The Routine Activity Theory: A Model for Addressing Specific Crime Issues

Article excerpt

Developed over 50 years ago, the routine activity theory has remained at the forefront of crime analysis and prevention efforts. The model addressed crime analysis from a different perspective than most theories preceding it by exploring the convergence of the crucial components of crime at specific locations in space and time without regard to the motivation of the deviant act. Despite receiving criticism for the routine activity theory's simplistic approach, (1) many researchers applied it to various criminological studies from stalking to narcotics trafficking. Understanding the theory can assist law enforcement administrators in comprehending existing research and aid in developing crime control models to address specific crime issues.


Historical Framework

In 1979, Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson provided a new perspective on the criminological outlook on crime. (2) While most extant theories at that time focused primarily on criminals and their motivations and environment, the routine activity theory simplified concepts generally taken for granted by criminologists; it took the focus away from the criminal and redirected it toward the criminal act. Cohen and Felson readily admitted that although the routine activity theory was not a new idea, existing academic criminal research frequently overlooked it. (3)

During the decades preceding the routine activity theory, the pendulum of research began to focus on criminal acts, rather than broad social causes of crime. A new breed of classical thinkers sought "workable solutions to the problem of crime" to replace the scientific and theoretical perspectives of offenses in the 1970s. (4) Studies published during those years explored residents' actions aimed at the reduction of access to offenders, distance of homes from the central city, and the presence of criminals who accounted for property layout and human activity around homes.

The routine activity theory sought to fulfill shortcomings in existing models that failed to adequately address crime rate trends since the end of World War II. The U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) reported on social and economic trends in metropolitan areas prior to and after the war. Criminologists focused on the same social and environmental issues measured by the Bureau and correlated them to crime rates. When criminological theories were applied to the Bureau's data in 1960, they would have indicated a reduction in crime as social and economic conditions improved, but the crime rate data actually showed increases in crime according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Without focusing on crimes, existing deterministic research, which took into account all social and economic factors, failed to explain this deviance between the criminological theory and the Bureau's data. Felson, along with other researchers at this time, addressed the issue through crime-specific analysis, (5) which encompassed the social disorganization occurring in metropolitan areas (e.g., the increase of married females in the workforce, unattended homes during workdays and vacations, and collegiate attendance among other new or changed social patterns). These social changes were examined and associated with crime rates, rather than the effects on criminals.



The routine activity theory explains how changes in daily patterns or activities of social interaction, such as employment, recreation, educational endeavors, and leisure activities, affect differences in crime rates. It examines crimes as events, occurring at "specific locations in space and time, involving specific persons and/or objects." (6) Three crucial components necessary for predatory crimes are motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians. (7) The lack of any one of these would prevent a predatory crime. As communities evolve, routine activities of the citizens also change. …