by David Sutton

Ronald V. Clarke is one of the earliest proponents of Rational Choice as a theory of Criminology. Currently, and since 1987, he is Dean as well as a Professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey. From 1968 until 1984, he was the head of the Home Office Research and Planning Unit, the British government’s criminological research department. For the previous four years he served as a research training officer in a training school for delinquent boys. His current research examines rational choice in criminological theory, the ecology of crime, and situational crime theory. In fact, the Rutgers School of Criminology established "The Center for Crime Prevention Studies" which conducts research in the area of crime prevention in the areas of environmental and situational crime prevention.

Ronald V. Clarke was educated in England where he received his BA in Psychology and Philosophy in 1962 from the University of Bristol. He received his Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology in 1965 from the University of London and received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1968 from there as well. He was elected a Fellow of the British Psychological Society in 1978. Presently, his publications include over 130 books, monographs, and articles. The topics include criminological theory, psychology of crime, suicide, burglary, vandalism, robbery, auto theft, crime prevention, police effectiveness, effectiveness of penal treatment, institutional regimes, characteristics of delinquents, evaluation methodology, and research and policy. Apparently possessed of a sense of humor, Dr. Clarke lists as a distinction in his curriculum vitae being a "Guest at Buckingham Palace garden party, June 1983."

The rational choice perspective of criminology expounded by Clarke and Cornish in 1985 posits that "crime is purposive behavior designed to meet the offender’s commonplace needs for such things as money, status, sex, excitement, and that meeting these needs involves the making of (sometimes quite rudimentary) decisions and choices, constrained as they are by limits of time and ability and the availability of relevant information." (Clarke, 1997: 9-10) In sum, criminal offenders make decisions that appear rational -- to the offenders at least -- to engage in specific criminal acts.

The immediate roots of rational choice theory, discussed later, are routine activity, situational crime prevention, and economic theories of crime such as those of G.S. Becker. (Clarke, 1997:9) At least one writer sees the antecedents of rational choice in the works of David Matza, who in 1964 concentrated on trying to explain the decision making and subsequent behavior of juvenile delinquents. (Miethe and Meier, 1994:11). However, the earliest roots of rational choice theory are much older and actually go all the way back to the classical school of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. (Lilly, Cullen and Ball, 1995:216) The central points of their theory are:

(1) The human being is a rational actor,

(2) Rationality involves an end/means calculation,

(3) People (freely) choose behavior, both conforming and deviant, based on their rational calculations,

(4) The central element of calculation involves a cost benefit analysis: Pleasure versus Pain [or hedonistic calculus],

(5) Choice, with all other conditions equal, will be directed towards the maximization of individual pleasure,

(6) Choice can be controlled through the perception and understanding of the potential pain or punishment that will follow an act judged to be in violation of the social good, the social contract,

(7) The state is responsible for maintaining order and preserving the common good through a system of laws (this system is the embodiment of the social contract),

(8) The Swiftness, Severity, and Certainty of punishment are the key elements in understanding a law's ability to control human behavior. (Keel, 1997)

Both the classical school and rational choice theory proceed on the assumption that individuals make reasoned decisions based on maximization of pleasure or profits. However, contemporary rational choice theorists, including Dr. Clarke, differ from the more rationalistic exponents of classicism by making allowances for factors such as morality, inaccurate information and fear "that might distort the hedonistic calculus [of classical theory]." (Lilly, Cullen and Ball, 1995:216)

Neoclassicists also differ from rational choice theorists in their emphasis on punishment of crime as a deterrent. Neoclassicists emphasize punishments like the "three strikes [incapacitation] laws" and placing limits on sentencing discretion as rational, effective deterrents to crime. (Pfohl, 1994:83-84) Dr. Clarke states that aside from the ethical considerations and exorbitant cost factors attendant to incapacitation incarceration, interviews with convicted burglars demonstrate that certainty of apprehension rather than the severity of punishment is the major deterrent. Incapacitation is the lengthy imprisonment of offenders who are assumed to be potential recidivists. Locking people up for crimes yet to be committed has obvious ethical dilemmas and equally obvious issues of expense. (Clarke and Hope, 1984:6-7) Thus, rational choice theory focuses on prevention as a deterrent to crime rather than punishment.

Like neoclassicism, rational choice theory appears to have returned to the forefront of criminological thought in contemporary times in response to the perceived failure of other criminological theories to provide a workable solution to the crime problem. (Pfohl, 1994:83-84) Rational choice theory emerged " owing to the perceived failure of rehabilitative technologies and the increase in the officially recorded crime rates during the 1970's and 1980's [when] attention returned to an analysis of the criminal decision making process." (Keel, 1997) Moreover, Dr. Clarke’s research on burglaries in Coping With Burglary was commissioned because residential burglaries were thought to be reaching epidemic proportions in England and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. (Clarke and Hope, 1984:6-7)

As stated above, one of the antecedents to rational choice theory is routine activity theory. Larry Cohen and Marcus Felson announced their routine activities theory in 1979 which remained popular into the 1980s. The authors believed their approach explained the rise in crime between 1960 and 1980. It is similar to rational choice theory in that it focuses on the characteristics of crime rather than the characteristics of the offender. (Cohen and Felson, 1979:66-74) In fact, Dr. Clarke and Marcus Felson co-edited Routine Activity and Rational Choice in 1993.

Routine Activities theory states that criminal offenses are related to the nature of everyday patterns of social interaction. The theory focuses on the changes occurring in society between 1960 and 1980, such as women working and being away from home all day. This fact led to social disorganization and hence criminal opportunity. In other words the routine activity of leaving the home unattended, absent a guardian, during the workday is one of three factors that lead to the increased probability of criminal activity. The other two factors being a motivated offender, which is assumed to be in great supply, and a suitable target, which is essentially something worth stealing. Only when all three factors are present do the chances of criminal activity increase substantially. Last, routine activity theorizes that the rate in which crime rises is equal to the number of suitable targets and the absence of individuals to protect those targets. (Cohen and Felson, 1979:66-74)

Another antecedent to Dr. Clarke’s rational choice theory is situational crime prevention. To be more accurate it appears to be subsumed into rational choice theory rather than replaced by it. It is similar to routine activity theory in that it focuses on the criminal event that occurs when potential offenders come into contact with the opportunity to commit offenses. Situational crime prevention, pioneered in England by Dr. Clarke and Mayhew in 1980, rests on the theory that specific crime problems have unique characteristics that can be analyzed and utilized in arriving at solutions. (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1990: 25-26)

Situational crime prevention has four components:

1. A theoretical foundation drawing upon routine activity and rational decisions.

2. A standard methodology based on the action research paradigm,

3. A set of opportunity-reducing techniques or target hardening, and

4. A body of evaluated practice including studies of displacement. (Clarke, 1997: 6)

The last major component or antecedent to rational choice theory is based on Becker’s economic theories of crime. However, Dr. Clarke’s rational choice theory utilizes the economic theory in a decision diagram rather than in a normative model. This was done to avoid criticisms of economic theories that ignore non-cash equivalent rewards and to take into account that crime has a reckless element as opposed to the pure self-maximizing decision making. (Clarke, 1997: 9)

Rational Choice theory describes law-violating behavior as an event that occurs when an offender decides to risk violating the law after considering his or her own need for money, personal values or learning experiences and how well a target is protected, how affluent the neighborhood is or how efficient the local police are. Before committing a crime, the reasoning criminal weighs the chances of getting caught, the severity of the expected penalty, the value to be gained by committing the act, and his or her immediate need for that value. (Siegel, 1992:131) This perspective was being adopted by a number of social scientists in various disciplines with an interest in criminal behavior. Hence, the term "reasoning criminal" was coined. (Cornish and Clarke, 1986: 1)

Though this may be properly considered a criticism, rational choice theory operates under certain assumptions that some theorists do not accept as valid. (Zey, 1998: 90-113) Criticisms of rational choice are discussed later in this paper. Assumptions inherent in rational choice theory are:

1. Humans are purposive and goal oriented;

2. Humans have sets of hierarchically ordered preferences, or utilities; and

3. In choosing lines of behavior, humans make rational calculations with respect to:

a. the utility of alternative lines of conduct with reference to the preference hierarchy,

b. the costs of each alternative in terms of utilities foregone, and

c. the best way to maximize utility. (Turner, Jonathan 1991: 354)

It follows that emerging social phenomena are ultimately the result of collective rational choices made by a society of utility-maximizing individuals. "Emergent social phenomena that arise from rational choices constitute a set of parameters for subsequent rational choices of individuals in the sense that they determine the distribution of resources among individuals, the distribution of opportunities for various lines of behavior, and the distribution and nature of norms and obligations in a situation." (Turner, Jonathan 1991: 354) It appears that Dr. Clarke’s rational choice model does not extend to the macro level to explain societal conditions.

The first of the four components of situational crime prevention listed above is best explained by reference to Figure 1 below:


The number of potential offenders is in part affected by the socio-economic factors seen at the top of the figure. Targets, such as cars and banks, are a function of physical environment, such as apartment complexes, and routine activity, such as an empty home during the day due to work. As shown in the figure, subcultural influences such as observing criminal activity by peers interplay with the other factors shown to shape offender perceptions about risks, efforts and rewards in opportunity structure. However, the model stops short of actual crime commission. (Clarke, 1997: 12-15)

Situational prevention’s second component, action research methodology, is a research model in which researchers and practitioners work together to analyze the problem, try out solutions, evaluate the results, and repeat the cycle, if necessary, to achieve positive results. The influence of the action research model can be seen in the five stages of a situational prevention project. They are:

1. Collection of data about the nature of a specific crime problem;

2. Analysis of the condition that allow or facilitate commission of the crime in question;

3. Systematic study of possible means for blocking opportunities to commit the crime in question and analysis of cost;

4. Implementation of the best measures; and

5. Monitoring the results and spreading the information. (Clarke, 1997: 15)

The third component of situational crime prevention is a set of opportunity-reducing techniques, of which Dr. Clarke listed sixteen. The sixteen techniques and their applications in actual crime situations are listed in Table 1 below.


The sixteen techniques are separated into four groups according to whether they increase the perceived effort necessary to commit a crime, or increase the perceived risks of apprehension, or reduce the anticipated rewards of a crime, or remove the excuses to compliance with the law. (Clarke, 1997: 15-25) For example, one way to deter shoplifting is to increase the perceived risks by having merchandise tags which go off when someone takes the merchandise out of the store without payment (see 5. Entry/Exit screening) or the crime may be deterred by denying the benefits of the crime by placing ink tags on the clothing merchandise which ruins the clothing if removal is attempted without proper equipment (see 12. Denying benefits).

Much of society and business presently go about the business of reducing the opportunity for crime without consciously thinking about it. However, if the government and business and police take an aggressive, integrated approach to the prevention of crime, it is conceivable that some types of crime can be virtually eliminated and that the overall crime rate can be lowered.

In an American Society of Criminology Task Report to United States Attorney General Janet Reno, Dr. Clarke and others proposed the creation of a Federal Crime Prevention Department and a Crime Prevention Extension Service. The crime prevention department would be modeled on existing departments in European countries and would initiate action to "design out crime" on a national level. The extension service would be analogous to an agricultural extension service with the aim of providing expert crime prevention advice to small businesses and local communities. This service would complement police efforts. (Clarke, et. al., 1998)

"All theories of crime are also theories of crime prevention. They differ only in the scale of change necessary to achieve that end" (Pease, 1994: 660). Rational choice theory and situational crime prevention are attractive from a policy point of view because crime prevention has immediate benefits to society as contrasted with programs such as Operation Head Start which, if successful, can take 10 to 20 years for the benefits to exceed the expenditures. Moreover, in Canada it has been estimated that for each burglary prevented that would have gone through the entire criminal justice system all the way to imprisonment, the savings to society approximates $160,000.00 Similar savings can be expected in the United States. (Clarke, et. al., 1998)

The published literature contains several situational crime prevention success stories. Some examples are:

1. Substantial reductions in aircraft hijackings in the 1970s achieved by baggage screening and other airport measures;

2. Reductions in thefts from parking lots due to surveillance;

3. Greatly reduced shoplifting and library books as a result of electronic merchandise tagging; and

4. Reduction in thefts of car radios that are operable only with knowledge of a PIN. (Clarke, et. al., 1998)

Not all preventive measures have been successful. One such example was signs designed to warn of pickpockets. People would check their pockets upon reading the signs while the pickpockets watched. This alerted them as to which people and pockets to target. However, measuring the effectiveness of preventive measures, the fourth component of situational crime prevention, is a necessary part of the process. (Clarke, 1997: 26-27)

The fourth component of situational crime prevention also includes studies of crime displacement, and it presages one of the major criticisms of rational choice theory and situational crime prevention. (Clarke, 1997: 28-31) There is little point in investing resources in situational crime prevention if the thwarted criminal simply moves from one crime to another. This is what is referred to as crime displacement, and it is often leveled as a criticism of Dr. Clarke’s theories. As is always the case in proving a negative, it is difficult to prove the absence of displacement. (Pease, 1994: 675)

Cornish and Clarke have responded to this criticism. Central to the displacement criticism is the belief that, to the offender, most crimes are equivalent. That is to say that an offender would just as soon commit one crime as another. This view is based on the positivist assumption that crime is a product of enduring dispositions by the offender. (Cornish and Clarke, 1987: 45-50)

Rational choice assumes that displacement occurs only under certain conditions. That is to say that all things considered, the criminal may not think that the benefits justify displacement. For example, in 1960 the steering columns of all cars in Germany were equipped with locks and the result was a 60 per cent reduction in car thefts. Whereas, in Great Britain only new cars were so equipped with the result being crime was displaced to the older unequipped cars. However, no evidence exists to suggest that an obscene phone caller will begin a career as a burglar. (Cornish and Clarke, 1987: 45-50).

The most visceral criticism of rational choice theory was that leveled by Ronald Akers. Essentially Akers says that rational choice theorists make so many exceptions to the pure rationality stressed in their own models that nothing sets them apart from other theorists. Further, the rational choice models in literature have various situational or cognitive constraints and deterministic notions of cause and effect that render them "indistinguishable from current ‘etiological’ or ‘positivistic’ theories." In fact, Akers says that the low levels of rationalism asserted by Cornish and Clarke resemble the assertions by Katz in his "‘seductions’ of crime" which Katz views as the antithesis of utilitarian explanations of crime. (Akers, 1990: 653-671, 663)

Perhaps the most interesting criticism of rational choice theory is that it may breed a fortress society where everyone is locked in his or her homes to prevent crime. Perhaps more insidious though is the concern that rational choice logically extended could lead to the "brave new world" of Huxley or some Orwellian nightmare. The oblique reference to neoclassicism is made by comparing Disney World and its use situational prevention techniques to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison system. (Shearing and Stenning, 1984: 300-304)

People are, without knowing it, being controlled the entire time they are in a Disney theme park. The entire environment is designed to encourage adherence to a set of rules and policies deemed desirable by Disney. The measures are invisible until one violates the policy. This system of facilitating compliance mirrors one of the opportunity-reducing techniques cited by Clarke as a component in situational crime prevention. (See Table 1). Also, surveillance techniques carried to the extreme could remind one of George Orwell’s "big brother." (Shearing and Stenning, 1984: 300-304)

Dr. Clarke answered this unusual criticism by stating that it yields too little credence to the power of democracy. He also stated that visitors to Disney voluntarily yield some autonomy for limited periods of time in order to enjoy the benefits of the park at a reasonable cost. (Clarke, 1997: 37)

In addition to the applications already mentioned, rational choice models have been used to study wide ranging criminal topics such as suicide, where it was suggested that gas be made non-toxic as a preventive measure. (Clarke and Lester, 1988: 1-12) Because of its applicability to wide ranging areas of criminal activity, rational choice theory should remain vital as a criminological theory. In fact, at the 1998 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminologists, nine sessions, one chaired by Dr. Clarke himself, were devoted to rational choice studies. Moreover, because rational choice does not focus on cultural characteristic of the offender such as poverty or lack of education, it should apply equally well to studies of white-collar crime. Other criminological theories that do focus on those factors fail to adequately explain criminality where the perpetrator is educated and wealthy.

A recent version of rational choice theory is called Positive Political Theory, commonly known as the rational choice research program. All Positive Political Theories share three assumptions. The first, rationality, states that individuals make reasoned decisions. The authors explain that reasoned decisions are not necessarily reasonable ones. The second assumption, component analysis, states that only small parts of the system are important in predicting any type of human behavior. The third assumption, strategic behavior, states that individuals take into account what other individuals are likely to do before making decisions. People do not act alone in a vacuum. (McCubbins, et al, 1996)

In summary, Dr. Clarke’s rational choice models and situational crime prevention strategies offer a practical solution to today’s crime problem. Obviously, the social science and criminology in particular should continue to study the imperfections of society and characteristics of people that provide so many willing offenders. However, the reality is that we have them now and we should deal with the problem in the most efficient and effective manner possible consistent with our system of government and laws. Rational Choice theory offers an answer that can be utilized within our present system on a cost-effective basis.


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