Rational Choice Theory

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The Rational Choice Theory states that crime is a rational decision to violate any law. It is made for many reasons, such as greed, revenge, need, anger, lust, jealousy, thrill-seeking or vanity. This theory has been passed down through many different time periods. During the early Middle Ages, there was superstition and fear that criminals were going through satanic possession. During the time of the Renaissance, they began to study human nature and behavior to figure out what causes criminal intention. In the time on the Enlightenment, Jeremy Bentham incorporated the view that human behavior was a result of rational thoughts. The development of rational choice criminology is most identified with the thoughts of Cesare Beccaria. Criminals choose their crime based on the seriousness of the punishment. There are many characteristics that are believed to be true causes of criminality. These include poverty, intelligence quota, education and household. Criminals are rational actors that plan their crimes based on fear of punishment and deserved to be penalized for their misdeeds. The literature supports that many criminals go through a rational choice process when committing crime. The purpose of this paper is to show why the legal system of the United States is based on this theory, and why it is a strong basis for the justice system. This paper will focus on burglary, and the various surveys collected to support rational choice in burglars.

The justice system of the United States is based heavily on the works of Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1833) and Cesare Beccaria (1738 1794). Their idea of criminology was a utilitarian one that is known as the classical school. This theory was based heavily on the underlying theory of rational choice. Rational Choice Theory states that criminals think about consequences when attempting crimes. They weigh rationally the good and bad consequences of their actions, and conclude whether or not committing the crime is a good risk. Many crimes, seem to be completely irrational, which would not support this theory. Both Bentham and Beccaria were utilitarians. The classical school promotes punishment for crime as a means of deterrence. “Because people are morally self-centered, they must be afraid of punishment to overpower their natural tendencies towards crime” (Cornish and Clarke, 1986a). The Classical School held the attention of American criminologists throughout the 19th century. Other theories originated after this time and the theory was set aside for some time. About the 1970s, higher crime rates and public fear called for a resurgence of Classical Theory. This came to be known as Choice Theory. In a 1975 book, by James Q. Wilson, purported a tough on crime approach, which was readily adopted by politicians of the era and today, to alleviate the fears of the public (Wilson, 1983). This harsh punishment outlook is still present in much of today’s political policy.

As a basis for all of these theories, and an extension of these theories is Rational Choice Theory. Rational Choice theory assumes that the criminal is first a rational being. “It assumes second that he considers his crime rationally, weighing both personal factors, such as being poor, wanting excitement or entertainment and situational factors, such as the availability of the target, the likelihood of being caught, and the seriousness of the crime” (Cornish and Clark, 1986b). Many are confused as to the meaning of these assumptions, especially the latter. When speaking of a criminal considering things rationally, many assume that this is a long process and do not believe that criminals undergo this process. “The rational choice approach, however, does not define this as a long process” (Cornish and Clark, 1986a.) Rather, it can occur in the matter of a few moments, or can be a plan worked on for months. Some crimes are more difficult to explain using rational choice theory. The first would be drug use. “However, one...
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