Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

How Offenders Make Decisions: Evidence of Rationality

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

How Offenders Make Decisions: Evidence of Rationality

Article excerpt


The Rational Choice approach to crime is closely aligned with the dominant ethos of the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales (Jones, 2008). The current UK criminal justice system essentially sees an individual as responsible for his or her actions, and applies punishment as a deterrent for engaging in illegal behaviour (Sutherland & Cressey, 1974). The Rational Choice Theoretical approach has at its core an assumption that a decision to offend takes place, and that such a decision is taken by a reasoning and (at least minimally) rational individual, weighing up the costs and benefits of the action. This view of individuals as makers of fully-reasoned decisions has been criticised for lack of realism. Instead, Cornish and Clarke (1987) describe individuals as acting within the limits of their ability, the information available, and time pressures. Cornish and Clarke refer to this as 'Bounded Rationality' (1986). This approach recognises that decisions are affected by the individual's perceptions as well as the circumstances in which they find themselves. Newer iterations of Rational Choice Theory (RCT) place the motivation of the individual as central to decision making, and state that an understanding of the offender's value hierarchy is necessary to understand their decision making.

This investigation seeks to explore the basic assumptions of this approach, that a decision is always at the heart of an offence, and that individuals weigh up their perceived costs and benefits in order to make such a decision.

Rational Choice theories of offending

Early theories of crime, viewed the individual as having free will, and as being capable of guiding his own destiny (Monachesi, 1955). These assumptions of free will and rationality have remained central to the field of criminology since its beginnings (Taylor et al., 1973), and are direct precursors of the modern Rational Choice Theory.

The application of RCT to criminology has been an influential approach, being particularly popular during the 1980s and 1990s when much work was undertaken to examine how rational decisions are made, and if this could be applied to criminal behaviour in individuals. Early iterations of the approach stated that potential offenders would avoid offending for fear of potential punishment (Akers, 1990). The assumption is that individuals act under free will, and in doing so will seek to avoid costs, and that the rewards of an action or behaviour will be weighed against those costs.

However, this approach has been criticised, in particular the assumption of the 'normative' status of the individuals making a decision. Cornish and Clarke (1987) suggest that individuals are unlikely to go through such a deliberate, calculating mental process and 'intuit' the values and costs of an action, being unable to process information to the level assumed by this normative model (Cherniak, 1986). Instead, offenders operate under a 'bounded rationality' in which offenders are seen as making a weighted decision, but in a more 'rudimentary and cursory way' than advocated by the classical economic approach to decision making. It is also recognised that while an individual can make a measured decision based on expected utility of various outcomes, their range of actions may be limited by circumstances.

The central tenet of an RCT of crime that offenders are active, rational beings encourages researchers to find out exactly what an individual's subjective perceptions of costs and benefits are, and whether through applying this approach, crime can be explained sufficiently well. Furthermore, if a decision is fully understood then logic could theoretically be applied to change similar future decisions. When the theory is applied to real people, and real offenders, it is difficult to assume that decisions are made in this fully informed manner and that any individual could possibly process and be aware of every factor that may affect the outcome. …

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