 1969. According to Hirschi (1969), virtually all existing criminological theories began w-ith a faulty fundamental premise: that criminal behavior requires, in some form, the creation of criminal motivation. As Walklate observes, this theory lends itself to the range of policy initiatives know-n as situational crime prevention, sometimes referred to as designing out crime. This is the umbrella term for a range of strategies that are used to reduce the opportunities to commit crime. Left realism is a main school of thought within critical criminology. While left realism may not be as popular in critical criminological circles as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, it is still at the forefront of an unknown number of progressive criminologists’ minds (Walter, 2010).

Left realists also support two other key theories to explain crime:

  • • Marginalization: Some groups experience marginalization and at different levels (social, political and economic). These groups are on the periphery of society. Lacking political representation, these groups represent themselves and their ways of taking political action include the commission of crime and violence.
  • • Sub-cultures: Marginalized individuals and groups may come into contact with others who share these experiences, and who then may form their own sub-cultures in which crime and violence may feature.
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