Rational Choice Theory: Criminology

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Choice theory was born out of the perspective of crime causation which states that criminality is the result of conscious choice. This theory is also known as the rational choice theory. According to this theory, the choice whether or not to commit a criminal act is the result of a rational thought process that weighs the risks of paying the costs of committing a crime, against the benefits obtained. In other words, if the benefits--monetary or otherwise--outweigh the risks of sustaining the costs, such as fines, imprisonment or execution, then according to this theory the individual would be inclined to commit the crime, all other things being equal. In this calculus, the benefits are known. For example, “this diamond that I want to steal is worth $100,000”. Also, the costs are known: “The punishment for stealing this diamond is 5 years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine”. What is the variable in this cost/benefit calculation is the risk of getting caught and incurring the punishment. The level of risk that is perceived is the determinative factor underlying the choice of whether to commit a particular crime. This article will briefly examine how choice theory relates to crime in the context of the various common criminological theories that criminologists employ to explain criminal motivation. The commonly recognized criminological theoretical models for determining the origin of criminal acts are: Classical and Neoclassical; Biological; Psychobiological; Sociological; Social Process; Conflict; and Emergent. The concept of choice plays a different role under each of these theories. In some, individual choice plays a dominant role, while in others, individual choice is marginalized. The theoretical model in which choice theory plays its largest role is the Neoclassical, a development of the earlier Classical School, itself originated in the 18th century and promoted by theorist Cesare Beccaria and continued by his contemporary, Jeremy Bentham. The...
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