Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

Raymond Paternoster. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publications. 2009.

There are many theories about what causes people to begin to commit, continue to commit, and desist from committing crimes (Kubrin, Stucky, & Krohn, 2009). Some of these theories assert that crime is due to a collection of personality traits that incline a person to commit crimes (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985); some scholars argue that crime occurs when people are led by their culture to want something, such as monetary success, but are denied access to the means to achieve these things (Agnew, 1992); and still others claim that crime occurs when people get socialized into cultures, subcultures, or groups that either actively promote or at least openly tolerate criminal behavior (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996). A deterrence, or rational choice theory of crime (let’s call it RCT), is none of these things, and because deterrence theory can be considered a subtype of RCT, this chapter’s discussion will mostly focus on the latter.

Deterrence can be thought of as a subtype of RCT because they share a great deal of common conceptual ground, with RCT being a more general theory than deterrence. Deterrence theory argues that criminal acts are inhibited or deterred because of the punishment that can be associated with crime (Andenaes, 1974; Zimring & Hawkins, 1973). For example, when someone thinks about committing a crime but refrains from doing so because he fears that he might get arrested, that person is said to be deterred by the fear of a sanction or penalty, in this case, an arrest. This is an example of general deterrence. General deterrence occurs when someone who has not yet been punished refrains from committing a crime because of the punishment he or she may receive should he or she get caught (Andenaes, 1974). In this case, what deters the would-be offender from committing crime is the fear of a formal or legal punishment. When someone just released from prison contemplates committing another crime but refrains from doing so because she fears going back to prison if she is arrested and convicted, she too is said to be deterred by the fear of a sanction; in this case, the sanction is imprisonment, which is another form of formal or legal punishment. This is an example of what is called specific deterrence (Andenaes, 1974). Specific deterrence occurs when a person who has just been punished refrains from committing a crime because he or she fears another dose of punishment. In general deterrence, it is the threat of legal punishment that inhibits criminal offending among people who have not yet been punished, whereas in specific deterrence the inhibiting factor among those who have been punished is the threat of being punished again. Notice that any penalty, such as imprisonment, can act as both a general deterrent when it leads the public to conform because of the threat of prison should they commit a crime and as a specific deterrent when it deters an inmate just released from prison from committing another crime.

Deterrence theory was originally developed in the 18th century by the legal/moral philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria, who conceived of it in terms of the threat of formal legal punishment—the sanctions or penalties that are applied by a state or some legal authority. Within the past 25 years, however, deterrence theory has been expanded to also include nonlegal types of sanction threats, such as the threat of social censure by others should one commit crime (i.e., the fear of embarrassment) or the threat of self-imposed punishment with feelings of guilt and shame (Anderson, Chiricos, & Waldo, 1977; Grasmick & Bursik 1990; Grasmick, Bursik, & Arneklev, 1993). If I refrain from committing crime because I think that others close to me will disapprove and reject me, and that fear keeps me from committing crimes, then I am deterred, but by informal sanction threats, not by formal sanction threats. Modern deterrence theory now considers formal (legal punishments, e.g., arrest, conviction, imprisonment) and informal (social or self-censure) sanction threats as part of the theory.

RCT is much more broad and general than deterrence theory because it includes many other factors besides the risk of formal and informal sanctions. The theories are alike, however, in the assumption that human beings are rational and self-interested beings who are affected by the consequences of their actions. RCT likely finds its modern home in an article written by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Gary Becker (1968). The position of RCT is that criminal behavior is no different from noncriminal behavior in that it is conduct that persons intentionally choose to undertake (i.e., they are not compelled or forced to do crime), and the reason that they choose to commit crime is that they think it will be more rewarding and less costly for them than noncriminal behavior. Let us break this last statement down carefully. RCT takes the position that offenders are not compelled to commit crime because of some extraordinary motivation: Offenders do not have different personalities than nonoffenders; neither were they socialized into a criminal belief or cultural system whose norms require crime (Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Kubrin et al., 2009). In RCT, criminal offenders are actually no different than noncriminal offenders. Both willingly choose their own behaviors, and both choose those behaviors on the basis of a rational consideration of the costs and benefits of the intended action. The rational choice offender, then, is rational and self-interested and chooses to commit crime on the basis of his assessment that it will be rewarding or profitable or satisfy some need better than a noncriminal behavior. This last sentence contains a great deal of complexity and subtlety, so let us explore it in some detail.

The Theory

As implied by its title, rational choice theory presumes that criminal behavior, like legal behavior, is not determined by biological, psychological, or environmental factors acting on the person, compelling him or her to commit crimes (Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Kubrin et al., 2009). RCT argues that people voluntarily, willfully choose to commit criminal acts such as burglary, car theft, and assault just like they willfully choose to do other things, such as work in a grocery store, go to college, or use recreational drugs. In this theory, then, criminal acts are the product of choice, which means that people make decisions about whether to commit crimes. Viewed as the product of human choice, RCT (and deterrence theory) gives human beings what is called in the criminology field agency (McCarthy, 2002). People with agency act as if they have free choice or free will over which courses of action they can take—they act as agents on their own behalf. The other side of agency might be thought of as determinism—people behave in a particular way not because they want to or choose to do so but because some cause has acted on them to compel them to behave in a certain manner. An example of a more deterministic theory might be some forms of biological theories of crime, such as the theory that violent behavior is caused by an extra male, or Y, chromosome. In the XYY theory of violent offending, males unfortunate enough to be given an extra Y chromosome at birth are at greater risk of violent behavior than males with a more common XY complement.

RCT believes that crime is due to people making choices to commit crimes (Nagin, 2007). If this is the case, why do some people commit crime only some of the time? In other words, on what basis is the choice made to commit crime (and, by implication, non-crime)? The answer is that, in deciding whether to commit crime, people are guided by their consideration of the costs and benefits of criminal behavior and the costs and benefits of alternative, noncriminal behavior. Put most simply, criminal activity comes with both costs and benefits (which are discussed momentarily), and the theory presumes that when people are thinking about committing a crime, they consider the related costs and benefits (McCarthy, 2002). However, there are costs and benefits of not committing crime, and theory presumes that, before making a decision, people consider the costs and benefits of non-crime as well. Consider the following simple example. If I have a need for money that I need to satisfy, there are (let’s assume for simplicity’s sake) two ways I can behave to satisfy that need. One way to get the money that I think I need is to sell drugs. This involves a deliberate decision to sell drugs to get the money I need, and before I decide to do that, I consider the costs and benefits of selling drugs. A second way that I can get the money that I think I need is to get a job in a factory, or driving a taxi, or working at a construction site. This second line of behavior will get me what I need—money—but also involves various costs and benefits. According to RCT, before deciding which of the two behaviors to undertake, I consider the costs and benefits of both the criminal and noncriminal activity. Notice here that RCT is broader and more general than deterrence theory because whereas deterrence theory argues that criminal behavior is affected by the costs of crime (formal and informal punishments), RCT argues that the decision of whether to commit crime is affected by the expected rewards of crime and the costs and benefits of non-crime as well. There are a few unanswered questions here, such as: What are the costs and benefits of crime and non-crime that have to be considered? What ultimately determines my decision?

In thinking about selling drugs to obtain the money that I need, we now understand that I consider the costs and benefits of drug dealing. The costs of drug dealing would include such things as the risk of getting arrested and convicted for selling drugs and the legal penalty that may befall me if I get convicted, such as jail time or a fine. It would include the cost of personal harm to me should I go to jail. I would have to consider how easy it would be to sell drugs again if I went to jail and were released back into the community and how easy it would be to get a legitimate job once I started drug dealing and was arrested. Other costs would be the personal danger I would face in selling drugs, such as getting robbed, beaten up, or shot by disgruntled buyers or another dealer. Still other costs would include the possible shame and embarrassment I would feel if the people close to me found out that I was a drug dealer. Finally, there are other personal costs of drug dealing, such as the financial uncertainties involved (Where do I find a consistent supply of drugs? How much do I charge?), the poor working hours and conditions, and the lack of any formal benefits for drug dealing (i.e., no pension plan, no paid vacations). In addition to these costs, however, I would consider the various benefits of drug selling. These benefits could include the possibility of making a lot of money but working a limited number of hours; the ability to sample my own wares; and being able to secure the things that might accompany successful drug dealing, such as a fancy car, beautiful companions, and a fast lifestyle. There may even be prestige and status in some circles for being known as a drug dealer. In the RCT model of criminal behavior, the would-be offender would weigh these various costs and benefits, and the weights attached to each would vary from person to person (i.e., what is costly or beneficial to one person might not be for another).

In addition to the costs and benefits of drug dealing, before deciding which course of action to take I would also consider the costs and benefits of non-crime. In this example, assume that the alternative course of action is to drive a taxi in order to make money. There are many benefits to consider in taxi driving to secure money. First, if I am paid a wage in addition to a percentage of my fares and tips, it will be a fairly steady source of income. My taxi company may offer benefits such as a retirement plan, medical coverage, and some paid vacation time. Driving a taxi is also honest work. I may get to meet interesting people, and the job does not involve heavy lifting. There are, however, competing possible costs of driving a taxi that I would have to consider. For example, taxi drivers are dependent on taxi riders, so I might not make a lot of money on a slow shift when I have few customers. It is likely that I would have to work some nights and be away from my family, and going back and forth from day shift to night shift will be physically and mentally grueling. Taxi drivers do not usually make a lot of money, many people fail to tip, and some even run away without paying their fare, leaving the cost to the driver to cover. In addition, a taxi driver is an easy target to rob or even shoot and rob. Finally, although it is honest work, driving a taxi does not carry a lot of prestige in most social circles. In the RCT model of criminal behavior, before deciding what to do, the person would also weigh the costs and benefits of the noncriminal alternative course of action (McCarthy, 2002; Piliavin, Thornton, Gartner, & Matsueda, 1986).

There are costs and benefits to be weighed for criminal conduct and costs and benefits to be weighed for noncriminal conduct. The decision to commit crime or not is based on a rational weighing of both of these types of costs and benefits. RCT does not presume that people are perfectly rational in their decision making; that is, they do take shortcuts in collecting information about the costs and benefits of each course of action, they may be misinformed about the various costs and benefits, and they may not properly weigh each factor—but they possess sufficient rationality to engage in some information collection, and they do consider and weigh the consequences of their actions before deciding what action to take. People may be poor decision makers, in other words, but they are decision makers nonetheless, and if they do not possess perfect rationality, they do at least possess minimal or limited rationality.

It is also important to understand that these costs and benefits that are weighed by decision makers are the costs and benefits as they are perceived or understood by the person doing the decision making. In other words, the costs and benefits are subjective rather than objective (Paternoster, Saltzman, Waldo, & Chiricos, 1983). For example, one of the costs associated with dealing drugs is the possibility that one could get arrested by the police. There is a certain objective likelihood or chance that people are arrested for drug dealing in the area where I want to deal drugs. For example, if last year there were 100 drug deals in the area where I want to sell drugs, and if only one of the dealers was arrested at some point during the year, then the objective probability that I would be arrested would be 1 out of 100, or .01. Objectively speaking, this is a very low risk of arrest. However, chances are I would not know how many drug deals were going on last year, or exactly how many dealers were arrested, but maybe the word on the street and my own understanding of police competence puts my own estimate of the risk of arrest at .25. This is my subjective risk of getting arrested, and it is this subjective risk, not the objective one, that guides my conduct. The same issue of objective versus subjective would hold for the benefits as well. Most important to me are the subjective benefits I think I would acquire by driving a taxi, not what the objective benefits might be. The important thing to remember is that the various costs and benefits that are considered by the would-be offender are the subjective ones.

So, a person contemplating crime rationally considers the costs and benefits of both crime and noncriminal courses of action. These are weighed much like fruit is weighed on a scale in a grocery store. If the benefits of crime (when considered against the costs of crime) outweigh the benefits of non-crime (when considered against the costs of non-crime), then for a potential offender there is more utility in committing crime than in not committing crime. Utility is the combined outcome of the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action that will satisfy a need (in this case, the need for money), and it might be helpful to think of utility as the profit involved in crime and non-crime. So, if I see more overall utility in crime than non-crime I will be more likely to commit a criminal act to satisfy my need; if I see more utility in non-crime, then that is what I would most likely select. Because I am presumed to be a rational person, the prediction is that I will select the behavior with the greatest utility for me. Moreover, because the utility is the gain I expect to get on the basis of my own subjective judgment, RCT is often thought as a subjective expected utility theory of offending (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). In a nutshell, RCT can be described with the following simple equation:

Offend If: Utility of Crime > Utility of Non-Crime

It may be that the utility of crime is greater because the expected benefits are greater than non-crime or because the expected costs are less than non-crime. Whichever the case, the rational choice model of offending presumes that, on average, the behavior promising the greater utility will be chosen. It might be helpful at this point to discuss a concrete example of what an RCT theory of offending might have to say about particular kinds of criminal conduct. Let’s start with marijuana use.

Strain theory might account for marijuana use by saying that a person who was under great stress or strain because something bad happened to him or her (failed a test, broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or moved to a new school) and that this stress provided sufficient motivation for that person to use marijuana (Agnew, 1992). Differential association theory might explain marijuana use by noting that some people associate in groups in which marijuana use is practiced and where the norms of the group view marijuana use tolerantly (Matsueda, 1988). This group provides fertile ground for the learning of the technique of using the drug, the opportunity to learn how to interpret its effects, and to receive social support and reinforcement rather than condemnation for using it. According to RCT, however, in deciding whether to use marijuana on any given occasion the would-be user would consider and weigh the following factors:

Costs of Crime

A person who is considering marijuana use might consider the following questions when evaluating the potential cost of the crime:

  • Certainty of formal sanctions: What is the chance that I would get caught by the police or someone in authority? Could I minimize this risk in some way?
  • Severity of formal sanctions: If I did get caught by the police or another authority, would something very bad happen to me? Would I have a police record; would I go to jail?
  • Informal certainty of punishment: What is the chance that I would get caught not by someone in authority but someone whose opinion of me matters and who would disapprove of me using marijuana, such as a parent, teacher, coach, or employer? Would that person be disappointed in me?
  • Informal severity of punishment: If that person did catch me, would something very bad happen to me as a result?
  • Guilt or shame: If I were to get caught by anyone, would I think less highly of myself?
  • If I were to use marijuana, would I have to admit drug use on any job applications, or if I wanted to join the armed services? Would marijuana use disqualify me?
  • Could I successfully fake my way in school, at home, at work, if I got high?
  • How much does the marijuana cost?

Benefits of Crime

  • How much pleasure or fun would it be to get high?
  • How much would my friends respect me and think I was cool if I got high?
  • Would my self-esteem increase if I demonstrated to myself that I could get high and hide it from others?

Costs of Non-Crime

  • Would my friends ridicule me if I just walked away and did not get high?
  • Would I not have as much fun if I were not high?

Benefits of Non-Crime

  • Would I be able to do my homework, perform better at my job, if I were straight and not high?
  • Would I feel better about myself if I were able to resist this temptation?
  • Could I use the money that I would have spent on the marijuana on a better cause?

If, after weighing all of these considerations, the would-be offender determined that the utility of using marijuana was greater than the utility of not using it, then he or she would be at greater risk of marijuana use.

Empirical Support for Deterrence and Rational Choice Theory

Deterrence and rational choice are simply theories about how we think crime is brought about, and they may or may not provide accurate understandings of crime. One of the important ways that professionals in the field of criminology and criminal justice determine the worth or value of a theory is by evaluating the extent to which it fits the facts. A good theory is one that enjoys empirical support when a researcher empirically tests in the real world the propositions or hypotheses that can be derived from the theory. For example, if deterrence theory is true, one could make the following hypothesis about homicide rates and subject this hypothesis to empirical testing:

Deterrence hypothesis: Because capital punishment is a more severe punishment than life imprisonment, then states that have the death penalty as a possible punishment for murder should have lower murder rates than states that punish murder with life imprisonment.

This hypothesis is consistent with deterrence theory because it argues that would-be offenders are affected by punishments or costs. Because the death penalty is more costly to the offender than life imprisonment, would-be murderers in states with the death penalty face a more severe punishment than would-be murderers in states that administer only life imprisonment. One way to find out if deterrence theory is correct, then, would be to compare homicide rates in states that have the death penalty with states that have life imprisonment. A large number of empirical studies have been undertaken over the past 60 years with this goal in mind (Paternoster, Brame, & Bacon, 2008). Unfortunately, the evidence with respect to this hypothesis is not very convincing. Although the research has generated a great deal of controversy and the findings have been subject to considerable dispute, it seems that the safest conclusion is that there is no unequivocal evidence to date that the death penalty is a more effective deterrent to murder than life imprisonment. Does this mean that deterrence theory is false? Of course not; there are other ways to test the predictions of the theory.

Other empirical tests designed to examine deterrence theory have shown more convincingly that the fear of formal and informal punishment may indeed act as an effective general and specific deterrent to crime. With respect to formal sanctions, there is evidence that, although its effect is not large, the use of imprisonment serves as an effective deterrent and the national increase in the use of imprisonment in the 1990s may have been responsible for some part of the decline in crime (Levitt, 2001). Police studies have shown that when high-crime areas, known as “hot spots,” are saturated with extra police patrols (in light of the fact that increased police presence in a high-crime area increases the certainty of punishment), crime generally goes down (Sherman, 1990). Other kinds of police crackdowns, such as highly publicized roadside sobriety tests, have shown that the incidence of crime—in this case, drinking and driving—goes down, at least in the short term (Ross, 1984).

Over the years, numerous studies have tested whether not only sanctions that are actually imposed deter crime (e.g., arrest, conviction, imprisonment) but also whether both formal and informal sanctions that people think or perceive will be imposed act as a deterrent to crime (Paternoster, 1987; Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Madensen, 2006). For example, people can be asked the following question to capture how certain they think they will be caught for a given crime: “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘I’d get caught every time’ and 10 is ‘I’d get away with it every time,’ how often do you think you’d get caught by the police if you used marijuana?” This measures the perceived certainty of formal punishment; people with low scores have a high certainty of punishment, and those with higher scores have a lower certainty of punishment. If deterrence theory is true, one would expect the former group to be less likely to use marijuana than the latter group, because they have been deterred. If one added the phrase “caught by your parents/dorm advisor/employer,” one would have a measure of the perceived certainty of informal punishment and could predict that people who think they will not get caught by another would be at a higher risk of using marijuana than those who think they will more likely get caught. To measure the perceived severity of informal punishment, they could also be asked questions that pertain to “how much of a problem it would be” if someone found out about them committing a crime. Research studies that have used this method and various other similar approaches have generally found that the perceived certainty (but not generally the severity) of formal sanctions has a weak deterrent effect, whereas the perceived certainty and severity of informal punishment have a stronger deterrent effect (Pratt et al., 2006). In sum, although there may be some dispute as to how large an effect formal sanctions may have on crime, there is little dispute in the field that formal punishments either by the police, the courts, corrections, or some other criminal justice agency does seem to lower crime. There is also less disputed evidence indicating that the kinds of informal sanctions imposed by others in our lives act as an effective deterrent to crime. These findings from deterrence theory regarding formal and informal sanction threats provide indirect support to RCT as well, because RCT would make the same prediction that a high cost of crime would tend to reduce crime. Furthermore, this implies that people do respond to the expected consequences of their actions and that they are rational enough to be deterred from committing some crime when they think the penalties are certain and perhaps high.

In recent years, numerous attempts to measure the predictions of the rational choice method have been made. One stream of research is policy oriented and examines what is called situational crime prevention. In some of this research, active and “retired” criminals are extensively interviewed about what factors entered their decision to commit crime in general and/or a specific offense (Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Kubrin et al., 2009). Supportive of RCT, offenders frequently cite factors related to the costs and benefits of offending, such as the ease with which they can enter and leave a possible crime site, what the expected payoff for the crime is, the perceived ability to avoid detection, and their capacity to get what they want legally rather than illegally (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). More quantitative research also generally supports the rational choice model of offending. These studies have asked would-be offenders about the expected costs and benefits of criminal activity, and the results indicate that the decision to commit a crime is based at least in part on the expected costs and rewards of offending (Grasmick & Bursik, 1990).

It should also be noted here that whereas it may be intuitive to think that a rational choice view of offending might apply to property or instrumental crime, it might not also apply to crimes of violence, such as armed robbery, murder, or sexual assault; neither would it be able to explain what might be thought of as compulsive kinds of behavior, such as drug addiction. In point of fact, RCT has been used to adequately explain a variety not only of what might be thought of as instrumental crimes, such as robbery, burglary, and shoplifting but also expressive crimes, such as sexual assault and crimes of compulsion (e.g., drug addiction; Cornish & Clarke, 1986). A rational choice model has also been applied to the study of terrorism, and terrorists have been shown to rationally respond to increases in the costs of their crimes (Dugan, LaFree, & Piquero, 2005). RCT is, then, a very broad and general theory of crime that is able to explain property, violent, drug, sexual, and politically motivated offenses (Weisburd, Waring, & Chayet, 1995).


Think for a moment about what deterrence theory and RCT say about what causes crime: Crime will occur whenever a would-be offender thinks that the advantages or benefits of crime outweigh both the costs of crime and the benefits and costs of non-crime. This means that there are several different avenues by which to pursue public policy if one wanted to reduce crime through an appeal to RCT. To reduce crime, one or all of the four following general actions could be taken:

  • Increase the cost of crime.
  • Increase the benefits of non-crime.
  • Reduce the benefits of crime.
  • Reduce the costs of non-crime.

Sometimes these policy paths would overlap such that when we increase the cost of crime we may also be increasing the benefits of non-crime. However, with these four general points in mind, we can briefly explore the crimereduction possibilities of RCT.

Increase the Cost of Crime

One of the most frequently taken paths of criminal justice policy is to enhance the formal penalties for crime with the expectation that such an increase will lower the commission of that particular crime (and maybe others, if there is a spillover effect whereby if we punish more severely for Crime X it also inhibits people from committing Crime Y). Readers who think about the major criminal justice response to the increase in crime during the 1990s and early 21st century will discover that most states responded by increasing the number of people in prison and increasing the length of time inmates were spending in prison. A reduced use of probation, “get tough on crime” judges, “three strikes and you’re out” policies, increased use of the death penalty, the end of parole, and greater use of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are but a few of the criminal justice “reforms” that have taken place over the past 20 to 25 years. If you ask yourself, “What was the expectation that policymakers had when they created these programs?” you will quickly conclude that the policymakers thought that by increasing the certainty of punishment (the number of people who go to prison) and the severity of punishment (how long people stay there), crime will be reduced. They thought this because they assumed (either implicitly or explicitly) that offenders and would-be offenders are rational beings who take into account the costs and benefits of their behavior, and if a behavior is made more costly with enhanced punishment, then rational people will be disinclined to commit it.

Whether they realize it or not, proponents of a “get tough on crime” stance usually are assuming a rational choice view of crime. In fact, rational choice assumptions permeate the criminal justice system and form its foundation. Former President Bill Clinton made as one of the important supports of his crime control policies the requirement to hire 100,000 new police officers and put them out on the streets. He might not have explicitly said that his policy was based on RCT, but it was. Increased numbers of police officers increase the expected cost of crime by increasing would-be offenders’ perceived certainty of getting caught and arrested (on the assumption that the more police officers there are on the streets, the more eyes there are watching you). Thus, under the assumption that offenders and would-be offenders contemplate the risk of incurring a cost, the idea of putting 100,000 new police officers out on the streets was based on RCT and deterrence theory.

Frequently, then, when there are calls for more police, less plea bargaining in courts, more prison terms and less use of probation, and more certain and longer prison terms, these calls are based on the expectations of RCT that such measures will increase either the objective or expected costs of crime and, other things being equal, will reduce the level of crime.

Increase the Benefits of Non-Crime

Increasing the costs of crime is only one way under deterrence theory and RCT to reduce the level of crime; one can also lower crime by increasing the benefits of activities that compete with crime. For example, one of the reasons kids in inner-city neighborhoods get involved with crime and drugs is that they get thrills or some kind of “kick” out of doing it. In other words, crime and drug use supplies them with a rush. One way to inhibit crime would be to get kids involved in other activities that are legal (non-crime) that can provide them with some sort of pleasure/fun/relief from boredom. In the 1990s, there was an effort to get inner-city kids involved in midnight basketball programs, because it makes perfect sense to provide a pleasurable noncriminal activity as an alternative to crime if you believe in the assumptions of RCT. Recall that the theory holds that people consider the costs and benefits of both crime and non-crime before making a rationally based decision as to what to do. This means that when these programs are set up, inner-city youth will weigh the costs and benefits of crime along with those of midnight basketball. Before they choose crime or drug use, then, youth will be in the position of considering the benefits of playing basketball, and this might (together with the lesser cost of a basketball injury vs. an arrest for crime or drug use) be substantial enough to tip the utility balance toward non-crime rather than crime.

A similar example can be used for adults and adult crime. One of the ways to increase the benefits of non-crime would be to provide vocational opportunities and jobs to individuals who are at high risk of committing crimes as well as to make it easier for those who have already committed crimes to turn away from it in favor of more conventional opportunities. The Job Corps, for example, is an educational and vocational training program run by the U.S Department of Labor for youth 16 through 24 years of age. It targets youth who by most accounts would be considered at high risk for committing crimes—young, mainly minority males, from urban areas—and helps them finish high school, earn a GED, learn a trade, and find a job and keep it. The whole purpose of the Job Corps is to take young people with a bleak future and train and educate them so that they can find well-paying jobs and become productive citizens. The Job Corps program, then, provides a direct alternative to criminal opportunities so that to the extent to which the training and long-term vocational prospects surpass those provided by illegitimate opportunities, the route of job training and education will be selected over crime.

Reduce the Benefits of Crime

There are a number of ways that the benefits of crime can be reduced. Among the characteristics of crime is that it is generally the easiest way to satisfy one’s needs—so, for example, if I want to have a car, one of the easiest ways to get one would be to steal one or buy a stolen one at a great discount. The benefits of crime can be reduced if crime is made more difficult in addition to more costly. The benefits of auto theft, for example, would be dramatically reduced if people would not leave their keys in the ignition, if they would lock the car, or if they would purchase an inexpensive car alarm or car location device. These things make stealing a car more difficult and therefore less beneficial. The benefits of burglary can be reduced by making it more difficult for a thief to break into one’s home or apartment. Trimming the bushes around the windows so they can be seen from the street is a good idea; having outside motion-sensitive lights is another. Home burglary alarm systems are another way to make burglary more difficult. We can make it more difficult for thieves to fence stolen goods by etching our names or other type of identification on portable objects in our homes, such as computers, televisions, or stereo systems, which are highly attractive targets for thieves. Heroin use provides an analogy: One of the benefits of heroin use is that it reduces the strong physiological craving for the drug. If there are alternative, legal drugs, such as methadone or LAAM (levoalpha acetyl methadol), that can, under proper medical supervision, similarly reduce the craving, then the benefits of heroin use and its attraction will be reduced. In sum, any action on the part of society as a whole or individual potential victims to make crime more difficult, more time consuming, less financially lucrative, are ways to reduce the benefits of crime. Under RCT, if the benefits of crime are reduced, then crime will be less likely because it has less utility or is less profitable. Although these kinds of crime prevention practices have been most frequently associated with another criminological theory, routine activities theory, the ideas of routine activities are perfectly compatible with a rational choice view of crime.

Reduce the Costs of Non-Crime

A final way to reduce crime according to RCT is to lower the cost of engaging in conventional behavior. The following is just one example of how the costs of being conventional can be reduced. A consistent finding from criminological research is that about two thirds of inmates released from state prisons return to crime after being released. One of the reasons why so many ex-offenders commit crimes upon release is that we make it difficult or costly for them to become “normal” citizens, to such a degree that crime is easier and has more utility (Petersilia, 2003). If we remove these barriers to or costs of non-crime, chances are they would be more attractive than criminal alternatives. For example, there are barriers that prevent ex-offenders from securing conventional employment that makes traditional, legal work more difficult and costly and crime easier and more attractive. Job applications generally ask the job seeker if he or she has ever been convicted of any crime; those who respond “yes” are less likely to get the job in the first place and less likely to get promoted if they do get a job. In some states, ex-offenders are legally prevented from holding a number of jobs, such as in the areas of education, child care, security, and nursing and home health care. The licensing requirements for jobs such as cutting hair or collecting garbage often preclude those who have been arrested or convicted of a crime. Public employment (working for local, state, or federal government) is difficult for ex-convicts to obtain and is outright denied to them in six states. Some unions bar ex-offenders. Even if there are no legal barriers, employers are reluctant to hire individuals with a criminal record because they fear the possible legal liabilities. In addition, there are other barriers to becoming a normal law-abiding citizen that ex-offenders must confront that may make non-crime more difficult and costly and if removed would make non-crime less costly and therefore a more attractive alternative to crime. Felons are barred from voting, and in some states even the conviction for a single felony bars the person from voting for the rest of his or her life. Public housing and welfare benefits are frequently denied people who have been convicted of a felony. For these and other reasons, therefore, it would appear that we have made a life of non-crime so difficult and costly for ex-convicts that even if they wanted to change, the costs are much higher than continuing in crime.


RCT presumes that there is no strong or compelling motivation to commit criminal acts; instead, crime occurs when someone rationally thinks that a criminal course of action has more benefits and lower costs than a noncriminal alternative course of action. RCT theorists believe, therefore, that offenders are rational enough to calculate the costs and benefits of both criminal behavior and conventional behavior and that they will generally choose the behavior with the highest utility. This does not mean that people collect all necessary information before they make a decision, or that they perfectly weigh the various costs and benefits of offending and not offending. RCT simply assumes that people are rational enough that they are affected by what they think to be the gains and losses of various courses of action. RCT has been used to understand a wide variety of criminal offenses (property, drug, violent, sexual, and white-collar offenses) and is one of the most general theories in criminology. A belief that offenders rationally choose to commit crimes is also a foundation of the criminal justice system and can be easily used as a basis for many crime prevention programs.